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Seahawks on tape: Brian Schottenheimer should tap into the offense’s RPO potential

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NFL: Miami Dolphins at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, the eve of a new Seattle Seahawks season. At such a time, we all have many hopes and dreams. What’s yours? Dreaming of MVP Russell Wilson? Hoping Shaquem Griffin wins ROTY? Demanding a return of the Tanzania flag?

Because I’m a massive nerd, a lot of my wishes are scheme-based. For instance: I’d like Seattle to use Will Dissly as Germain Ifedi’s full-time carer. Another Xs and Os fantasy of mine is for Seattle to call Run-Pass Option plays.

The Seahawks have genuine RPO potential. So real that with a cursory glance I thought the below play was an RPO. I had witty puns and metaphors ready to declare Seattle as an RPO team. Don’t worry though, I’m not misidentifying a simple handoff or play-action as an RPO. I’m sick of that too. Instead, I’ll acknowledge that the clip is of a simple inside power which gets two double teams at the point of attack.

But it could be so much more…

The Nick Foles playoff run and Super Bowl victory has been covered to the point of exhaustion. But what the Eagles did is truly remarkable. Philadelphia managed to get Foles simple one-on-ones regularly. They threw a ton of slants versus the man-to-man of the Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings.

My Mobile drinking buddy Michael Kist spoke of some fantastic statistics. Foles was 0.2 seconds quicker to throw in postseason. On play-action plays, including RPOs, the 2017 regular season average was 10.3 yards depth of target, 2.85 seconds down the field snap to throw. In the playoffs’ play-action, that depth of target went down to 7.3 yards average, but the time to throw shortened to an incredible 2.27 seconds. To put that in context, in 2015 Foles was averaging 14.6 yards per target.

On RPO plays, you can’t be wrong as an offense. You can only be right. It’s about getting the defense to pick their poison. And then making them chug it down.

Seattle, on a lot of their power run-blocking schemes, has left the backside tackle on an island after the pulling of the guard next to him. In pass protection too, the backside of five-man protections from overloaded formations such as trips has been on an island—yes, even for Germain Ifedi.

This “island” screams natural passing lane to me. Both the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles ran RPO plays last year, and this year we can expect the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, and New York Giants to join them. What made the Eagles’ RPO plays so special was what they did on the backside: they pass-set.

It is not a giant leap for Seattle to pass-set their backside tackle from his current, tight reach block. On seeing the pass-set, the defensive end keys pass and therefore will take a wider path to the quarterback. Wilson would have the time to make the throw, if he took that decision.

The throw must be quick developing; a slant is perfect. The isolated Jaron Brown at the top of the screen is teasing at running it on his crackback-to-the-safety path—I hate how lazy he is here. The slant would attack the vacated area opened up the backside defender chasing the play.

The read for the RPO could be multiple.

First, there are pre-snap reads—made before the snap of the football. Here’s John DeFlippo on them:

“Conventional wisdom surrounding RPOs is that the quarterback makes a read after the snap and reaches a decision based on a defender’s movements. But [John] DeFilippo says the ratio is tipped the other way. “Based on box numbers [or whether the] corner is playing off, those are pre-snap decisions before you get the ball in your hands,’” he says. DeFilippo estimates about 70 percent of the quarterback’s choices on an RPO are made before a play begins.”

The Seahawks could make a pre-snap decision based on the box count. On the play, they have six-on-six in the box, so the handoff would have been made on the read.

Seattle could make a pre-snap decision based on the leverage. The pre-snap motion is nice, as it gives the coverage indicator. It also, if unfollowed, provides a numbers advantage to the perimeter. Knowing it is off-man coverage and two-high safeties, you know the slant is coming open with the run action. As colleague Ollie Connolly said to me: “any running play with off-coverage should really by an RPO, it’s one of those “why not” things.”

Then there are post-snap reads, made after the snap. These can be made in conjunction with or after a pre-snap read. Or they can be done as a stand-alone inspection.

Seattle could make a post-snap decision based on the backside linebacker leverage, a second-level RPO. This has been the most common RPO read in the NFL.

On the example I’ve picked, the nearest linebacker is nowhere near the receiver. He is well into his run fit.

The Seahawks play has almost the entire recipe of pass reads.

You may ask why not just check out of the run if you see something better? Or why not run a normal play-action out of it? But an RPO eases Wilson’s task. Moreover, it gives him two plays, more defensive confusion and what should be a guaranteed success.

RPOs provide offensive coordinators and quarterbacks with a giant data log of the defense. The best playcallers can note how defenses react to the plays and then use that diagnosis to later dissect them. An example of this is illustrated well by Robert Mays: “When the Eagles saw a light box last season, they’d use hand signals to eliminate the pass elements of an RPO call entirely. By turning those snaps into more straightforward running plays, Philadelphia was able to return to the same formation later on. If defenses chose to stack the box that time around, the Eagles could break out passing elements they hadn’t yet unveiled.”

Much alarm and panic scattered amongst Seahawks fans following Brian Schottenheimer’s announcement of wanting to win against heavy boxes. “So it’s a heavy 8-man box, we’ve only got our seven blockers, they’ve got the extra safety down there, and so what’s critical is the ability to get movement up front…people are going to want to make you one-dimensional. We have to be able to run versus 8-man fronts, and that’s not always with checks. It’s got to have runs that you believe in (and that) this groups believes in. ‘Hey Schotty, we can run this no matter what we do,’ and I think we’re finding that identity right now.”

RPO plays mean they wouldn’t have to win against boxes they are outnumbered in, instead showing run even more clearly than play-action but passing.

The Seahawks could go more extreme with the pass-setting of the backside of the offensive line, extending it to the backside two. This has big effects for the run game too. The Patriots here had a 6v5 numerical advantage in the box. Yet, due to the Eagles having their backside guard and tackle pass-set, Elandon Roberts keyed pass. Roberts being nowhere near his run fit created a cavern for Jay Ajayi to surge through.

It would be sweet to see Seattle utilize two receiver combinations too, such as rub routes. They have a nice pin-pull sweep outside, with twins to the backside. Exploiting a defense’s extreme flow would prove effective.

But now I’m getting ahead of myself. The slant I highlighted the potential of is one-small step for college, one giant leap for most of the NFL. This potential slant RPO would be a very gentle way to dip the toes in the water. Teams give nothing away in the pre-season, but it is a brave new world for most teams. Brian Schottenheimer hopefully has it in his playbook. If not, he should, because it’s easy, “can’t be wrong” yards.