Quality Control: RPOs in 2021

Dusty goes through the Packers RPO game in 2021

While the rest of the football world looks forward to the draft, I have decided to emerge from my cave and look back on the 2021 season. I do not make wise and/or marketable decisions.

With this series, we are going to take a deep dive into the Packers offense in 2021. We’ll be looking at different concepts, red zone packages, explosive plays, etc. We’ll be getting into the idea behind the play and, if there’s time, get into what worked, what didn’t & why. There will be laughter and tears and blah blah blah. It’s a series I’m tremendously excited about, so I hope you follow along with me.

We’re kicking this series off with a big one: RPOs. It’s something the Packers have used heavily over the years, and I’m curious to see what this portion of their offense will look like without Davante Adams next season. But today we’re looking backward, not forward.

Because the Packers RPO game is so wide-ranging, this article is going to be much longer than the rest of the series. I apologize, but I don't really mean it. Buckle up.

We'll start with the basics.

What is an RPO?

RPO stands for Run/Pass Option. Simply put, it’s a run play that has a quick passing concept tagged to it. It’s up to the quarterback to decide whether to hand off the ball or throw it. The decision to throw can either be a pre-snap or post-snap read. The idea is to always make the defense wrong. If they load the box, the offense has a numbers advantage to the passing zone. If they spread out to take away the pass, the offense gets to run into a light box.

You can trace the idea of RPOs back to Drew Brees’ time at Purdue, where they would read the pre-snap leverage of the slot defender. If you travel to Syracuse in 2012, you’d find Doug Marrone & Nathaniel Hackett reworking the offense 2 weeks before the start of the season to build around the idea of RPOs (back then they were referred to as “packaged plays”) and end up setting school records for offense. If you want to stay in Green Bay, you can go back to 2006, when Favre opted against handing off and instead hit Donald Driver behind a closing LB for a 48 yard TD.

How can I tell if it’s an RPO or just a play action pass?

Watch the offensive line. If the line falls into a pass protection look, it’s play action. If the line is pushing forward and looking to gain traction at the line of scrimmage and get up to start blocking the linebackers, that’s an RPO.

Alright. I think I got it. Walk me through it a bit.

The basis for an RPO is the run portion, because it has to be. If the run block isn’t set up, the run will fail even if you have a numbers advantage and the RPO is useless. For the 2021 season, I counted 228 total RPO calls from the Packers, and Rodgers handed off on 180 of them (78.9%).

The Packers will run some gap scheme runs – pulling a guard to gain a numbers advantage to a side – but the majority of their RPOs are built off their Inside Zone and Wide Zone running plays. Overall, 94.3% of the Packers RPO calls in 2021 came off their Inside/Wide/Outside Zone run scheme.

You mentioned pre-snap & post-snap reads. Can you get into that a little more?

I sure can! You ask such smart questions. Plus you're very good-looking and charming.

Pre-snap RPOs have the decision to run/pass made before the ball is snapped. Within this group, there are three main types:

  1. Numbers advantage. You’re looking to see if you have more receivers in your target zone than they have defenders. Three receivers and two defenders? Throw it. Three receivers and three defenders? Hand it off.
  2. Cushion. Is there a one-on-one match-up with the defender playing 8+ yards off? If you like that match-up, throw it. If not, hand it off.
  3. Leverage. Are you running a Stick/quick-out RPO and the slot defender has inside leverage? Rise up and throw the out. If not, hand it off.

Post-snap RPOs have the decision to run/pass made after the ball is snapped. This decision is made off reading a “conflict” defender. Basically, you’re targeting a single defender and basing your decision off of his movement. If he reacts to the threat of the run and comes up to the line as part of the run fit, you have an advantage in the passing game so the quarterback will throw it. If he stays back in coverage, you have an advantage in the running game so the quarterback will hand it off.

Post-snap RPOs are beautiful when they work, but they’re a little riskier. If the defense rotates to cover up the pass, the quarterback has no options but to eat it. For the most part, the Packers operate exclusively in pre-snap RPOs. They will occasionally roll out a post-snap read, but it makes up ~5% of their RPO package.

I believe part of that is due to the comfort of Rodgers. Even the few times Rodgers has thrown a post-snap RPO, the decision seems to have been made before the snap.

Alright man. Enough of all that. Let’s get to the good stuff. What about the passing tags?

I’m getting to that. The goal of the RPO passing game is to keep it simple and get the ball out quickly to create an advantage. You’re generally not looking to create an explosive play: you’re really just looking for the pass to be a more successful than a run. To be successful, you don’t really need to average 8 yards per attempt: gaining 5+ yards is perfectly acceptable. After all, RPOs are just an extension of the run game, so the average gain can be viewed through that lens.

The Packers had 10 major passing tags in their RPO arsenal:

So what’s the verdict? How did they do?

We’ll take it by passing tag, because that makes the most sense to me in order of grouping them. We’re going to dig into the top 4, then briefly touch on a couple others. For the purposes of this post, we’re only looking at plays where Aaron Rodgers lined up under center, because I feel that’s the best representation of how they wanted to operate.

Bubble (3.6 YPA Pass, 4.6 YPA Rush)

When I think Packers RPOs, I think of seeing Davante Adams fade horizontally away from the line. Since this was their most-used tag, my mental image makes sense. Bubble is exclusively a pre-snap read. It is typically thrown as a numbers-advantage read, although Rodgers would occasionally throw this with even numbers on the outside, provided at least one of the defenders was 6+ yards off and Adams was the receiver.

They found their best success in the passing game when running it with Wide Zone and throwing to the backside, but it’s a pretty small sample size (6.5 yards per attempt on 4 throws).

They had a really cool counter off of this look that they showed twice in 2021, resulting in one pass and one run. It’s one I’m sure you remember: a bubble constraint against the Rams that baited Ramsey into playing the outside shoulder of the bubble receiver, then cutting the route inside and vertical.

Of all the tags, this is the one that needs to be looked at the most in terms of being reworked. That would have been true even if Davante Adams was going to be around next year, and it’s especially true with him being gone. It’s still a fine tag for the running game, but the 3.6 YPA on passes is real bad. By all means, keep dialing it up, but only throw it if 5+ yards is guaranteed at this point. Throwing into an advantageous situation is crucial for the success of RPOs, especially so when the receiver in question starts the route by going east/west instead of north/south. 

Flat (5.7 YPA pass, 6.7 YPA rush)

Flat is a pre-snap read, keying on the numbers. The Packers run this almost exclusively to the trips side (three receivers) of the formation, often with a WR/RB motioning to the trips side and snapping the ball with that man still in motion. If the defense matches the motion, they’ll hand the ball off. If the motion gives the Packers the numbers advantage, they’ll throw it. The other two receivers in trips will block down, making this operate as a WR Screen.

They found their best success when pairing with Wide Zone (7.0 YPA rushing, 10.6 YPA passing).

Overall, a successful concept. Given the amount of resources needed to run it, I understand why it only made up 11% of the RPO calls. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the usage of this concept get a bump with Adams no longer in the fold.

Stick (6.0 YPA pass, 3.7 YPA rush)

Stick is pretty close to Flat, but there is a major difference. In Flat, the receiver simply turns and runs to the flat. In Stick, the receiver will take a step or two upfield, break down the defender, then run a quick out, slant or stick route (quick hitch). The majority of the plays in this category came out of a two receiver look, with Adams running a quick out. The one instance of the quick hitch came from Randall Cobb. It is a pre-snap read, with Rodgers looking at the number of defenders, as well as the leverage of the slot defender.

Stick is a core concept of the Packers passing game, even if you take the RPO element out of it. It’s a nice, quick-hitting concept that plays well to the pieces the Packers have on offense. Without the RPO, they will run a couple different versions: one-man Stick and two-man Stick, with the difference being how many receivers you have running the Stick route. For the RPO, it’s strictly one-man, with the slot receiver running the Stick route and the outside receiver running a go/clear-out route.

Stick hinges on getting a one-on-one and believing your guy will beat his guy. Since there is a three-way option to the route, a good receiver should be able to read the leverage and win every time.

Overall, this is a solid concept that plays well with the quick diagnosis and release of Rodgers.

Smoke (5.8 YPA pass, 3.7 YPA rush)

Smoke is only thrown if the cornerback is playing deep off-coverage. The receiver will take a fast step up the field to get the defender on his heels, then step back & look for the throw. It’s not thrown to a numbers advantage: simply a space advantage. 

Since it is only thrown in very specific, advantageous circumstances, this is a solid tag in the Packers RPO game.

Others

The rest of the group makes up the remaining 18% of the Packers RPOs. I would get into them in-depth, but I feel like we’ve gone long enough, don’t you? We’ll hit them quickly, though. The remaining group is made up of:

Slant (NA pass, 3.6 YPA rush)

The Packers ran a really cool version of this tag in the low red zone (0-10 yard line), which made an RPO out of one of my favorite concepts in that area. Instead of running it as an isolated route, they would run a follow-slant concept, with the slant receiver pushing up on the defense while the outside receiver cuts tight on the hip and under the slot receiver. It can be tough for defenses to defend in that tight area. They didn’t throw it in 2021, but a man can dream for 2022.

Swing (2.3 YPA pass, 3.6 YPA rush)

Glance (7.3 YPA pass, 1.2 YPA rush)

Fade (NA pass, 5.3 YPA rush)

Hank (3.0 YPA pass, 3.5 YPA rush)

Slant/Corner (NA pass, 2.0 YPA rush)

Overall takeaways

Their main attack consists of almost exclusively pre-snap reads, with the passing YPA (4.8) barely outpacing the rushing YPA (4.4). And, while that’s fine, I’d like to see a slightly larger gap between the two. As I said at the top, I believe they have leaned on a lot of the horizontal, pre-snap attack because of Adams’ skill set and Rodgers’ comfort. I’m very interested to see how their approach will change in 2022, with no Adams and a fairly large turnover in their WR room.

They’ve had steady success with RPOs in 2021, but I’d like to see a few more post-snap concepts make their way into the regular rotation. More glance routes, please and thank you.


Thanks for joining me on this journey. As I mentioned at the top, not every post will be this long, but RPOs are such a big category that I wanted to make sure I gave them the space they deserve.


Albums listened to: Jurassic 5 – Quality Control; Jessica Lea Mayfield – Make My Head Sing; The Lonely Wild – The Sun as It Comes; Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher; Julien Baker – Little Oblivions; Foo Fighters – There Is Nothing Left to Lose; Frightened Rabbit - The Winter of Mixed Drinks

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Dusty Evely is a film analyst for Cheesehead TV. He can be heard talking about the Packers on Pack-A-Day Podcast. He can be found on Twitter at @DustyEvely or email at [email protected].

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Comments (7)

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Lphill's picture

April 06, 2022 at 03:55 pm

So Dusty on a RPO aren’t the chances greater for a offensive lineman to get a penalty for being downfield?

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DustyEvely's picture

April 06, 2022 at 04:01 pm

There is! That's why RPOs are all one-read plays. They're designed to get the ball out quickly so that the penalty will be avoided.
I had that in an earlier draft but I guess I cut it.

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murf7777's picture

April 06, 2022 at 04:21 pm

Wow, that’s a lot of info to take in. I really enjoy your breakdowns. They give me a better understanding of what they are trying to do on a play by play basis. When watching live its still hard to see all that, but it helps.
Thanks Dusty.

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Johnblood27's picture

April 07, 2022 at 06:44 am

Thanks for the read Dusty!

With Adams gone, I am looking forward to seeing much less of the bubble concept, it just doesn't seem to work for GB like it seems to for other teams. i think part of it lies in Rodgers turnover aversion and the ball placement he uses which seemingly never gives his receiver momentum for the play and often results in the defense having time and space to make up the numbers/leverage which the play design creates. just IMO of course.

Your series certainly brings into focus how some less than sharp mental yet physically superior athletes can be left behind and bust out of the league. You have to be quick witted to get all of the nuance down and be ultra sure of the entire playbook.

Thanks again!

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Since'61's picture

April 07, 2022 at 10:34 am

Dusty , first, thank you for all of your work to put all of this together and sharing it with us.

Reviewing these plays tells me that Adams will be missed since his often turned a no gain play into 4+ yard gain on many occasions.
I also think that after 3 years of film of the MLF offense opposing defenses are expecting these plays and are prepared to defend them.

It seems to me that the RPO's would work better if used less often and that MLF needs to reengineer thus part of the offense for next season, especially since we will virtually have an entirely new receiving corps learning the offense for 2022.

The running plays are fine especially if we can improve the average yardage per play. More frequent use of 2 back sets would help this concept as well since the defense will need to expect a handoff to either of the RBs in the backfield. Ultimately the play will be determined by Rodgers read of the defense and the individual matchups on the play. This was probably one of the most significant reasons for the decision to keep Rodgers. It will take any young QB including Love a few seasons to read defenses accurately to make the RPOs an effective element of the offense regardless of the talent around him.

On the flip side a new receiving corps will need time to learn their role in the many variants available in the RPO concepts. I realize college teams are running pro-style offenses but I don't if they are running RPOs at the college level.

Hopefully the Packers will draft 2 WRs who will be better than MVS and ESB, plus trade or sign a veteran WR to provide some talent for Rodgers to work with in 2022. It's going to be interesting. Thanks, Since '61

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Return_To_Sanity's picture

April 07, 2022 at 09:54 pm

Not a fan of the RPO beyond the occasional wrinkle. Stop giving Rodgers the option to abandon the run and just run the damn ball. Not just in between the tackles either, start getting Dillon the ball outside the numbers so he can use his size advantage over smaller db's like Lafleur did with Henry when he was OC in Nashville.

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MaryAnderson's picture

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