RPOs and the Evolution of the High-Low Concept

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Like all of you, I have a daily routine. Most of it focuses on wrangling two young children from the bedroom through breakfast, into their bedrooms to get dressed and then out the door to get to school on time. In between those moments, and then for most of the day afterward, my routine includes firing up Twitter, everybody’s favorite website, to scroll through the unrelenting takes of the day.  

In between the growing number of hills on Draft Twitter, the opinions flying about regarding current NFL quarterbacks, and even the daily updates on the state of American government from our 45th President, you can find some very illuminating and thought-provoking ideas. One I came across recently stopped me in my tracks, and made me think. Which is usually not a good idea:

I thought this was a brilliant way to segment and compartmentalize offensive concepts. Because when you boil them down, they can largely be put into a small number of buckets. While there are countless numbers of passing concepts at an offensive coordinator’s disposal, they can be largely grouped into a small number of categories.

At the heart of these is the idea of conflict. Fans of football, and the strategy behind the game, often refer to football as the ultimate chess match. A major tenet of chess is conflict. Putting your opponent – and more specifically one of his valued pieces – into conflict. Where making one decision could cost him the loss of the piece in question, or even the game.

Football, and the never-ending battle between offense and defense, contains numerous examples of the same idea: Isolating one defender – one piece – and putting him into conflict. Where making one decision could lead him and his team to surrender a big play to the offense. This notion dates back to the earlier days of football. What does an offense do on an option play? Identify an edge defender and put him in conflict between the quarterback and the pitchman.

Spin this forward to today’s passing game. Take everyone’s favorite play, four verticals. You can look at all the variations of the concept, running it out of 2×2 or 3×1, using switch concepts, etc, but at its core you are trying to catch the defense in a single-high look and put the free safety into conflict. That extends to running four verticals against two-high safety looks. Then you look to the boundary and the combination of a vertical route and a checkdown ideally puts one of the cornerbacks into conflict. Of course there, the quarterback is likely taking that checkdown, but the premise stands.

Returning to the above tweet, high-low concepts are an easy way of identifying a defender and putting him into conflict. Only in this case you are not bracketing him with routes on either side of him, but putting one route in front of him, and one route behind him, and forcing him to choose. Teams can do this at both the second- and third-levels of the field, as well as along the boundary against cornerbacks. For the quarterback it simplifies the read process: Look at the targeted defender, decipher his reaction, and throw accordingly.

Coaching manuals, playbooks and clinic presentations are littered with Smash concept examples and variations, all with the basic idea of putting the cornerback into conflict with a high-low concept.

At the 2014 Nike Coaches Clinic Mick McCall, who was and still is the Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach at Northwestern University, gave a presentation on “Quarterback Drills and Third Down Plays.” He broke down the Smash concept and delved into the idea of conflict, and reducing decisions for the quarterback:

The quarterback sees the flat defender and the safety. He reads from high to low. If he can throw the hitch, he takes it. If they cover the hitch, he looks for the corner route. If the safety is over top of the corner route, his focus goes to the backside.

When you teach the quarterback, he must eliminate choices. If the corner presses the hitch, the quarterback reads 1-2. That means he barely looks at the first read and goes immediately to the second read, which is the corner route. If the corner defender retreats, he reads 1-2. That means he throws the hitch if he can. 2014 Nike Coaches Clinic Manual pg 148

Now the Smash concept was not invented in 2014, and it dates back well beyond that. In 1999 Frank Rocco was the head coach at Shaler Area High School in Pennsylvania. The Titans were running a spread offense with Run and Shoot elements and he spoke about this – and the Smash Concept – at a coaches’ clinic. For him it was very simple for the quarterback. On Smash, the quarterback simply reads the cornerback on a three-step drop. If the corner plays Z on the hitch, he throws to Y on the corner route. If the cornerback sinks, the QB throws the hitch:

Put a defender in conflict, simplify the read and eliminate choices for the quarterback.

Let’s extend this idea down the field. Whether you call it Mills or Pin, the post/dig combination is a perfect way to stress the defense – and the free safety – with a high-low combination. The beauty of the design is that it works to beat zone coverages as well as man coverages, but when you catch the defense in a single-high look you can truly put that free safety into conflict.

I like to refer to this as Mills, as it dates back to Steve Spurrier’s days at the University of Florida. Spurrier called this the Mills concept after Ernie Mills, a wide receiver for the Gators who caught a critical 70-yard pass against Alabama in 1990, helping Florida to the win and earning Spurrier his first SEC victory in the process. Here’s how Spurrier drew it up:

Looking at the coaching point for the quarterback, he reads the play Post to Middle (Dig) to Underneath. The goal is to high-low that middle safety with the post/dig combination. If he stays deep on the post, throw the dig. Should he come down on the dig, hit the post over the top. Here’s that in action:

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For more on the Mills Concept I strongly recommend this meaty piece from Chris Brown on the design.

Now MIlls/Pin is not the only way to attack the free safety with a high-low concept. Before his season cruelly ended early, Deshaun Watson was off to an incredible rookie season. Many people – not all – but many questioned how Watson would translate to the NFL. But Bill O’Brien found ways to play to Watson’s strengths while using passing concepts that you can find in almost every NFL playbook. One of these was the Yankee concept.

The Yankee Concept is a staple of passing offenses. At its core it is a two-receiver, maximum protection passing play that is usually run off of play-action. As broken down in the Inside the Pylon Glossary piece on this design, it is generally a two man deep crossing combo, with the underneath receiver running a deep over route, and the other executing a deep post route over the top from the opposite side of the field. You can look to stress the free safety with those routes, and if he jumps one, you can throw the other.

From the Glossary piece, here is an example of the Washington Redskins running the Yankee Concept from a few seasons ago:

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But Washington is not the only team that runs this concept. Before his injury Watson was running this play to perfection with the Texans. As broken down by Ryan Dukarm in this great piece on the Texans’ play-action passing game, the Yankee Concept is a core component to their aerial attack. On this play against the New England Patriots, they run the scheme out of an i-formation using 21 personnel:

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This is your more typical look at the Yankee Concept, a run action out of an i-formation, not a lot of window dressing here from Houston. Later against the Seattle Seahawks, they added some window dressing. The Texans faced a 1st and 10 midway through the first quarter with the football on their own 39-yard line. They line up with Watson (#4) in the shotgun and 11 offensive personnel on the field. Tight end Ryan Griffin (#84) is in the backfield to the left of Watson, and running back Lamar Miller (#26) is also in the backfield, to the right of the quarterback. Two receivers are in a slot to the left with Will Fuller V (#15) spilt alone to the left:

Prior to the snap slot receiver Bruce Ellington (#12) starts in Orbit motion toward the backfield:

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He will be behind Watson at the snap, and here is the offensive design:

Griffin blocks across the formation as Miller and Watson carry out a run fake. Ellington cuts back toward his original side of the field on a swing route. Watson carries out a run fake with his running back and then fakes a pass to Ellington on the swing route. All of that? Window dressing for the Yankee Concept. Fuller runs the deep post, Hopkins runs the over route. Watch as linebacker K.J. Wright (#50) gets caught up looking at the window dressing before scrambling to cover Hopkins, who runs right past him:

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The end zone camera has a great look at how the fakes in the backfield slow the defense at the second- and third-levels:

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But stripping away the eye candy, motion and play-action fakes, you have a route designed to high-low the free safety in the middle of the field.

Now we can drop this down a level. We have examined putting cornerbacks and safeties into conflict with a high-low design, so now we can look at how offenses stress linebackers with similar concepts. Skip Holtz is the head coach at Louisiana Tech, and back in 2015 he gave a presentation titled “Red Zone Production.” In that presentation he broke down this play, which he simply titled “High-Low Linebacker:”

As Holtz broke it down:

We threw eight touchdowns on this route in the red zone. We align in a trips set. The number-1 and number-2 receivers give the illusion they are going vertical. At 8-10 yards they plant and come under the coverage. The number-3 receiver comes inside the strong safety and runs up the middle of the goal post.

We high-low the Mike linebacker. He is the only one that can stop the post cut. If he reacts back and gets under the post, we throw to the number-2 receiver breaking to the inside. Most of the time the Mike stayed inside to cover the hook zone. The number-3 receiver has inside leverage on the strong safety. 2015 Nike Coaches’ Clinic Manual pg. 133

Noel Mazzone, currently the offensive coordinator at Texas A&M and an offensive mind typically associated with Air Raid concepts, gave a presentation in 2004 on “Scats and Screens in the Passing Game.” One of the topics he discussed, Z-Shallow, attacked the Mike linebacker again with a high-low concept:

The last thing that fits in the picture is the shallow routes. We have run our two-man and three-man scat routes. We ran the mesh routes, and now we are going to look at the shallow routes. The shallow routes are all run from 50 protection. Now we are working on a high-low game on the Mike backer.

The Z receiver is going to run the crossing route, and he is never going to stop. It is mandatory that he goes under the Mike linebacker. The Y receiver is running the stretch route. He runs an outside release, and against man coverage, he works for a rub with the Z receiver. Our X receiver runs the fade route. The backs run the free release swing. He is hot off the linebacker to his side. The H back runs the hunt route. The read is easy for the quarterback. All he has to do is read the Mike linebacker. As the Mike linebacker looks to wall off the shallow route by the Z receiver, the H back hunts for the route. If the Mike linebacker drops, he fills the void and looks for the football. If he blitzes, he is filling the void and looking for the football. Coaching the Passing Game: By the Experts pg. 187

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Now this has been a lengthy buildup, I know. But we have traced the ideas of putting defenders at multiple levels into conflict using high-low concepts over the years in football, and through various offensive systems.

Here we can discuss the next step in the evolution of this concept, and that is where RPO plays come into the picture. In my view, RPOs are simply the natural next step in how teams put defenders into conflict using the idea of a high-low design.

In 2016, Clay Helton, the head coach at the University of Southern California, gave a presentation on “Coaching Vigilance and Run/Pass Option Concepts.” His discussion of the benefits of RPO plays struck me:

We have been fortunate for the last two years at USC in that we had a young man by the name of Cody Kessler who has been a tremendous quarterback for us. In fact, over the past two years he has been the second most efficient quarterback in the country. When we went back and looked at our 2014 season, his efficiency rating was 3rd in the country. What I really liked was his touchdown to interception ratio was 395 which is key for us as far as the success of our team. He had almost a 70% completion ratio. He was 75.4% scoring touchdowns in the red zone.

We looked at it and asked, how is this happening? What we came to find out when we broke it all down was we made the addition of RPO’s. With the run/pass option we were putting Cody in great situations where he could decide to take the run or to take what we call an advantaged throw to a very easy route.

When we looked at 2015 we called over 200 RPO’s, and 98 of them ended up as perimeter throws, just under half. On those we had an 86% completion ration and averaged 8 yards per completion. We had zero sacks and zero interceptions on those plays. We consider this as part of our run game.

Anytime we put anything together as a staff we always ask ourselves, why are we doing this? With the RPO’s we came up with this.

  1. The ability to take what a defense gives us. Gives a non-running quarterback multiple options.
  2. Gets the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly. Should have limited sacks
  3. Very efficient throws with high completion ratios.
  4. Because the quarterback takes the throw only if given, and there is very little chance for interceptions.
  5. Allows us to put some of our best athletes in space.

2016 Nike Coaches’ Clinic Manual, pp. 118-119

Now, the numbers are impressive, but when you strip them away you see some of the concepts already discussed with high-low concepts: Simplified reads, efficient throws, eliminating decisions and mistakes.

Helton went on to break down some of their passing concepts. One was the “Slants Tag:”

He described it this way:

We are not reading off the alley player. We are reading off the interior backer. Why? What is the alley player taught? He is taught to play outside of #2, and to make sure he carries him or buzz him to the flat. We are going to beat you by the leverage of the defender and throwing the slant route. We have an outside zone play called with a slant tag on the outside.

All the quarterback is doing is reading the interior backer. When he flows because of the zone action, let’s go capture the grass that he has just left. We have beaten the alley player by the leverage, and we have beaten the linebacker by the read. This is a very simple read off the interior backer. Id. at 122.

What is the quarterback reading? The linebacker, who is put into conflict by a potential running play – low – and a potential passing play – high.

Here’s another play Helton drew up, the “Hitch Tag:”

Once more we see the same concept: Putting a defender into conflict with a high-low combination. Only the concepts that put him into conflict are not a combination of passing routes, but one route, and one potential run.

That is the point I want to stress. We hear often that RPOs cannot be successful at the NFL level, and that they are a passing phase, and that quarterbacks who run these concepts in college cannot translate to the NFL game. But when you strip away the bells and whistles from them, all RPO designs are is the next step in the progression of an idea that has been a focus of offensive football since its inception: Identifying a defender, putting him into conflict, reading his reaction and working off it it. Whether it’s Tommie Frazier reading a defender on an option play, Danny Wuerffel reading a free safety on the Mills concept, Tom Brady reading a corner on a smash concept, or Baker Mayfield reading the linebacker on an RPO, the concept and idea is the same.

“Okay Mark, that’s fine. But you’re talking about a limited aspect of the playbook that attacks linebackers. Not exactly a paradigm shift.”

Let’s not forget. RPOs can be used on the third level as well, to attack safeties. Again what you are setting up is a high-low structure with a run as the low and a pass as the high. Let’s return to Helton and his discussion of the “Pole Route,” a red zone concept where they attack the safety:

On the field side we tag some type of man beater with the two receivers. In this case we have a pick/wheel. The quarterback pre-snap reads for man-coverage or zone to the field side. If it is zone coverage or three over two, those two guys are dead to him now. He will not look at them again. They are done. They were only live pre-snap.

His whole read now is based off the front side safety. We have a one-back power called with a pole route to the boundary. The pole route is based off a MDM block; “Most Dangerous Man.” In this case it is a crack-and-go to the goal pole or goal post. He acts as if he is coming down hard on the safety and cracks him If the safety triggers to the run, he runs to the pole.

The quarterback has a very simple read. He has a pre-snap read to the field. If it is dead, he has a post-snap read of the safety. If he triggers to the run, the quarterback hits the receiver on the pole route. He takes the area the safety just left. Id.

The central component of this play? Keying the safety, putting him in conflict with a high-low structure, and then reacting to the safety’s decision.

Can this work in the NFL you ask? Let’s check with Dak Prescott from last year (a pre-season game, to be sure, but still):

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For more on this notion you can read this insightful piece from Chris Brown.

Football has seen fads come and go. The Run-and-shoot. The Wildcat (which lingers but is not as prevalent as it was a few years ago). But some evolutions stick. Those that do often harken back to the core principles of offensive football, such as putting a defender into conflict with a high-low structure. That’s what RPOs do. They stress a defender while simplifying the read process for a quarterback. So these are not simply some passing phase of the game, but designs that incorporate basic tenets of the sport in a new manner. Rather than using two routes to put a defender into conflict, you have the run as the “low,” the route as the “high,” and a quarterback simply going through a progression off of that key defender.

We can end where we began. When Mick McCall opined about the Smash Concept what did he say? It eliminates choices for the quarterback. A high-low concept that identified the cornerback, keyed off of him and eliminated choices for the quarterback. That’s all an RPO really is at its core, and that’s why these designs are part of the evolution of the game.

Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter. Buy his book, 17 Drives. Check out all his work here, including Philadelphia’s Slot-Fade Concept, Carolina’s use of Christian McCaffrey in motionand Deshaun Watson’s processing speed.

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