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Difference Between Play Action, RPO & Read Option

As we wrote about here, the RPO game has secluded its place in the spread offense as a way to manipulate defensive schemes. However, we commonly hear announcers, and sometimes our friends mix up the difference between a Play action pass, RPO, and read option. Let’s learn the difference between the 3.

In short, play-action passes mean the lineman is pass blocking while the quarterback fakes run. Read options require the line to block run, and the quarterback is reading a defensive lineman. RPO is similar to the read-option, but instead of reading a defensive lineman, the quarterback is reading a linebacker to throw the football or hand it off, while the lineman is blocking for a run.

These 3 types of plays for the casual fan can get confusing –  as to the naked eye. Especially for linebackers, they would all react the same way to the backfield action.

First, let’s learn about the fundamentals of each play.

Play Action

Play action passes have been a staple in offenses since throwing the football became legal. The point of the play-action pass is to misguide the defense to commit to the run, then throw the ball in the open zones. The University of Oklahoma is one of the best in college football to do it right now. Good play-action teams will often make run plays and play-action plays look identical.

Here’s how each offensive position reacts to the play-action pass.

Offensive Line: The offensive line’s key to playing action is to make it look like it’s a run play. The lineman will fire out and make contact. HOWEVER, they will not go downfield. They will either fire out 1 yard and make contact or kick-step backward like they normally would on a pass.

Running Back: The running back will carry his backfield action as if it’s a run. Firing full speed toward the line of scrimmage and faking the handoff. Teams will usually include the running back (after the fake) in either the pass protection or leak him out into the route.

Wide Receiver: Receivers will immediately get into their route. The purpose of play-action is to freeze the defense, who more than likely is staring into the backfield, to trick them into thinking it’s run. By the time they realize it’s pass, the receivers are already to the 2nd and third-level downfield.

Quarterback: Play action fakes depend solely on the quarterback. Teams often use one hand to fake the play action. The quarterback’s typically used one hand to hand off the football to the running back. The quarterback will then boot out left or right or drop straight back and throw the football.

Read Option

The Read Option play is a run play that puts aggressive defense ends in conflict.

Instead of wasting an offensive tackle to block the defensive end, coaches started to “read” him. This meant not blocking him and having him make the wrong decision (the quarterback has to make the right one).

If the defensive end crashes down on the handoff, the quarterback will pull it away from the running back and keep it. If the defensive end stays on the quarterback, he will hand it off to the running back, eliminating the defensive end from chasing down the play backside.

Here’s how each offensive position reacts to the play:

Offensive Line: The read-option often features 2 blocking schemes: inside or outside zones. The offensive lineman will either try to double and slide off the interior lineman to a linebacker for the inside zone, or they will all simultaneously try to reach block a defender in the play-side gap. The main point is that they’re all run blocking.

Running Back: Running backs will fire to the desired hole that is called upon for that play. This looks like a standard running play from a running back position.

Wide Receiver: Wide receivers will typically block or stalk block whoever is matched on them.

Quarterback: As mentioned, the quarterback has the option to give the ball to the running back or pull it away from the running back and run himself.

RPO (Run, Pass, Option)

The RPO is a hybrid between the play-action and the read option.

RPO’s are different because they put a linebacker or defensive back in conflict rather than the defensive end. If the linebacker commits to the run and vacates his zone/man, the quarterback will then throw it. If he hangs back and covers the pass, the quarterback will then hand it off. This has made the slot corner a valuable position, forcing defenses to cover both run and pass.

The best way to determine if an RPO is being run is to focus on the lineman.

The offensive line is blocking the run, which forces the quarterback to make a fast decision whether to hand it off or throw it. By rule, the offensive lineman can only go 3 yards downfield (if the quarterback decides to throw it) before a flag is thrown for an ineligible man downfield.

Offensive Line: Coaches are utilizing all of their running schemes. We see anything from the inside zone, outside the zone, counter, and gap schemes. The key to the RPO is the lineman are run blocking.

Running Back: Running backs will fire to the desired hole that is called upon for that play. This looks like a standard running play from a running back position.

Wide Receiver: Wide receivers play a big factor in the RPO game, as they’re now tagged for routes – even though a run may be called. We’ll often see them run out routes, go routes, bubbles, and speed posts.

Quarterback: Like the read-option, the decision relies on the quarterback to hand the ball off or keep it. When he keeps it, he will now throw the football, as opposed to running it as he did in the read-option.

The Difference Between The 3

In conclusion, the best way to identify the difference between the read-option, play-action, and RPO is to identify what the lineman are doing and the wide receivers.

Lineman Blocking Run + Wide Receivers Blocking Run = Read Option

Lineman Blocking Run + Wide Receivers Running Routes = RPO

Lineman Blocking Pass + Wide Receivers Running Routes = Play Action

The combination of offensive lineman blocking run and receivers getting into their routes – puts the defense (especially the linebackers) in conflict on who to cover. This is why RPO’s have been red hot over the past 5 years and will continue to evolve.

Conclusion

These 3 plays can often be misidentified. Announcers and commentators are often common offenders of misidentifying these plays.

As football continues its innovation, read option, RPO & play-action plays will be directly linked together.

Like Learning Football? Check out our football handbook, which is the complete guide to learning football!

Gerald H Smith

Thursday 22nd of August 2019

Expertly explained, thanks!

vIQtory

Sunday 25th of August 2019

Thanks Gerald! Appreciate the kind words!