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Understanding the RPO In Football

The term RPO is a buzzword in football. We also hear it consistently in NFL and college broadcasts. The announcers will often say that it looks like an RPO. The RPO is a major innovation in the game of football.

RPO in football stands for Run Pass Option. The run-pass option gives the quarterback the option to hand the ball to the running back or pass the football to a receiver. The offensive line blocks as if it’s run play, which puts stress on the defense to play the run or the pass.

Let’s learn more about the fundamentals of the run-pass option and how offenses are utilizing the play.

What Is The RPO In Football?

The RPO in football stands for run, pass option.

It essentially looks like a run play. The line blocks run, the running back anticipates the hand-off, and the quarterback has the option to give it.

The pass option is built-in, typically on the front side.

The quarterback will put the ball in the stomach of the running back. As he’s doing so, he’ll either read a linebacker or safety to determine if he should pull the ball and throw it. If the linebacker/safety move toward the running back’s direction, the Quarterback will throw the football.

On the flip side, if the backside linebacker/safety doesn’t move, it is assumed the offense has numbers in the box and has a better matchup to run the football.

There are 2 types of RPOs in football :

  • Post-Snap
  • Pre-Snap

Post-snap RPO’s are what we mentioned above. RPO’s that are run after the ball is snapped.

Pre-snap RPO’s are read by the Quarterback before the ball is snapped.

For example, if the offense is in trips set (3 receivers) to the left. Before the snap, if the defense is only covering the 3 receivers with 2 defenders, the quarterback will throw it out quick to the trips.

If the defense puts 4 defenders to cover the trips (3 cover guys and a safety over the top), the Quarterback will hand the ball off to the running back. It’s a simple numbers game.

The RPO started making its way into the NFL, right around the time Chip Kelly made his way into the NFL.

the football handbook

Different Types Of RPO

 Installing the RPO into your playbook will require confidence in your quarterback as he will have to make a split-second decision to either hand the ball off to his running back or pull the ball back to fire a quick pass.

Let’s look at a few variations of how this play has been installed…

Inside Zone Backside Stick RPO

via COInTexas on YouTube

In the clip above, we can see UCLA’s spread offense with trips to the right and an off-set halfback to the QB’s right, which also happens to be the wide side of the field.

At the snap, we can see the offensive line execute a zone blocking scheme while the halfback begins to move across the quarterback as if to take the handoff and run through the A gap on the left side of the line. Meanwhile, the receivers on the backside of the play have also run short routes. 

Note that the innermost slot receiver runs a stick route (a 5-yard route upfield and then turns back to face the QB), the outer slot receiver has run screen route, and the outer receiver is strictly looking to block.

In this play, the QB quickly identified his receiver running the stick route was open and thus decided to throw the ball. Below is the same play from a different angle:

via COInTexas on YouTube

Outside Zone Backside Screen RPO

In our next clip, we see the Green Bay Packers set up in trips to the left with the halfback offset to the left, which also happens to be the wide side of the field.

via Inside the Pylon on YouTube

The full video from Inside the Pylon (available here) details two different ways to make the call if you are the Quarterback:

  1. The Box Count Read: Assess the defensive players in the box and compare that to the number of run blockers available to create a path (this play shows the defense had +1)
  2. The Ratio Read: Imagine a box from the innermost slot receiver, down to the near sideline and 7 yards downfield. This box identifies the players who will be able to stop the pass option from being effective (the video illustrates there are 2 defenders to the 3 offensive players)

Inside Zone 4 Verticals RPO

The Packers run this variation of the RPO in the same formation as UCLA did in the first video; trips right, halfback offset right, with the wide side of the field also being to the right. Instead of a hitch, all receivers on the field are running a streak, or a go route, with the only real option being the innermost slot receiver since the QB will not have enough time to go through all of his progressions.

via Inside the Pylon on YouTube
  • After the ball is snapped, the QB will read the linebacker closest to the slot receiver
    • If the QB bites on the run fake, he throws
  • The key is the fast throw of the QB 
    • He needs to hit the opening in the defense
    • Throw has to be before the Offensive Linemen get too far downfield, or it will be a penalty

One more closing thought. Play action and RPO’s are COMPLETELY different. The easiest way to tell the difference between the two – look at the line of scrimmage (on the offensive side).

If the offensive line is run blocking, it’s more than likely an RPO. If they’re pass blocking, we can only assume that it’s a play-action pass. This is a classic mixup, as the buzzword RPO seemingly has been implemented in every broadcast.


The RPO is designed to put defensive players in the conflict. They must commit to the run or the pass, but not both. This always puts the offense in the best position possible to make impact plays against the defense.

Is there a specific team or coach that runs an RPO you want us to break down? Do you run a different style RPO? Let us know all of your thoughts in the comments below. We love learning how different coaches are innovating the game.