Understanding The RPO In Football

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: February 12, 2024

The term RPO is a buzzword in football. We also hear it consistently in NFL and college broadcasts. The RPO is a significant innovation in the game of football. But what does RPO mean in football?

RPO is short for Run Pass Option. The run-pass option allows the Quarterback 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 stresses 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.

RPO Football (Run Pass Option)

RPO in football stands for Run Pass Option.

It essentially looks like a run play. The line blocks run, the running back anticipates the handoff and the Quarterback can 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 moves 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.

One of the biggest worries about running RPOs is the offensive line getting an illegal man downfield penalty. This means the offensive line goes past 3 yards before the ball is thrown to a receiver.

There are two types of RPOs in football :

Pre-Snap RPO

The pre-snap RPO is when the quarterback reads the defense and makes their decision based on how the defense is lining up.

For instance, if the defense doesn’t dedicate resources to the wide receivers, the quarterback can throw a quick now route forward pass to the slot receiver that’s stacked.

Pre snap RPO

In our example above, you’ll notice there are 2 wide receivers that are stacked to the outside. The defense only has one defensive back and an apex player on that side. That means the offense can easily throw the ball to the back wide receiver and gain easy yards.

If the defense wants to stay in a six man box, the offense can put the conflict defender (The apex defender) in a bind.

This forces the defense to bring that apex player even more out of the box. He must play zone outside of the box or play man coverage.

Post Snap RPO

Post snap RPOs are when the quarterback makes his decision to throw or hand the ball off to the running back after the ball is snapped.

The offensive line and running back will be running the called run play. The wide receivers will run the called pass play.

The quarterback will read the conflict player to determine whether to hand the ball off or throw it down the field. He must be quick with his read because if he takes too long to throw the ball, he will get an illegal man downfield penalty.

Post Snap RPO

The quarterback’s reads determine who will get the ball. As mentioned, if the conflict defender moves toward the box, he will throw it to the wide receivers. If he moves out toward the wide receivers, he will hand it to the running back.

The RPO started making its way into the NFL right around when football coaches like Chip Kelly made his way into the NFL.

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RPO Concepts

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 at the college level and NFL level to see how this concept has been installed.

Inside Zone Backside Stick Concept RPO

via COInTexas on YouTube

In the clip above, we can see UCLA’s spread offense with trips to the right and an offset 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 runs a 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 following 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

There are two ways to read this play.

The first way is the box count read. Simply 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)

Second, is 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

This play is a quick hitting way to keep the linebackers from running more than one yard toward the line of scrimmage. If they do, the strong safety and free safety need to compensate for the quick throw.

One more closing thought. Play action and RPOs are entirely different, make sure you learn the difference here.

The easiest way to tell the difference between the two is to look at the line of scrimmage (on the offensive side).

If the offensive line is run-blocking, it’s likely an RPO. If they’re pass-blocking, we can only assume it’s a play-action pass.

This is a classic mixup, as the buzzword RPO seemingly has been implemented in every broadcast.

Keep Learning

RPOs in football will continue to innovate from all of the smart coaches at the NFL, college, and high school levels.

They were designed to put players in conflict, making defensive players and defensive coordinators uncomfortable.

If you want to continue to keep learning about football and improve your IQ, we recommend taking the Ultimate Football Guide course below.

Below are more articles to help you learn more about RPO. RPO football is becoming more and more common in high school and college offenses.

RPO In Football: What It Is & How To Run It

RPO Plays From The Spread Offense

Difference Between Play Action, RPO & Read Option

How Oklahoma Football Uses Split Backs & RPO

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 to make impact plays against the defense.

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About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.