How You Should Be Defending The RPO

On behalf of the Howard Payne University, coaching staff I would like to thank AFCA for the opportunity to write about defending the Run/Pass Option (RPO). In the previous three years since becoming the Head Coach at HPU I was the Defensive Coordinator at Texas Lutheran we were fortunate enough to be a 3-time defending champion of the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) with a 25-5 record over the three-year span. We are hard at work to do the same here at Howard Payne University and we believe defending the RPO’s will play a huge part in that success.

As a defense, we believe in giving the offense multiple looks from a defensive perspective. Throughout the course of a game, an offense will see our defense play with different fronts and coverages to the same formations. The modern spread offense looks to read an overlap player (linebacker, safety, etc.) when they are executing their plays. The overlap player in a defense often finds himself in a bind as he can be seeing run blocks in front of him with a passing concept tagged to the run. As a defense, we want to provide our overlap player with tools and defensive calls to help him perform at his highest level.

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In our defense, our Will linebacker (WLB) often becomes the overlap player that the offense is reading. In our base defense against the spread, our WLB gets put in a vice because he has a run responsibility as well as pass responsibility. In our base defense, the WLB is our B-Gap player as well as the curl-flat/underneath player in our base coverage (Cover 6). Two formations that cause the most stress on the WLB are 3X1 Gun Strong and 2X2 Gun Weak (See Figure 1 and 2). These formations put the WLB in a vice because any run game is going to hit quickly to his side with the running back being to him. So it becomes difficult for him to still defend the run inside and at the same time ask him to defend quick pass game with the RPO.

Figure 1: Base Alignment vs. 3X1 Gun Strong
Figure 2: Base Alignment vs. 2X2 Gun Weak

Bomber is a defensive check that we can make against both of these formations that allow our WLB to play outside the box, and our defense still be gap sound. Bomber allows our defense to cheat a gap, and play the box with 5 men while still playing our same base coverage behind it. The first formation we will look at against bomber is 2X2 Gun Weak:

Figure 3: Bomber vs. 2X2 Gun Weak

Our defensive front will now line up in a set call with our 3 technique set to the back. The “bomber” call speaks to our 7 technique end. Bomber to him means he is now a 1st threat player, and with any down block, he would spill (wrong shoulder) any second level block. Our Mike linebacker (MLB) is now the A-Gap Player to the Boundary. Our Sam is now tied into the B-Gap to the field. The Sam is able to play the B-gap from outside the box because with the back away from him, any run game to him should be hitting late in the B-Gap, giving him time to fall back into the B-Gap. The WLB is without an inside gap. By his alignment, the WLB now should be taking away the quick throw to #2. At the snap, the WLB is reading the offensive tackle for his run-pass key. If he gets a run read, he can pop his feet in a zeroed up stance and remain where he is at because any run will have to come outside to him.

Now we will look at the Bomber call against 3X1 Gun Strong:

Figure 4: Bomber 3X1 Gun Strong

Our defensive front will once again line up in a set call with our 3 technique set to the back. The “bomber” call is still speaking to the 7 technique, making him a 1st threat player and spiller to any second level block. Our MLB is now the A-Gap Player to the field. Our Weak Safety (Dog) is now tied into the B-Gap to the boundary. The WLB is again without a gap inside. By his alignment, the WLB is now taking away the quick throw to #3. At the snap, the WLB is reading the offensive tackle for his run-pass key. If he gets a run read, he can pop his feet and remain where he is at because any run will come outside to him.

Our goal as a defense is to always provide our players with the most effective tools in order to be successful. Bomber has been an effective check for our defense against these spread formations as it allowed our defense to still remain gap sound while taking our overlap player out of an inside gap.


Braxton Harris became Howard Payne University’s head football coach in January of 2017 after serving three seasons as Texas Lutheran University’s assistant head football coach and co-defensive coordinator. In his time at TLU, Harris helped guide a previously 0-10 program to a 25-5 record over three years and three consecutive conference championships.

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