When the Cowboys drafted Leighton Vander Esch in the first round, they upset a lot of fans, but what if the pick was effective in stopping the newest trend in the NFL: the RPO?
If the Dallas Cowboys intend to compete for a Super Bowl in 2018 they better find a way to beat the RPO. RPO (Run-pass option) is the newest trend in the NFL. Borrowed from the college game, the RPO utilizes a quarterback’s quick decision making to exploit defenses that pack the box and/or lean on zone coverage.
Not to be confused with the standard “Run Option” of yesteryear, the aptly named Run-Pass Option incorporates a passing element to the attack. It’s this passing portion that confused teams last season and helped facilitate the Super Bowl season for the Philadelphia Eagles.
The fact that the Eagles rode the RPO all the way to the Super Bowl is reason enough for the Dallas Cowboys to focus on stopping the attack ASAP. But considering teams like the Green Bay Packers are also adding RPO plays to their arsenal, it’s something any team with postseason expectations must learn to deal with.
What is the Run-Pass Option?
As someone who was just turned onto the RPO scheme this winter, I can say with confidence the RPO is a very misunderstood scheme in the NFL. Since it often gets confused with similar looking backfield trickery, I’ll attempt to explain:
- Play Action: The QB pretends to hand it off but it’s a planned passing play.
- Standard Option Play: The QB must decide whether hand the ball off or run it himself.
- Run-Pass Option Play: The QB decides whether to hand the ball off or to pass the ball. He could even choose to run it himself in some cases.
The key to running a true RPO play lies in the play of the offensive line. From the start, the O-line plays the RPO like a run. Since running plays require them to block downfield, the quarterback must decide immediately what he’s going to do with the ball because if the offensive linemen get too far down the field, it becomes a penalty for an illegal player downfield.
The quarterback counts the players in the box before the snap. After the snap he reads the actions of defense (the linebackers most often), and he either hands it off or makes a quick throw to his receiver or halfback. Whichever provides the most favorable matchup.
Why Leighton Vander Esch makes sense
As someone who’s relatively new to the RPO thing, I’ve leaned on many smart minds to teach me how to win with it and how to beat it. The common advice flowing seems to stress the importance of the linebackers. Simply put: they either make it or they break it.
In order to properly match up against an RPO team like the Eagles, the defense needs smart linebackers who can play the pass as well as the run. One-dimensional thumpers will get exposed. As will a traditional nickel defensive package.
Because the passes happen so quickly, the second layer of the defense is the target area. That’s why many recommend THREE multidimensional linebackers on the field when defending the RPO. This breaks from the previous NFL trend of running a 4-2-5 and often replaces it with a 3-3-5. And the Cowboys are not disguising their intentions…
And that’s why Leighton Vander Esch (LVE) makes perfect sense.
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As a player with excellent sideline-to-sideline speed, superior athletic traits (97 percentile SPARQ), and natural coverage ability, LVE seems perfect for stopping the RPO. Together with Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, Dallas has the potential to be a force at the linebacker position.
While many of us (myself included) would have rather come away with someone like Vita Vea or Derwin James on Day 1, LVE represents the best potential at stopping the RPO in 2018.
After him, the options at linebacker looked bleak if you valued coverage ability (and you always should in LBs).
Instead of getting bogged down in who will play SAM, who plays MIKE, and who plays WILL, think of the Cowboys defense as a new scheme in 2018.
Sure, we’re going to see plenty of single high safety (Cover 3) and traditional nickel and dime packages, but we’re also going to see three linebacker sets built to stop the RPO.
More teams than ever are expected to employ RPO plays in 2018 (the Dallas Cowboys included) and finding a way to stop them is imperative for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
If LVE becomes the player the Cowboys think he will, he will play an important role, WITH his linebacker counterparts, in stopping the RPO. Tomorrow we’ll look at how the Cowboys themselves will use the RPO to win matchups in 2018.