BOURBONNAIS — Outside linebacker Sam Acho couldn’t recall preparing for many offenses that featured run-pass options early in his career.
“[The Packers] had almost like a double [play], either a screen or flare route, so it was almost like an RPO,” said Acho, one of the Bears’ oldest players at 29.
“They would run the screen if it was there, and if it wasn’t, they would throw the crosser or what we would call, like, a ‘flame’ route.
“So Green Bay did it a little bit. [Former Eagles coach] Chip Kelly tried to introduce [RPOs] a couple of years ago. But now it’s really taken off.”
The Eagles, of course, heavily featured RPOs during their successful Super Bowl run last season. Bears coach Matt Nagy also has big plans for them. That’s why offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, an RPO expert and visionary from Oregon, was hired.
“I love practicing against [Nagy’s offense] because this is probably the hardest thing you’re going to see as far as understanding what your responsibilities are and everybody doing their job,” Acho said.
Other defensive starters concur. Here’s how Nagy’s offense is helping them, position by position:
Nick Kwiatkoski knows quarterbacks are watching him.
“For a linebacker, the majority of the time, they’re reading you,” he said. “They’re kind of basing their decision off what you do, what your reaction is.”
RPOs vary in complexity, but the quarterback’s decision essentially boils down to an inside-zone run for his back or a quick pass.
Kwiatkoski said his responsibilities will vary based on defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s calls, but as a general rule, he must be patient.
“You want to be able to put yourself in position to play both things,” he said. “Even if you might show up late at one, it’s better to be able to show up than not at all.”
It helps facing Nagy’s offense, which is experimenting with different RPOs. The defense has learned what formations and downs and distances lead to more RPOs.
“Most of the time we get a tip for when it comes, then it’s how you can discourage it pre-snap,” linebacker John Timu said. “It’s understanding who might have that hard down on that certain play.”
The goal then becomes to “eliminate” an option, Kwiatkoski said.
“If they are run [correctly] and run a lot, they can be effective against a defense,” Kwiatkoski said. “But just to get a look at them and get that experience with them, it’s good for us to know how to play them, what scheme works against them.”
Similar to Kwiatkoski, Eddie Jackson knows quarterbacks are reading him, too. They want to see where he and Adrian Amos are before the snap.
On the other side, Jackson said RPOs can be “pretty frustrating” because they test what safeties see, too.
“If your eyes aren’t in the right spot, it’s going to cost you,” Jackson said. “You just really have to keep your eyes right and read the right keys.”
Jackson said that starts by watching the line.
“Coach Vic keeps telling us all that you just make sure you keep reading the line,” he said. “We kind of get ourselves caught in the backfield because there’s so much zone-read [option] in the past and things like that. When you just key on the line and you stay on top of the details, it’ll help you.”
The moving parts of Nagy’s offense are a good test.
“Very beneficial,” Jackson said. “We’re seeing a lot of things that we didn’t see before [in practice], a lot of crossing routes and stuff like that, things that really get us on our toes and where we’ve got to keep our eyes in the right spot.”
For veteran Prince Amukamara, the difficulties of playing RPOs revolve around how they affect coverage within a play.
“If I’m in man [coverage] and I get an RPO, the thing that sucks is I’ll kind of be in zero coverage, meaning I have no help anywhere just because the run is sucking up the safety and the linebackers,” Amukamara said. “Now I’m liable to both cuts inside and outside. So that’s tough in a sense.”
Zone coverages change responsibilities, but defenses have used man coverages to disrupt the timing and options of RPOs.
“From a corner’s standpoint, it’s just being good with your eyes,” Kyle Fuller said. “It’s being able to see and then getting back to your receiver because they can still pass out of it. It’s just being disciplined with that. We get some work with that because of our offense.”
Amukamara said he feels more prepared for the regular season.
“That’s what I love about [Nagy’s] offense,” he said. “They give us so many different looks.”
RPOs differ from zone-read option plays because blockers are typically assigned to edge defenders. Acho said his own reads often start with that blocker.
“You’re playing the run, but you understand that it could be a pass,” Acho said.
“Let’s say I’m on my side, and I have the tackle blocking out on me like it’s a run, but usually that pass might be away. That one doesn’t affect me as much.
“Now, let’s say I’m away from it, and the tackle is giving me what looks like a run set, but it’s a pass [my way]. It almost puts you in no man’s land a little bit. But our coaches really do a good job of getting us ready for them.”
Acho said Fangio details the “certain situations and certain times” in which RPOs are most likely to be called.
“When you’re aware of it, you can’t just run and go,” Acho said. “You have to bounce a little bit. You have to wait. You just have to use your eyes a little more. It changes the way you play a little bit.”
Fangio has calls that “really disrupt” RPOs, Acho said. It also helps to test those calls against Nagy’s offense in practice.
“If we can see it every single day, when we play Philly, Kansas City or whoever runs these types of offenses, we’re going to be ready for them,” Acho said.
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