Washington's RPO presents 'predicament' for Packers' defense

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Green Bay Packers defensive end Mike Daniels (76) pressures Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) on Sept. 28, 2015, at Lambeau Field.

GREEN BAY – Tramon Williams said he is the read.

No, Blake Martinez said he is.

Maybe it’s Kentrell Brice. Clay Matthews? Wait, no, it’s Jaire Alexander.

The thing is, if all of them think they’re the read of the opposing quarterback on a run-pass option, or RPO, the Green Bay Packers can defend both elements of the National Football League’s latest offensive movement.

Martinez pantomimes his movements in reading that play, trying to show the balance he has to strike as an inside linebacker between being in position to flow to the ball carrier or to drop to combat a pass.

“It’s tough,” he laughed.

Williams smiled.

“It kind of puts you in a predicament in certain situations,” the Packers cornerback said. “For the most part I think guys know when it could possibly be coming and could play it well, but it still causes problems.”

Such haziness among defenders is why the RPO has a sturdier foundation than that of come-and-go schemes such as the “wildcat” and the read-option. 

On the offensive end, it’s a simple concept: A run is called, but the quarterback has a read (which could be any defender or defenders) and should that defender clear a passing lane, the quarterback can pull the ball and throw. The only real concern for the offense is making sure the offensive linemen don’t fire out too far on the run block and become illegal downfield.

But on the defensive side of it, a well-executed RPO can be nearly indefensible.  

First and foremost, a quarterback can make his decision to either hand it off or throw it based off a pre-snap look, or even post-snap as he makes his read en route to handing the ball off. That's why most defenders feel they are the quarterback's read.

It means cornerbacks have to cover like it's a pass play and not read a run. And what makes it difficult for the linebackers, safeties and down linemen is that they trained from a young age to read the offensive line’s helmet position to indicate pass or run. At NFL speed, and with offensive linemen being conscious of the RPO, it’s a distinction that is harder to discern.

The play also creates hesitation. If a defender commits to the run, a pass opens. If they cheat the pass, they’re out of position to fill gaps. In the secondary, if a corner is caught peeking in the backfield, or is a bit slow in coverage, a quick throw can beat him.

And all of this happens in a relative instant.

“It tames you a little bit defensively,” Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said.

Packers’ history with RPO

To know how the Packers' defense has evolved to counteract the current version of the RPO, one must understand where it came from, and how members of this team have seen it develop over the course of the last eight seasons.

Despite changes in the coaching staff and constant turnover in the defensive meeting room over that time, the Packers have five defenders who saw the RPO run against them in its earliest forms.

And as they prepare for Washington and quarterback Alex Smith this weekend, they can draw on that experience of seeing Smith and the San Francisco 49ers execute some of it back in 2012.

“I remember running some RPOs in training camp (of 2011) and having them work,” said Denver Broncos tight ends coach and Madison native George “Geep” Chryst, who was the 49ers' quarterbacks coach at that time.

Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews has words with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith during the second quarter of a game at Lambeau Field on Sept. 9, 2012.

“To me, that was the genesis of it in training camp with Alex. It was 2011 because that was when the lockout was, so coaches had a lot of time without players around from the start of the (lockout) till they reported August. We had a lot of time to put in a lot of offense.”

That year, Smith had the best season of his career since being taken No. 1 overall in 2005, and the 49ers advanced to the NFC Championship game.

A year later, the Packers hosted Smith and the 49ers in the 2012 season opener at Lambeau Field. Smith had some RPOs available when he went 20-for-26 for 211 yards and two touchdowns and a rating of 125.6 in a 30-22 49ers victory.

“The beginning (of seeing a new offensive scheme) is always tough because you really don’t know what to expect,” said corner Davon House, who along with Mike Daniels, Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Williams were a part of that Packers defense.

But by the time the Packers hosted the 49ers again that year in the NFC divisional round, Colin Kaepernick was the quarterback. The RPO concepts the 49ers had developed through 2011 and early 2012 had morphed into the read-option (or zone-read) that decimated the Packers to the tune of 181 rushing yards and two scores by Kaepernick.

The difference between the read-option and an RPO is this: Instead of faking the handoff and throwing, the quarterback in the read-option fakes the handoff and runs.

Yet, “we had an RPO,” Chryst said of that Kaepernick-led offense, “(But) we were having a lot of success disconnecting ‘Kap’ and running.”

By 2013, Smith was off to Kansas City — where current Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson said the quarterback pushed then-Chiefs coach Andy Reid, Pederson as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Matt Nagy to incorporate some of the RPOs he liked in San Francisco.

Helping with that installation was former University of Nevada head coach Chris Ault, who was brought in to consult Reid and his offensive staff. Ault had designed RPOs out of the pistol formation for Kaepernick when the two were together in college.

“I thought Alex was the perfect quarterback for something like that,” Ault said. “It wasn’t the RPO off the read-option. It was an RPO off of runs. Any run you want. Any inside run you want to do, you can do this particular action.”

The Packers didn’t play Kansas City that year, but Smith went to his first Pro Bowl and led the Chiefs to the postseason. Other teams, like Chip Kelly’s Eagles, were also incorporating the RPO that season.

“The true pattern,” Chryst observed. “Whatever they would run downfield where it was a disconnect from the run — but not a quarterback run — but a true pass option, the ‘PO’ part of the RPO.”

The Packers handled and harangued Smith and the Chiefs at Lambeau Field in 2015, sacking him seven times and forcing an interception in a 38-28 victory in Week 3, but the offensive tide in the league was coming in.

“Alex has both the athleticism and the smarts to where you can do so many different things,” said former Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk, who is now an NFL and college football analyst for Sirius XM. “I can’t imagine what they put on his plate and how much they count on him and how many different options they can have at the line.

“He’s the perfect combination.”

The RPO had arrived.

Defending it now

Like with any offensive concept, defensive coaches in the NFL did due diligence on the RPO. They picked the brains of college coaches who had defended it for years, studied it, practiced it. And then offensive coaches parried, changing how they got into those calls.

The chess game had begun.

“There's so many different parts to RPO that you can put your little spin on it,” said Nagy, now coach of the Chicago Bears. “I by no means think you can live in it, but it can be a part of your offense, and you're seeing teams now that are kind of going to that and making the defense make decisions on what they're going to do and then react off of that.”

Packers coach Mike McCarthy said his first RPO calls were out of a two-back offense, but now it’s run out of one-back and empty sets. Blocking schemes, personnel groupings, formations and routes were altered to move defenders and maximize an RPO’s effectiveness.

“They can get to the same plays, but they can window dress them and make them look much different for the defense,” Hawk said. “And the defense is kind of scrambling and they’re not 100 percent sure on what they’re supposed to do.”

Packers defenders say film study and disciplined practice is the only countermeasure.

“When they get in certain formations, RPO is not the only thing that they do, but you’re aware of regular tendencies,” Williams said. “So you figure out those things and you may not be 100 percent on it but you typically have a good tip.”

That’s the catch: A defender is never 100 percent sure.

And that half second of hesitation can mean giving up a chunk play or a first down in a key moment.

“It still comes back to our technique, our fundamentals,” Pettine said. “What the RPOs do, is they force a guy to make a one-on-one tackle, which is really what college offenses have gotten to, the spread. You can have a guy unblocked there at the point of attack, but he still has to make a play. It spreads you out and forces everybody to make sure they’re on point.”

And the Packers have to be as they face Smith, one of the first NFL quarterbacks to use the RPO, in Washington.

Williams, Martinez, Matthews, Brice — they know Smith will be watching them, reading the slightest movements.

At kickoff, it will have been 2,205 days since that 2012 opener when Smith and the 49ers beat the Packers, or six complete NFL seasons. It’s a cliché, but if individual Packers just “do their job” defensively and remain disciplined, they can be more effective at stopping it.

“Right,” Williams said. But …

“If that person does what he (Smith) wants him to do, if he steps up, boom, the pass is there.”

He smiled again.

“It’s kind of a run-pass predicament,” Williams said.

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