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Defending the Bears’ RPO concepts

What Jim Schwartz can do to limit Nagy’s staple RPOs...

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NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Alignment, discipline, and tackling. These are the three key ingredients to stopping the run-pass option. The Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles will need those three elements to keep the Chicago Bears’ offense from picking them apart. Seems easy enough, right?

Bears’ head coach Matt Nagy is a creative play-caller but most importantly he is in tune with his quarterback Mitch Trubisky. He knows when his signal-caller needs some easy throws to get in a rhythm and get the offense out of a funk. Nagy often does this with RPOs, and for his part Trubisky’s decision-making on these concepts make him an effective point guard.

The first part of stopping the Bears’ offense is knowing what they’re trying to do to you and how they’re reading you. Where Nagy excels is providing Trubisky with valuable information before the snap. This guides Trubisky in his decision-making after the snap. They accomplish this in a number of ways.

First, multi-tool running back Tarik Cohen takes roughly a quarter of his passing play snaps either lined up in the slot or outside. Second, tight end Trey Burton spends over half of his pass reps at slot or on the outside. These are both man/zone indicators. For example, if Jordan Hicks travels to cover Cohen near the sideline, that’s a tip-off to man coverage. The third way the Bears unlock information for Trubisky is motion.

The above clip is a perfect example of data collecting happening for the Bears. There’s a running back that motions from slot to a traditional alignment and a tight end (Burton) in the slot. Trubisky now knows he has man coverage. He knows the numbers in the box favor pass. He also knows has one read; Green Bay Packers’ linebacker Blake Martinez.

This read is made easier by Martinez, who aligns himself hard to the run strength and flows hard post-snap. The result is an easy throw-and-catch to Burton for 9 yards.

To be fair to Martinez, this is what RPOs are designed to do. They give a “conflict” defender choices and make him wrong regardless. It’s a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Down one path you play the run and the pass is thrown. Down another you play the pass and the run has a numbers advantage. Los Angeles Rams’ linebacker Mark Barron knows this all too well.

There is hope for the Martinez’s, Barron’s, and Jordan Hick’s of the world though. In Week 16 the San Francisco 49ers limited the Bears to their lowest scoring output of the season. Holding the Bears by 14 points, the 49ers showed the recipe for beating a heavy RPO attack. You have to dictate to the the read to the offense and win your individual battles.

On the last play in this series, the 49ers crash their end man on the line of scrimmage. This indicates “keep” to Trubisky. The 49ers counter this with a “scrape-exchange” that allows the linebacker to play over the top and keep away the quarterback run. They dictated the read and played disciplined football around it. They picked their poison pre-snap and put their players in a position to succeed post-snap.

No, the 49ers did not beat the Bears, but this is a team sport and the 49ers defense did their job. Eagles’ defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will have to utilize a similar game-plan to limit the Bears’ offense. The scrape-exchange isn’t the only solution, that has a well-known counter (the arc block) too, but it’s a good example of how to win against RPOs. Of course, there’s more to it than one adjustment.

There are five commandments the Eagles’ defense will have to live by to stop the Bears’ RPOs. These were taken from Cody Alexander’s clinic on the matter (and more info can be found in his excellent book).

  1. Eliminate by alignment.
  2. Force the weakest runner to carry the ball.
  3. Use option principles (dive/QB/pitch).
  4. Stay even.
  5. Don’t be overly aggressive.

To expand upon those commandments, the keys to success are in the preparation and execution, as with anything in football.

Know how your alignment can eliminate certain options. If you’re going to react to pre-snap motion, know the offenses’ counter reaction. If you’re going to blitz, understand where the offense will attack. If you’re going to get beat, get beat by the weakest ball-carrier. Create +1 vice tackling situations in space. Win your individual matchups on the inside. Make life less conflicting for your linebackers by giving them run support with a safety.

The Bears are going to attack with slants, pop passes, bubbles, stick outs, outside zones, read options, and so on and so forth. For the Eagles, the key is to decide what they’ll bait and what they’ll eliminate entirely. If the defense is going to partake in an interactive Choose Your Own Adventure, they’ll win by picking the path before the snap.

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