MINNEAPOLIS – You may be hearing the football acronym RPO tossed around frequently during Super Bowl Week. It stands for Run-Pass Option, a component of offenses that gives the quarterback the choice of handing the football off to a back, keeping it and running with it himself, or pulling it back to throw.
The Patriots almost never employ this because it doesn't necessarily fit Tom Brady's skill set, but their opponent this weekend is proficient at it. New England has had difficulty at times with opponents who use RPOs, and the Eagles are a team that is known to call a significant percentage of such plays.
Head coach Doug Pederson brought the concept with him from Kansas City when he was offensive coordinator there and his then-QB, Alex Smith, had success with it. Not surprisingly, Pederson continues to incorporate it in Philadelphia. According to some stat-based football websites, Eagles quarterback Nick Foles completes more than nine out of every 10 passes he throws from RPOs.
While Foles and his teammates acknowledge that it's "a piece" of the Philly offense, they tried to downplay the RPO's importance to the Eagles.
"There's different ways of doing it, and it's sort of the big thing this year, but it's been around for a while," said Foles.
"It's something a lot of people want to talk about right now," remarked Philly wide receiver Nelson Agholor, "but everybody does it – college, NFL. It's just a way to keep teams unbalanced."
It's somewhat surprising that the RPO works so often because of its inherent element of uncertainty at the snap. So, what makes the RPO work properly?
"The big thing is the execution," Foles continued, "the guys up front understanding the blocking scheme, me understanding who I'm reading and how it affects the play, the receivers reading their routes and adjustments and what they're looking for. So, when everyone's on the same page and we have knowledge of what we're doing, you can execute at a high level and have success with a piece of your offense that's hard to defend."
"I don't really like uncertainty too much," Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith admitted with a smile, "but I enjoy knowing that if I win [my route], I have a chance of getting one [thrown to me]. For us [at wide receiver], you just have to win your route. We don't know when he's going to pull it. So, we can't guess. We just have to be consistent and win your route and that'll be enough."
And what if the QB hands off or runs himself and the receiver suddenly has to become a blocker?
"Yeah, you just have to react a little bit," added Smith. "Sometimes you get caught in a weird position because you're running a route versus blocking vertically, but it's great for our offense. It gets us in rhythm."
"It's not really a challenge," maintained Agholor, "because our coaches do a great job of putting us in all situations, giving us difference scenarios, different coverages. We've executed them while contested [by the defense], we've executed with initial separation [from the defender], we've created separation.
"These are situations you put your quarterback in, your running back in, your receivers in. They have to know when it give, when to pull, the whole nine [yards]. If you're a player in this league, you've seen it before. You just have to keep preparing for it. Sometimes you have to make plays when they're contested."
The Patriots will do their best to contest the ball when the Eagles do choose to throw, whether from an RPO or a traditional pass formation. New England's top three cornerbacks – Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, and former Eagle Eric Rowe – will be responsible for limited the productivity of Smith, Agholor, and Alshon Jeffery, a college teammate of Gilmore at the University of South Carolina. It won't be clear till after kickoff, however, who will match up against who, and if those matchups will remain constant throughout the game or be rotated.
"Well-coached, disciplined, they really pay attention to their assignments and make adjustments to the offense," Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery said about the Patriots' corners. "No matter who's out there covering me, I'm looking forward to the challenge."
"Obviously, their slot/nickel corner has been [former Philly teammate] Eric Rowe," Agholor observed. "I have a lot of respect for him, but they've got guys all over the field that match up. It doesn't matter who's on me, it's about me doing my job."
"I'm studying them all, so, I'm fine with whoever lines up on me," Smith declared. "I think they're very talented, they have a good mixture. They're not really all built the same, but they're all pretty physical. They understand their scheme, play well together, and mesh with the safeties.
"They're also great at disguising coverages. We're going to have our hands full. We just have to make sure we use these days to get on our game and be ready come Sunday."
GRONK AN EXAMPLE FOR ERTZ
While Philadelphia's receivers could play key roles Sunday, Eagles tight end Zach Ertz should not be overlooked. In fact, the fifth-year veteran led Philly in 2017 both in receptions (74) and receiving yards (824), while tying for second on the team in receiving touchdowns (eight).
"I think I've proven throughout my time in this league that I can make plays when my number's called," Ertz told reporters in Minneapolis Wednesday. "But whether it's me, Alshon, Torrey, Trey [Burton, the third tight end], no one cares about who gets their number called or when it does. We just want to go out there and win and we're having a great time doing it right now."
As productive as Ertz has been this season for the Eagles, he admitted that he has grown into his role, thanks in part to studying his All-Pro counterpart, New England's Rob Gronkowski.
"He's obviously a phenomenal football player. He's been the preeminent tight end in this league for an extremely long time," Ertz gushed. "His ball skills are top-notch. His ability to use his body is probably second to none. He's really nimble and agile for how big he is. His ability to get open consistently, his ability to understand defenses is extremely underrated. I've got a lot of respect for him… I've definitely learned a lot watching him."
When asked to cite an example of what he's gained by observing Gronkowski, Ertz didn't hesitate.
"Yeah, he's extremely physical at the top of his routes. He's able to use his body to his advantage all the time. Coming into the NFL, I was more of the slot-receiver-type of tight end. I played at Stanford hand-in-the-dirt often, but my route-running wasn't truly physical. Watching him, my game has definitely grown in that regard."
READY TO RUMBLE
Some reporters covering the Eagles Wednesday had to do a double-take when a pair of defenders took to their interview positions wearing Mexican wrestling-style masks, bright green in color and emblazoned with the Eagles' logo.
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who wore his for nearly the entire 45-minute session, was disappointed to learn that he d-end teammate, Brandon Graham, removed his after only a few minutes.
"This was a gift from one of the reporters from Mexico," Cox explained. "He told me it had some super powers. He asked me to give it back. I said no."
The light-hearted nature of the stunt seemed a bit out of the ordinary for an interview session that wasn't part of Opening Night festivities, when such spectacles are not uncommon. Cox divulged the reason for doing so.
"I've talked to guys that have been in the Super Bowl before, and they say you can't go into these things uptight. You have to have fun, but also be professional. We have practice later today and that's really important."