Tom Brady’s departure wasn’t a positive development for the Patriots, but a new quarterback does bring new possibilities for New England’s offense.
Presumptive starter Jarrett Stidham has a different skill set than the 42-year-old Brady, which could bring schematic changes as the team builds the offense around Stidham’s strengths.
Previously, we dissected the possibility of the Patriots adopting principles from the Shanahan coaching tree with an under center bootleg play-action series off of outside (wide) zone run actions.
Along with joining the wide zone-bootleg craze, the Patriots could benefit from installing a package of run-pass options (RPOs) with Jarrett Stidham in the shotgun to spread defenses out more.
Unlike other NFL teams already on the trend, the Patriots only ran an RPO on 1.7 percent of their offensive plays last season, 29th in the NFL, and they weren’t particularly good at them either.
New England averaged 4.2 yards per rush (tied for 27th) and a 75.0 passer rating (28th) on run-pass options in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus.
For comparison, the Kansas City Chiefs ran RPOs a league-high 18.7 percent of the time. In 2019, quarterbacks averaged 7.98 yards per pass attempt off of RPOs and play-action compared to 6.25 on standard drop-back attempts, per Pro Football Reference.
Stidham’s Auburn offenses ran RPOs on 26.4 percent of his snaps in his two seasons as the starter, with the Pats QB averaging 7.0 yards per attempt, tied for 16th among 33 qualified quarterbacks.
With Stidham’s experience in RPO schemes in college, the success of RPOs at the NFL and college level, and New England’s emphasis on pass-catchers that are excellent after the catch; the Patriots offense is set up perfectly to be a productive RPO unit.
Run-pass options would also help cover up the one glaring weakness in Stidham’s game that retired offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia pointed out in a radio interview last week.
“This is a different guy in a couple of ways,” Scarnecchia told Sirus XM NFL Radio. “You have to concede that, yes, there’s going to be some things where he’s going to hold the ball longer than you want it to be held, but that’s all about growing up in the league.”
In the 2019 preseason, Stidham’s time to throw was 2.77 seconds, which would’ve been the second-slowest time in the league during the regular season.
Run-pass options are quick-hitting plays based on split-second reads by the quarterback after the snap, putting second-level defenders in constant conflict.
In most situations, box linebackers have both run and pass responsibilities. If it’s a run, they’ll have a gap assignment or play two gaps as a scraper off the ball. Against a pass, it’s either a zone drop or a man coverage assignment.
Linebackers can’t simultaneously play both their run and pass assignments, which is why RPOs are so effective; the offense always has an answer to the defense’s post-snap movement.
Although many RPOs have a quarterback run element, many do not, and some are designed as pass-first reads while others are run-first plays. Most RPOs result in a handoff to the running back. In fact, nearly 70 percent of RPOs were handoffs in 2019, per Pro Football Focus.
— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) February 15, 2016
The quarterback will read one defender at the second level, usually, a linebacker, who will dictate run or pass. If the defender steps up to play the run, the QB will throw. If he drops into coverage, the quarterback will hand the ball off to the running back or keep it himself depending on the play.
As far as the offensive line goes, RPOs present some challenges. Offensive linemen don’t have eyes in the back of their heads, so they don’t know if the quarterback is throwing the ball or handing it off, which can get them caught illegally too far upfield if they are climbing to the second level as run blockers. As a result, most coaches tell their offensive line to engage the defensive linemen and let the second-level defenders come to them.
For those advocating for the Patriots to be a run-first offense, the only way that works is to influence the defense with either the threat of a quarterback run or some sort of misdirection.
The 2019 Ravens won 14 games running the football 56 percent of the time, but they had the highest yards per rush average in the NFL since 1963 (5.53) thanks to Lamar Jackson running wild on defenses every week with read-option and RPO plays.
In other words, the Pats aren’t winning very many games with Stidham turning around to hand the ball off in the traditional sense. Instead, they need to force the defense to account for multiple options, including the quarterback as a running threat, and build a potent play-action/RPO passing attack.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) August 19, 2019
Although Stidham doesn’t have elite mobility, he’ll take off if the opportunity presents itself and has similar speed to a Patrick Mahomes or Baker Mayfield, who also run RPOs very effectively.
The pass and quarterback threat of an RPO along with an excellent play-action passing game will impact how effective defenses are at defending New England’s rushing attack along with making their passing game more efficient.
Below, we’ll go over a handful of RPO schemes that make sense for the Patriots given their current playbook and what makes them so difficult to defend:
The first concept is maybe the most popular RPO in football: an RPO glance or slant, which was popularized in the NFL by the Andy Reid coaching tree.
Here’s an easy to digest diagram courtesy of Bobby Peters and USA Football of the KC version. The offense is running outside zone paired with two slants on the backside. The quarterback reads the weakside linebacker (red triangle). If the linebacker stays back, the offense has five-on-five blocking to the right in their outside zone scheme. If the linebacker steps up to play the run, it opens up the slant for the offense, and the flow of the run action pulls the middle of the field defenders away from the slant.
Here’s Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense running the play for a 47-yard touchdown to wide receiver Marquise Brown. Jackson’s read defender is the linebacker to his left, no. 55, Jerome Baker. Baker flows with and plays the run action, as does the deep safety, presenting an easy read and throw for Jackson, and Brown does the rest breaking a tackle to take it to the house.
The RPO glance was a significant part of Stidham’s college playbook at both Auburn and Baylor. His arm strength and ability to lead receivers into YAC made it a tough concept to stop for opposing defenses.
On this 55-yard touchdown, Stidham’s read defender with the defense in a two-high coverage shell before the snap is the field safety to his right. If the safety stays back, Stidham will hand the ball off against a light box. If the safety drops down, which he does here, Stidham throws the glance route. The safety rotates down, and Stidham hits KD Cannon in-stride for a score.
Stidham also ran the RPO glance concept at Auburn with a bubble screen going underneath the slant pattern. This time, he’s reading the linebacker to his right and the slot defender. When the linebacker crashes downhill to defend the run, Stidham decides to throw the ball and he goes to the slant-bubble combination to his right. Once on his primary read, Stidham reads the slot defender. Since the slot defender sticks with the slot receiver in the flat, Stidham fires the slant.
Pats OC Josh McDaniels has a few wide receiver screens in his toolbox already, and Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry are both dangerous pass catchers on those play designs.
The Patriots are no strangers to slant route combinations, such as the double-slant flat combo above, but now they can add the run option element to those designs to manipulate second-level defenders and make life easier on Stidham.
RPO STICK CONCEPT
Another Patriot favorite that can pair with an RPO is the stick route that teams will sometimes marry with a counter action.
New England is more of a man blocking team, so pairing a stick concept with a power scheme such as counter makes sense from a continuity perspective.
On this play, the Patriots ran a typical stick passing concept. After motioning the running back out of the backfield, the Pats send Matt LaCosse into the flat to clear the underneath defender out of the passing lane while Ben Watson sits down at the sticks for a third-down conversion.
Now, a diagram of a stick concept as an RPO. This time, it’s a draw play, but if you add counter action or a pulling guard, the read defender (in red) will be influenced by the line movement to leave the stick route to defend the run.
Kliff Kingsbury, Kyle Murray and the Cardinals are fans of the RPO stick concept and RPOs in general, running them 14.9 percent of the time last season (third-most in NFL).
On this play, Niners linebacker Fred Warner perfectly exemplifies the conflict for linebackers against RPOs. The run action entices Warner to come towards the line, but you can see the inner conflict in his head as he sways back and forth because he knows a stick or slant route is coming behind him. The RPO fake pulls Warner out of the passing lane long enough for Murray to complete the stick route to Pharoh Cooper.
The Patriots can take a concept already in their playbook and add an RPO element to their stick series to put the defense in a bind to create larger passing windows for Stidham.
RPO SEAM (POWER)
The RPO seam paired with a power running scheme screams Patriots for several reasons.
As we know, running receivers, mainly tight ends, up the seams is a foundational element of the Patriots offense. After all, Brady and Gronk dominated the last decade on seam routes, and New England often pairs seams with play-action by simulating power. Pulling guards gives linebackers a run key and takes them away from dropping underneath the seam route.
The diagram shows a similar play to the one already in New England’s playbook above, but now the quarterback is reading the MIKE with the option of handing the ball off to the back. Again, when the guard or tackle pulls, the linebackers will instinctively step up to take on the puller vacating their underneath zone responsibilities. But if they stay back and the running back gets the ball, they have a 300-pound puller coming at full speed.
We are going back to the 2015 season for this example, but it’s for a good reason. Arizona is running a hitch-seam RPO. In New England verbiage, the hitch-seam combination is called HOSS, the first half of the Patriots’ famous HOSS-juke series. As the guard pulls, the read defender to the quarterback’s right starts coming downhill and across to the play the run, a pass read. From there, the hitch-seam combination puts the flat defender (starts over the slot) in conflict. He can either come underneath the hitch or the seam, but he has a two-on-one scenario. The linebacker can’t influence the play after jumping up to play the run, the flat defender gets caught in between, and Larry Fitzgerald has an easy touchdown.
The Patriots already attack the seams by influencing linebackers out of throwing lanes with play-action, but with Stidham’s RPO experience, they can add another layer to those concepts.
RPO NAKED BOOT SERIES
Lastly, the Houston Texans are a big-time RPO offense thanks to quarterback Deshaun Watson’s elite skills as a ball carrier, and Bill O’Brien has a few terrific designs.
Watson recently sat down with NFL Network’s Kurt Warner and Brian Baldinger for a film session where he broke down Houston’s naked series with multiple tight ends. The Texans’ naked package has a zone-read element for Watson, who reads the play side edge defender. From there, Watson also has a “sift” motion by the tight end. If he gets the tight end in man coverage with an out-leveraged linebacker or puts the edge defender in conflict accounting for the QB keeper and the flat, he can hit the tight end coming across the formation. If the end crashes, it opens up the quarterback run off the edge, and if the end plays the flat QB and tight end perfectly, then Watson can hand it off to the back.
The play design might look familiar to Patriots fans once Watson breaks it down because the Texans ran the same concept for a touchdown against the Pats in a Week 13 win last season.
Houston’s naked series presents three winnable options for the quarterback, and it also incorporates the same bootleg action we went over previously with the Shanahan offense.
With effective ball carriers at both tight end and wide receiver, “sift” motions off of bootlegs should present valuable YAC chances for N’Keal Harry, and Dalton Keene, among others.
Tom Brady is now a Buccaneer, and there’s no sense in expecting Stidham to run Brady’s offense with the same kind of precision as the GOAT.
Instead, as they always do, Bill Belichick and his staff will evolve and shape the scheme around Stidham’s strengths as they usher in a new era.
Stidham’s above-average athletic ability and history with RPOs make them an enticing element worth adding to New England’s playbook.