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Whiteboard Wednesday: Explaining the ‘Run’ of Norvell’s Run-Pass Options

The heart of the engine.

A few weeks ago, we went over Norvell’s offense and how it fits together. We told you that Norvell likes to have an exhaustingly comprehensive run game — inside zone (IZ), outside zone (OZ) and Gap schemes like Power and Counter, among others.

Then last week, our Kevin Little did an unbelievable job breaking down Norvell’s Run-Pass Options, or RPOs. At one point he dropped this gem:

Most people don’t pay enough attention to the offensive line. They can often tell you more about a play than any other position group on the field. If they’re moving downfield in their blocking responsibilities when the quarterback pulls the ball to throw, you can assume an RPO of some kind.

That’s a key tell, and as it was under Kendal Briles, the run action of RPOs will go a long way toward helping this offensive line. While Kevin focused on RPOs and how their mechanics work, for today’s Whiteboard Wednesday we thought we’d go deeper into the ‘Run’ part of Norvell’s RPOs and talk about the why.

Here we have inside zone, which Norvell calls Indy, from a Pistol formation with an H-back lined up as a wing and two receivers to the field. There are six blockers against six defenders in the box.

As the camera zooms in tight, the defender left visible at the top of the screen is the apex defender. The QB takes the snap and immediately gets his body perpendicular to the line of scrimmage to give the running back a clear lane. The QB reads the apex defender, who stays back in his zone in the passing lane, so the QB hands the ball off. If the defender had walked up into the box, there would be seven defenders for six blockers, but that would also leave two receivers out wide with just a corner and the safety, or two-on-two. The QB would have pulled the ball and thrown it.

Why do teams, including Norvell’s, like to use the H-back? It allows you to insert a lead blocker at the point of attack, but also an extra blocker adds a gap that the defense has to account for. Moving that gap around can give you an advantage in a variety of ways.

But why pair inside zone in an RPO? Why not just run inside zone by itself? Well, an RPO like the one above still allows the QB to account for one of the defenders and put him into conflict even though the QB himself is not a threat to run the football. That in turn preserves the offense’s advantage to block the play and successfully run the ball up the middle.

Further, as Kevin pointed out, this is different than packaged plays, where the QB decides pre-snap whether to run it or throw it based on where defenders are lined up. Doing it after the snap allows the offense to dictate to the defense, instead of the other way around, by evening up the numbers. In short, it helps stop defenses from loading the box, or at least selling out to stop the run.

But in order to make RPOs with a static QB work and to get that defender into conflict, you have to have that constraint outside with the receivers. That’s why many teams, like Norvell’s, pair IZ and other run concepts with quick pass concepts like bubble screens or slants when they build their RPOs.

Pocket passer RPO

We mentioned before that Norvell’s offense can seemingly evolve yearly based on the talent he has at hand. This is one way he does it (though he’s certainly not alone). You can adapt your RPO for any number of combinations of skill talent in order to feature certain players — a dynamic athlete at QB or a pocket passer, split-back or two-back (two great running backs vs one good RB and an H-back/TE), a WR that can operate in space or a deep threat, and so on. But all of them will work just by tweaking IZ, and if Norvell coaches FSU long enough you will probably see all of them.

Here’s the other thing. Norvell will frequently tag a bubble screen even on straight-up run plays, while other times he will have the receivers block as they normally would. Even if this next play isn’t an RPO because the QB may or may not be reading the slot defender here, it looks just like one of Norvell’s RPOs, which can be devastating to a defense.

You can see the slot defender hesitate, not sure where to go, because the No. 2 WR at the top to the field is running a bubble screen. By the time he figures out it’s a run it’s too late. This is a split-back formation with a back on either side of the QB, but the ball-carrier here is actually a wide receiver! Meanwhile, despite not having an H-back the play still gets a lead block from the running back, which creates an extra gap. Because the edge defender is unblocked by the offensive tackle, who climbs to the second level and walls off a linebacker, and the edge gets taken out by the running back coming across the formation, you could probably classify this as split-zone.

Norvell will frequently run outside zone from split-back formations. But here, while it looks like OZ, it’s really Counter:

Again, to the field side you can see a bubble screen that makes this an RPO. The front-side running back acts as a lead blocker just as he would if this were OZ. However, there are two tells that this is not a zone-blocked play like the ones above. First, the running back takes a false step to sell the counter and two, Norvell pulls the backside offensive tackle.

Going back to the beginning of our article on paying attention to the offensive line, it’s also worth noting that while every other lineman run blocks, the playside offensive tackle actually acts as if this is a pass, which tricks the edge defender into flowing too far upfield and he takes himself out of the play.

Finally, we have our last play. This one looks just like our first play — Pistol with an H-back lined up as the wing, with two receivers to the field.

However, instead of IZ like before this is also Counter, except this time Norvell pulls the backside guard and the H-back for a huge gain. Note again the bubble screen to the field.

Norvell’s offense is truly explosive, and it is not in spite of the fact, but _because_ everything flows through the running game. The run game is truly the engine of this offense.

Hopefully we were able to give you an idea of exactly how Norvell mixes personnel, formations, and run concepts (with his own wrinkles) and pairs them with pass concepts to create a truly dynamic scheme that is centered around playmakers and the matchups they create. Join us in the comment section to ask any questions and discuss further!