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Why the Indiana RPO is a Nightmare for Defenses

Updated: Mar 25, 2023

It is said in the Bible, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” While this message holds true, there is no reason why we can’t combine different ideas to make them new once more. The triple option has been an offensive staple for over half a century now. First engineered by the likes of Bill Yeoman, and Homer Rice, it has since become an increasingly popular offensive strategy in football these days, and for good reason. With the advent of the modern dual threat quarterback, it’s time to take the triple option into the 21st century.

Here in the Midwest this play has been dubbed the Indiana RPO. The Indiana RPO is a 3rd generation zone read option play that builds and expands on the option play of yesteryear, and breaths innovation into its lungs. This play combines the basic Inside Zone (IZ) Read, the Triple Option, and the Run Pass Option (RPO). It’s a new school take on old school concepts. This combination creates a play where the quarterback has anywhere from three to five potential options: hand the ball off to the running back, keep it himself, pitch or throw the ball. If you add in a possible pre-snap read, it puts serious stress and strain on defenses.

In its most basic form, the Indiana RPO is run out of a balanced spread 2x2 formation. In the center of the field the outside receiver is aligned on the line of scrimmage (LOS) at the bottom of the numbers. From there slot receivers are tasked with aligning off the LOS at the mid-way point between the outside receiver and the offensive tackle (OT). The backfield set is simple and straight forward, the quarterback (QB) should align in a “Short” shotgun with their toes roughly four yards behind the center. The tailback (TB) should initially align two yards directly behind the QB. As shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

This initial formation gives the offense, specifically the QB and Offensive Coordinator (OC), the best look at the opposing defense. It forces the defense to either tip their hand or match the balance of the offense. From this formation, the development of the Indiana RPO can begin.

The beauty of the Indiana RPO lies in its unpredictability. The battle plan has been given to the QB who must read the defense and decide which option is best, based on what the defense shows from this point. Here is where the offense can begin to pick apart the defense.

The first thing the players must know, after the formation is signaled or called, is the direction and the concept for the play. The call can be made as simple or as complex as needed. For this example, it will just be called Indiana Right, and Indiana Left. The right and left designators indicating the direction of the IZ.

Starting with IZ to the right the call would be Indiana Right. Once the offense has the call it gives them all the information needed to actually run the play. To start the play off the QB will indicate to the TB that they will need to shift. The TB should take a step or two in the diagonal direction to the opposite side of the play call. They should create a sidecar relationship to best mesh up for the IZ path with the QB. As shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2

This simple shift is the spark of information flow from the defense to the QB and OC. As soon as the shift occurs the defense is forced into giving up information about what it’s going to do to defend the play that’s coming. If they don’t move at all it gives the indication that they are going to play a base version of their standard defensive set, if any position group of the defense moves it will begin to indicate what they are worried about stopping. A defensive line (DL) shift indicates they’re attempting to stuff the run. If they roll a linebacker (LB) to the shifted TB they are indicating they are going to attempt to attack the mesh point, or the triple option. A roll from the defensive secondary indicates they are more worried about stopping the option game that happens between the run, pitch, or potential throw from the QB.

The offense wants this flow of information to keep coming. To support this flow the QB now motions the play side #2 (PS #2). The PS #2 will become the pitch option for the triple option look. They should be on a motion taking them to the heels of the TB as seen below in Figure 3. The snap point should be determined by the OC, Center, QB, and PS #2. Generally, teams running the Midwest Express offense, which the Indiana RPO is the base play of, will time the snap when the PS #2’s step crosses the play side tackle’s inside foot. This is indicated in Figure 3 by a red dot on the PS #2’s motion line. This motion must be executed quickly to draw the defense's eyes to coerce a response. As this motion is occurring, the QB and OC can continue to garner information on the defense based on how it adjusts.

Figure 3

Now one thing that’s almost always an afterthought when designing and executing a play is the Offensive Line (OL). As the offensive play caller, it’s the OC’s job to keep things simple for the OL. The easiest and most straightforward way to teach IZ to an OL is with the following rule. Each OLineman has a blocking track that is a 45° angle, on that track they have anything that appears from head up to the backside eye of their play side teammate. This means that each OLineman should be taking a play side step, in this case to the right, and take what comes to them. This rule easily creates double teams, and in theory leaves the backside end unblocked for a read. The example show in Figure 4 is displayed against a base 4-3 defense where the 3-tech defensive tackle has been shaded to the backside of the play with hopes of disrupting the triple option.

Figure 4 - If you are interested in learning more about the IZ blocking techniques for this play, don’t hesitate to reach out to Coach Cross.

It is crucial that at the snap of the ball the OL move simultaneously across the LOS to create space for the QB/TB mesh up, and to give an optimal read for the QB. Once the QB has the ball in their hands they need get into a mesh relationship with the TB. In the Midwest Express Qb’s are taught a 3-step mesh and are given the que of, “from hip to hip,” to read the Defensive End (DE). The steps of the QB and TB must be in sync, it essential to practice and drill the mesh steps daily. In Figure 5 the step sequence can be seen. The actual mesh point should roughly time up when the QB’s first step hits the turf. The read should occur from the lift of the crossover step, step 2 in Figure 5, and the footfall of QB step 3.

The mesh phase of the Indiana RPO is the first attack on the defense. As the QB reads the end they must decide to give or pull the ball. The general rule in the Midwest Express is that if the QB believes the End can make a play on the TB for a tackle for loss they need to pull the ball. With that in mind the exception to the rule is, “when in doubt, give it.” The number one option on the Indiana RPO is to give the ball on the Inside Zone. It is the safest, and generally the most consistently effective option in the concept.

Figure 5

The TB becomes an integral part at this point of the play. If the ball has been given to them, it is now their turn to make something happen. In the Midwest Express the TBs are taught to, “push the play side (PS A Gap), bend the backside (BS A Gap), or breakthrough the backdoor (Cutback through the BS behind the read key).” This phrase is easily drilled into the TB’s mind by repeating, “Push, Bend, Break,” to them during drills, group, and team sessions of practice, in addition to film sessions. If the QB decides to pull the ball, it is imperative that the TB still carry out a believable run fake. This is done in the hopes that they will draw Linebackers, and potentially Safeties into the box, and away from the option portion of the Indiana RPO. The TB’s run paths are illustrated in Figure 6 seen below.

Figure 6

If the initial read on the backside DE was a pull read, then possibilities of this play really start to develop. If a pull read is given by the DE the QB needs to push off their forward foot, step 3 in Figure 5, and now must roll down into a pitch relationship with the motion player. This creates the Triple option portion of the Indiana RPO. Pitch relationship can be very subjective as different QBs prefer different relationships to create a comfortable pitch. In the Midwest Express, the general rule is 3X1. Either the motion player is 3 yards behind and one yard ahead of the QB, or they are 3 yards ahead and one yard behind the QB. Again a pitch relationship is something that should be determined between the QB, Pitch Player, and OC. It should be taught in a way that will force the defense into choosing one or the other to defend.

Once pitch relationship is established, if the QB feels immediate pressure from either the DE or an outside defender they must choose to either keep the ball and cut it up field, or if they feel too pressured they need to pitch the ball to the motion player. Again, whatever is the safest option is generally the one to go with in terms of ball security. With that in mind, the QB run becomes the second-best option after the IZ run, and the pitch becomes the third. See Figure 7 for illustration.

Figure 7

Until this point this has been a straightforward triple option play. It’s the next phase of the play where the pass options come into the picture. The goal of the Indiana RPO is to elicit a response from the defense. The pass portion of this RPO was created with this in mind. The two player “Indiana” pass concept is a Stalk Slant from the #1, and a Wheel from #2. It can be seen illustrated in Figure 8. This route combo forces the defense to make quick decisions on who it is that they are going to focus on. It’s the QB’s job to read the defensive triangle created by the Corner Back (CB) the Outside Linebacker (OLB), and the Safety (FS/SS). The first route is called a Stalk Slant, because the receiver needs to display that they could run anything from a Fade to a Block. They must stalk the CB influencing them to tip their hand as to what their defensive assignment is. This is the first step in assisting the QB make a proper read on the defensive secondary. When the #1 violently breaks the slant inside that’s when the defense lays all their cards on the table. At that point the flat defender must choose between taking the QB and pitch player, following the wheel hoping it’s not a bubble route, or dropping back to the curl zone to defend the slant. This generates a high stress environment for the defense.

Figure 8

In this environment yards and points can be earned. In the Midwest Express, QB’s are taught to read from touchdown to checkdown. Touchdown in this case would be an open #2 on the wheel. This can occur when the FS is playing run support for the pitch option leaving the SS to cover the deep route in a semi cover 1 roll response. The check down then is the Stalk Slant. If the defense is aggressively bringing the OLB and leaving the CB to defend the slant it becomes an easy throw and catch as it’s a throw of less than 10yds.

At its core the Indiana RPO is the heart of the Midwest Express Offensive System. It was created to give teams a fighting chance against opponents who outmatch them with talent or size. At this point there has been nothing listed for the Play Side #1 (PS #1) receiver, that’s for good reason. One of the things that makes this play so effective overall is, again, the ability to take what the defense gives. The PS #1 becomes an integral part of this concept when utilized as a pre-snap read. Throughout the course of a game defenses will begin to key on the shift and motion portions of the Indiana RPO. The PS #1 has a simple hitch on any given Indiana RPO. This conserves energy and hopefully keeps the defense from rolling coverage to compete with the pass options of the RPO. However, after a CB has seen the motion and hitch combo 10-15 times, they begin to get lazy. They get aggravated and tired of defending a 5 yd hitch that they know is not getting the ball, so they start to back off coverage, or even roll with the coverage leaving the hitch player alone. This is when the pre-snap read comes in big. Since the PS #1 is generally left on an island by themselves they tend to draw a straight man coverage. Considering that most teams' best receivers are their outside receivers, it is almost effortless for them to beat man coverage.

In the Midwest Express, a “Joker” signal is utilized before the motion is sent. If the QB, or PS #1 feel they can win the one on one matchup against the CB they’ll indicate the CB as the “Joker.” At that point based on the coverage alignment of the CB a route is designated. If the CB is playing 7-10 yds off of the PS #1 the hitch can be thrown relatively risk free. If the CB is at 3-7 yds a quick slant becomes highly effective, and if the CB is delusional enough to believe that they can match up with one of the offense’s best weapons, a straight forward go/fade route can really take the top off of the defense. All “Joker” routes are illustrated in Figure 9. Once a “Joker” call has been made the QB must indicate to the TB that it’s now their job to pick up the unblocked read key to solidify protection for the pass. This becomes a quick game pass as the ball must be released quickly. If the QB doesn’t like the throw after the snap, it’s their job to now run the Inside Zone that has become more of a split zone with the TB kick out.

Figure 9

When all of this is pulled together into one play it makes it extremely difficult for the defense to be in the right place at the right time to make a play. The Indiana RPO is a cornerstone play that is taught day one in the Midwest Express, and is drilled and run countless times throughout the course of the season. While this simple 2X2 version of it is more than enough to keep defense’s heads spinning, its most effective when looked at with a, “one play, many ways,” mentality described in Coach Kenny Simpson’s book. There are countless formations, motions, and wrinkles that can be created through tags. If the OC and offensive players keep the basic structure in mind of having the IZ, Read Pull, Pitch, Touchdown, Checkdown, and Joker options in mind, the sky’s the limit on what can be done using the Indiana RPO.

If you're interested in learning more about the Indiana RPO, it’s variations, and how it can be incorporated into your team's offensive strategy, Coach Mike Cross is available to provide further information and guidance. With its ability to keep the defense guessing, the Indiana RPO is a valuable addition to any team's playbook. Give it a try and see how it can help take your team's game to the next level!

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