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What the spread looks like with Tampa Bay

How far are the Bucs willing to go?

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Training Camp
Jul 26, 2018; Tampa Bay, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter at One Buccaneer Place. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 season is well under way, and the team will take the field in just a few days in a preseason scrimmage against the Miami Dolphins.

Bucs Nation has written extensively on the spread, and how the Bucs could and should utilize it similarly to how the Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles, and many other clubs have. But to this point we haven’t talked about what it could look like.

Well a few days ago, we got a peek:

This is a second-level RPO (run-pass option), or a packaged play. Essentially, it’s a run packaged with a pass. Instead of having to read the entire defense Winston is simply reading a linebacker. If the ‘backer comes up to play the run, Winston throws it to a receiver in the area the linebacker vacated, and you can see someone run a slant here. If the ‘backer stays home to play the pass, Winston is supposed to hand it off, which is what happened here.

RPOs came from the zone read, made famous at the college level by Pat White and Steve Slaton at West Virginia from 2005 to 2007. It was revolutionary because it essentially changed the math of football - instead of playing 10 on 11 with statue quarterbacks, defenses now had to play 11 on 11. The quarterback would take the snap, and would read a defensive end who was usually unblocked. If the end stayed at home, the QB would hand it off to the running back who would run it up the gut. If the end crashed down to take the RB, the QB would pull the ball and run it himself right into the space the end just vacated. It was devastating. But defenses adjusted.

So after the zone read, the spread evolved as teams created RPOs by packaging them with throws like bubble screens. All quarterbacks had to do is count the number of defenders in the box. If the offense had a numbers advantage in the box because the defense committed an extra defender out wide, the QB would run the zone read. If the defense was playing the run the QB would throw. Then came second-level reads, which target linebackers at the second level of the defense, and utilized slants and other short pass concepts like Stick. There are in fact third-level reads, probably most famously used by Baylor under Art Briles. This offense made heavy use of extreme splits with their wide receivers, which put horizontal and vertical stretches on their safeties; hence third level. If the safety came down to help in run support the QB would pull the ball and throw the one-on-one matchup to a receiver running a vertical. If the safety stayed back, the QB could hand off.

In college, the run is usually a down-hill run like a dive or inside zone (IZ). This is because in college offensive linemen are allowed to go three yards downfield on a pass, and the rule is not enforced. This led to “pop passes”, where OL would run block and get far downfield, and then the QB would throw it, often to a wide open receiver after the cornerback read his keys and came down to play the run. As in it’s unfair to defenses, but also free yards, because it’s impossible to stop.

However, in the NFL the rule for offensive lineman downfield is one yard, and to this point it has largely been enforced (though the Eagles most notably got away with a few last season, especially in the playoffs). So what has happened is teams are working around this by packaging their pass concepts with runs that go wide or parallel to the line of scrimmage, like outside zone (OZ) or sweeps.

Remember Winston’s and Mariota’s rookie debuts way back in 2015, when the Titans crushed the Buccaneers and everyone was claiming Mariota was much better than Winston? They simply embarrassed Lovie Smith’s obsolete defense with standard second-level RPOs:

They are easy for the offense to learn and execute (QB friendly), but difficult for defenses to prepare for, especially on standard downs where the threat of the run is something a defense has to respect. The difference in today’s league seems to be how often a team runs them. The Eagles ran them heavily last season; other clubs only sprinkle them in. Now to be fair, the Bucs reportedly did run them some last year. But I’d argue they could do a much better job with them; for example, running them early in games, especially on first downs, and in the red zone. I also believe utilizing some third-level RPOs in Tampa Bay would perfectly fit this offense and what Dirk Koetter wants to do, as his entire offense is already essentially predicated on putting safeties into conflict and attacking them. Here are two examples of what it could look like: