The Alabama Crimson Tide lived off of RPOs with Steve Sarkisian and Mac Jones in 2020. Over 50% of their run game implemented RPOs and that allowed Alabama to call two plays in the huddle. They would use more widely accepted versions of RPOs like bubble and flash, but they’d also tie in quick game concepts to their run game like Dragon, Lion, and Stick.
Alabama loved to run power and counter which brings an extra lineman to the play-side and puts defenses at an even greater disadvantage. On those power schemes, the Alabama offense is holding one defender with the RPO while simultaneously adding a blocker to the play-side and creating a +2 man-advantage. They’d then tie those power looks into their regular pass pro. They’d also implement double moves and regular drop back looks off of their same RPO route concepts.
There are two general types of RPOs. Replacement RPOs and stretch RPOs. Alabama and Steve Sarkisian ran both. In replacement RPOs you’re replacing the read player with a route from a receiver. In stretch RPOs, you’re running away and outside from interior defenders which stresses them horizontally. For Alabama’s replacement RPOs, that means slants or glance routes. Alabama ran a ton of power and counter schemes and especially loved their guard and H counter attached to a Lion concept outside which uses two slants.
Here, Mac Jones and Alabama are reading the release of the receiver as they run their G/H counter. If he wins inside and gets a clean release, Mac Jones will throw the ball. With the linebacker so tight inside, there’s nobody to get under the route outside except the corner guarding it. As soon as Jones sees the receiver get off the line of scrimmage and cleanly into their route, he pulls the ball and throws the slant behind the linebackers that are filling.
Conversely, when the defense leaves guys back to help protect the slant window, whether with a safety or a slow-filling linebacker, that allows Alabama to get additional blockers to the play-side against a passive defense. Later in their game against Georgia, the Bull Dogs defense used some two-safety looks and rotate one safety down to close the slant window and then continue down to contribute to the run. That still leaves them late to fill, though, and Alabama would happily run it with Najee Harris.
Alabama would use those slants behind filling linebackers and force defenses to play with two safeties and then they would stretch the defense with the same run scheme but with bubbles and motions to force defenders out of position horizontally. If they commit to the pulling linemen, they can’t get out to the sideline. Here, as soon as Mac Jones sees that his receiver has won leverage running outside, he knows he’s throwing the ball. Since the defender is running with them in man, the outside receiver can run a slant which pulls that defender in and opens up a lot of space outside for the bubble.
Alabama would routinely stress defenses with pulling linemen, motion, and horizontal stretches. Whichever way defenses adjusted, Alabama would throw or hand off based on their movement. That’s the nature of RPOs and it gave favorable looks to their offense all year.
The bubble RPO was particularly effective for them off of running wide zone the other direction. Najee Harris demanded a ton of attention and the horizontal flow from the zone fake would pull defenders away from the bubble and give Alabama’s receivers a ton of space to work with.
You can see how powerful that run action is here against Tennessee. On the snap, all the linebackers and the run-side safety commit to plugging on the wide zone. That leaves two defenders close to the line of scrimmage to try and defend the bubble against two blockers. The only free hitter that the defense has is the safety that’s15 yards away.
Since Alabama loved to run so much counter and power, they’d also use that blocking scheme in their pass protection to sell their run and RPO game. Here, that forces the safety down a step to protect the glance (deep slant) route that he’s been seeing from the single receiver. In turn, that allows for the deep post from the other side of the field to get behind him and it’s a big gain for Alabama.
When teams would get overly aggressive to the bubble and RPO game, they’d run the same looks but release their usual blockers on wheels, posts, and other double moves to take advantage of defenders that are flying up to stop the bubble.
Alabama and Steve Sarkisian’s RPO game was simple, but incredibly effective. It got their skill guys out in space and allowed them to get a numbers advantage in the run game. Without an incredibly disciplined defense, it was almost impossible to stop and Alabama rode their RPO game all the way to the College Football Championship.