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Bills bound to follow Eagles' lead in adding RPOs to attack

The Philadelphia Eagles' use of run-pass option plays was one of the storylines of their Super Bowl-winning season.

It was not a storyline of the Buffalo Bills' 2017 season.

The Eagles ranked No. 1 in the NFL regular season by using RPOs on 181 plays (17 percent), according to Pro Football Focus.

The Bills called only 20 RPOs, which amounted to 2 percent of their plays and ranked 27th in the NFL, according to PFF.

Look for the Bills' use of the option plays to rise in 2018. The Bills' hiring of Brian Daboll as offensive coordinator to replace Rick Dennison signals it.

The NFL has incorporated more RPOs from the college game over the past several seasons. Daboll called the plays last season at the University of Alabama, and RPOs were a noteworthy part of the Crimson Tide game plans.

RPOs are running plays with a built-in pass option (or two). The quarterback makes the decision to hand off or throw based on either pre-snap or post-snap reads of the defense.

Daboll spoke to the benefit of his college experience upon his introduction as Bills offensive chief.

"There's some parts of the game that are a little different – the RPOs and all those type of things that go into it, the different runs that I've learned," Daboll said. "I think that there's probably some things that are applicable, so it was a very helpful experience, tremendous time at Alabama."

The standard RPO is a post-snap read in which the quarterback is making the decision to hand off or throw based on the reaction from a key defender, often an outside linebacker, who has to make a decision on defending the run or the pass.

For instance, if an outside linebacker bites on when the shotgun QB puts the ball in the belly of the running back, the QB pulls the ball out and throws a quick slant to the open space behind that linebacker.

"They're reading the inside backer or the backer over the tackle," legendary NFL offensive line coach Jim McNally told The News. "If he closes to stop the run, they throw the ball. If he kind of covers his area, they hand off."

"That's different than say, if they're reading the end," McNally said. "If the end crashes, he pulls the ball out. But if your quarterback's not an athletic guy and you don't want to get him hurt, as he pulls it and starts to run he throws a quick pass."

Offensive linemen are run-blocking on RPOs, not dropping into pass-blocking stances. The pass has to come out quickly so they're not illegally downfield by more than a yard.

RPOs have an advantage in the college game, where lineman legally can be blocking 3 yards downfield.

The tactic has increased at both the college and pro level because the play allows the offense to adjust to the defense after the snap. Secondly, most of the throws are easy for the quarterback. Short and quick. It doesn't take a Tom Brady to run it.

Kelvin Benjamin's pass-interference penalty in the playoff loss at Jacksonville came on a run-pass option play. Tyrod Taylor (5) saw only one Jaguar outside the tackle-to-tackle box so followed his instructions and passed to Benjamin rather than hand off to LeSean McCoy (25). Benjamin interfered with Jalen Ramsey (20).

One successful RPO for the Bills this season was a QB draw by Tyrod Taylor for 13 yards in the first quarter against New Orleans. Mike Tolbert bolted to the right flat on a swing-pass route and a linebacker followed. So Taylor ran.

Alabama ran this exact play with QB Jalen Hurts a bunch. If Hurts saw a defender following and a "light" tackle-to-tackle box, he would run the draw up the middle.

The QB can make his run-pass decision based on the pre-snap look, too.

Taylor did it late in the second quarter at Cincinnati. The line blocked left for a run by LeSean McCoy. But Taylor saw the cornerback playing soft on Zay Jones to the right. He threw quickly, but the pass was too low and went incomplete.

"When they throw the bubble screen, he throws it right now," McNally said. "It could be a play-action bubble screen. That'd be a predetermined call. But a lot of times if you see him just raise up and throw it, it's because they don't feel there's enough guys out there to cover the receiver."

The most memorable pre-snap RPO came on the pass-interference call against Kelvin Benjamin at the goal line in the playoff loss at Jacksonville. Benjamin is the Bills' star red-zone receiver. The Jaguars had 10 men in the box, so Taylor passed. Benjamin was called for pass interference against All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

"The run-pass option, if it was one-on-one outside with KB, which it was, we give him a chance to make a play," Taylor told the News last week. "And if we have two guys go out, then we run the football. I mean, people can go back and forth as to what to do in that situation, but a play was called and we ran it how we practiced it. We just didn't execute it."

That was a case in which the Bills got away from the run on the 1 yard line. Kansas City, which uses a lot of RPOs, was criticized for the same thing in its playoff loss, when star back Kareem Hunt was ignored.

“So we have those RPOs in there, and some of what they were doing dictated a little bit more throws than the runs," Chiefs coach Andy Reid told reporters afterward. "Could we have called him more? Yeah, we look back at it and maybe we could have, maybe we could have handed it to him more."

The defensive answer to RPOs is to disguise coverages, so the QB has a harder time defining the key "conflict defender."

Given the Eagles' RPO success, one can bet the Bills and the rest of the NFL will be moving in their direction.

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