Well, that sucked. Nothing like going down four touchdowns at half, coming all the way back to within a touchdown in a two-minute situation, and then blowing a protection for your fourth interception of the day. I’ve watched and watched and watched that game, and I’m still not sure how to characterize it. So for this week, I may be taking a pass on a game recap post.
Instead, for Concept Wednesday, let’s take a look at something that kind of worked for the Huskers on Saturday: the Slant Bubble RPO. This has been one of Nebraska’s core passing concepts the past two years, and it has produced some of Nebraska’s biggest plays. Think De’Mornay Pierson-El’s 40-yard house call against Purdue last year, and you’ve got the Slant Bubble RPO. Against Oregon, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf dialed it up once early only to see Tanner Lee overthrow Pierson-El breaking open. But Langsdorf was on it, and he came back to it immediately in the second half to get the rally started. So Slant Bubble RPO it is today.
What It Is
RPO, RPO, RPO. If you haven’t heard that word two hundred times already this fall, you haven’t been watching college football. At all. And it’s even starting to invade the NFL.
RPO stands for “Run Pass Option,” and in a shocker to no one, it’s a play that gives the offense the option to run the ball or pass it. The offensive line run blocks, the passing routes are quick to avoid an illegal man downfield, and the ball comes out from the QB immediately if it’s not a run. Last year, Nebraska’s RPOs frequently used Tommy Armstrong’s legs to carry the ball. This year, however, the Huskers have gone back to the standard RPO where either the RB totes it or the ball gets out to the edge.
Here is what the Slant Bubble concept looks like in early action against Oregon:
Inside, we see Nebraska’s offensive line blocking a standard inside zone run play. If the Huskers get a defensive box with 6 defenders or less, Tanner Lee hands the ball off and it looks nothing different than a normal run play. Before the snap, he’s just counting numbers inside the box, or the area within the first 5 yards of the line of scrimmage and generally around or between the offensive tackles.
But with Oregon keeping 7 defenders in the box, the numbers aren’t favorable for the Run, and so the Pass Option in RPO comes into play. JD Spielman will run a Bubble screen while De’Mornay Pierson-El runs the Slant. After the snap, the “read” defender for Lee becomes the defensive back on the hash mark over Spielman. If he tracks out on the Bubble, Lee throws the Slant to DPE. If the defensive back hangs on the Slant, Lee throws the Bubble to Spielman in space. Here, the defender chases Spielman, so Lee throws the Slant.
Why It Works
If read correctly, the QB should always make a decision that gains some yardage gain for the offense. Light box equals an easy run play. Heavy box equals a perimeter pass in space for the Savage Professionals. Indeed, Lee made the right read on the play above but just missed an open DPE. Mental note for Langsdorf, however, that Oregon defended it in a way that created space for DPE.
So, down 28 at half, let’s come right back to the exact same play for a big gain to start the second half:
Oregon plays it a bit differently than they did before, with 3 defenders initially lined up over the two receivers. Frankly, with only 6 defenders truly in the box and the OLB slightly walking down from the slot WR, this probably should have been the inside zone run.
But with that OLB putting himself in no man’s land, Lee decides to work the Slant Bubble concept. DPE breaks open just as before, ball is on location this time, and it ends up in a 34-yard gain to set up Nebraska’s third touchdown of the day.
The concept you see above is the most frequent way Nebraska has run Slant Bubble in 2016 and 2017: out of 11 personnel with 3 WRs and 1 TE. But they also rolled out a new way to pull it off against Arkansas State by getting the H-back involved in the concept out of 12 personnel:
The difference here is that Nebraska puts the H-back into the game instead of the third wide receiver, and the H-Back gets involved by running a POP route. This gives Nebraska another way to attack the flat defender in the Slant Bubble concept. If he hangs on the Slant route, Nebraska can hit the H-back on the quick POP route over the middle. The offensive line and tight end still block traditional zone run, and the QB now has three separate passing options on the play.
But alas, sometimes more is less, and you see some indecisiveness from Tanner Lee on where to go with the ball. He likes the POP pass to the H-back first, but the inside LB he thought was coming on a blitz drops underneath the route and cuts it off. He reads Bubble next after seeing the defensive back responsible for the flat pinch in to the play the POP route. Problem is the outside cornerback has abandoned the Slant to squat on the Bubble. End result is a big hit in a big situation and an incomplete pass stopping the clock.
Again, this is probably a situation where you’d like to see Lee hand the ball off. 7 blockers against a 7-man defensive box favors the offense, and yet Lee throws the ball outside. Why? My guess is he saw the safety sitting at 9 yards on the hashmark and expected him to come down hard on the run to even up the numbers. Still, up two scores and with a light box, that should be an automatic handoff.
And this illustrates the blessing and the curse of RPOs. They put a lot of trust in the QB to make the right decision both pre- and post-snap. If done right, you get monster plays. If done wrong, they can go off the track in a hurry. I suspect you’ll see Lee get better at this concept, and when he does, you’ll see more big gains from the offense.
Does It Work With Nebraska’s Personnel?
At this point, the above question is rhetorical. Nebraska has four great space players at wide receiver: Stanley Morgan, De’Mornay Pierson-El, JD Spielman, and Tyjon Lindsey. And his fourth quarter struggles notwithstanding, Tanner Lee is also a guy who can put the ball on location in the quick passing game. Couple those with a surprisingly productive run game early in the season and you come up with the RPO recipe for big gains.
So what does Nebraska need to take Slant Bubble to the next level? First, you’d like to see better play from Nebraska’s center position so that you can take advantage of the inside zone action. The RPO threat is only as good as the defense’s respect for your running game. Without it, they can sit in a two-high safety look and also play their edge defender out closer to your slot receiver. Finding a big time center would make inside zone pop for bigger yards and require the defense to bring extra guys in the box. Do that and you create space for the pass.
You’d also like to see better decision making from Lee on when to run it and when to throw it. He’s been pretty good for the most part, but there are a few times in the RPO game he’s made the wrong read. If you’re going to call RPOs, you’ve got to trust the QB to consistently make the right decision. As he knocks the rust off, he should get much better in this area.
Finally, the Huskers are still looking for that receiver who can take the top off the defense. That kind of threat from the outside pushes both safeties and cornerbacks deeper in coverage before the snap, which creates room to run the Slant and also gives your Bubble guy some space to run after the catch. Perhaps Cameron Brown, Josh Moore, or another future commit can be that guy. Former Husker commit Eric Fuller certainly had the speed to pull it off on the field, but apparently not quite enough to keep him out of trouble off it. As I’ve said before, sometimes the best laid plans . . .