FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Ricardo Allen knows what to expect.
The Atlanta Falcons free safety realizes the Philadelphia Eagles and coach Doug Pederson will bring a variety of looks on offense to Thursday's season-opening clash (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC) between the NFC teams. Allen and the Falcons faced the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles and starting quarterback Nick Foles in last season's divisional playoff game, when Philadelphia escaped with a 15-10 home win.
During that game, Allen saw the Eagles and Foles utilize the popular RPO (run-pass option) 10 to 12 times and have great third-quarter success doing so. It helped Foles, who threw a pass on 56 percent of his RPO plays last season, get into a rhythm while replacing the injured Carson Wentz.
For Foles, reading five defenders in the box typically leads to running the football with Jay Ajayi, Darren Sproles or whomever else gets called upon. With six defenders in the box, Foles would have to identify the "conflict defender," which was Falcons linebacker Deion Jones the majority of the time in the 2017 playoffs. If Jones drops into coverage, Foles would hand it off. If Jones comes downhill and attacks, then the numbers would favor Foles and a pass becomes the best option. Seeing seven in the box would be a natural pass read for Foles.
"The thing is, they create mismatches," Allen said of the RPOs. "The [defender] who gets the one-on-one matchup, you just have to win. That person has to make his tackle when he gets into space. [The Eagles] find ways to create extra gaps, so our guys just have to learn to get off those blocks and make those one-on-one tackles."
According to ProFootball Focus, the Eagles used the RPO the most in 2017, with 181 plays, followed by Kansas City with 168 and Green Bay with 143. The Eagles averaged 8.5 yards per pass attempt on the RPOs. The league average off such plays was 6.52 yards. And numbers showed that Foles passed out of the RPO more than Carson Wentz, who was on an MVP pace before tearing his ACL.
Preparing defensively for an RPO isn't as easy as just watching to see when an offensive lineman is run blocking, which receivers are running routes or how Foles is grasping the football out of the snap.
"They do a really good job of disguising their RPOs versus play-action," safety Keanu Neal said. "It all boils down to discipline on us, just playing our style of ball. But, yes, they do a very good job. It will be a challenge for us.
Tackling in space, as Allen mentioned, will be a key factor against the RPOs. The Falcons have to take advantage of their speed, too, especially with Pro Bowl linebacker Jones. But there are other elements to consider in defending RPOs.
ESPN analyst Matt Bowen, who played safety in the NFL for seven seasons, answers a few key questions and explains the details behind the RPOs and how to defend them:
The Falcons traditionally play a Cover 3 scheme but have the personnel to play man-to-man with anybody. How about against Philly with the RPOs?
"You can play man coverage, but you must prepare for the Eagles' RPOs that are tagged with man-coverage beaters [slant/flat]. You just have to be prepared to communicate and identify splits when you're playing Philly. So there's got to be a lot of pre-snap communication. If you're playing man coverage, No. 1, you're playing your man. If your man run blocks and [linebacker De'Vondre Campbell] is playing over the tight end and the tight end blocks down, then now he's playing the run. That's his job. Unless their tight end is flexed out and there is a wide receiver by him, you have to be communicating pre-snap, 'Hey, alert the pick. This is what we're going to do versus the pick. We're going to pass off the routes.' We call that a banjo technique. Now if we pass off the routes, I'll take the slant, you jump the flat route. Or, you don't let that wide receiver off the line of scrimmage. Help me out. Because if you jam him at the line and he can't get off, there is no pick. Now he's playing the tight end. If he goes to flat, I've got him. If he runs the seam, I've got him. You still have a free safety in the middle of the field to help."
Speaking of the free safety, what about Allen's role in defending the RPO?
"I think his role is to read pass first. That's what I'd tell my safety against an RPO team. Look, you're the angel over the top. You don't let anything get behind you. You're not going to make a play at the line of scrimmage versus the run game because if you do, guess what the next play is going to be? Play-action. I want you to read pass first. And I want you to be in position where you can drive down the hill. And we limit it to a 7-yard gain. A 7-yard gain is not going to get us beat. If they want to run an RPO 15 times in a row, that's what it's going to take to get down the field on us. I think the biggest thing you do as a safety is cap those routes. You get downhill quickly and tackle right away. So now, there's no production after the catch."
What other tweaks to the defense can be made to throw the Eagles off their RPO rhythm?
"Get that extra run defender in the box, whether it's the nickel on the edge [Brian Poole] or [strong safety] Neal on the edge, and play three match versus two-by-two formations, with a backside 'stay call,' which tells the curl defender away from the run-action to stay. If they're running that Giants or Buck sweep away from you, or the inside zone away from you, that backside curl, you slow play the read. Now you're taking away that backside pop because that's what the quarterback wants to do. He wants to ride the running back away and come back and throw it right behind your ear. What that allows you to do is take away the quick pop from [Zach] Ertz, or maybe it's a slant coming from the outside from [Nelson] Agholor. You're in the throwing lane. That's all it is. It doesn't mean you're jumping the route. You're taking it away by your body position. Is that backside curl defender going to make a play or run away? Only if the running back cuts back -- fully cuts back."