The run-pass option is certainly not a new concept in football, but it is a concept that is becoming more prominent in the NFL. That’s one of the things that offensive coordinator Matt Canada was theoretically supposed to bring to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense. And according to Pro Football Focus, he actually did.
In fact, along with the Miami Dolphins, no team in the NFL over the past six seasons threw more ‘downfield’ RPO passes in a season than the Steelers did in 2021. PFF is defining a downfield RPO pass as three or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage, because the majority of RPO passes occur within two yards of the line of scrimmage, often behind.
“The Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers each had 63 RPO throws beyond three yards down the field in the regular season”, Seth Galina wrote. “Those numbers dwarfed the 2020 Kansas City Chiefs‘ total of 45 — the next highest figure since 2016. In fact, there are five 2021 squads in the top 10 of downfield RPO throws in a single season since 2016”.
63 passes three or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage might not sound all that significant, but it clearly represents a departure from what had long been a norm in the league. And there is reason to expect that, without Ben Roethlisberger under center, Pittsburgh could do even more with RPO work, though Galina also points out specific reasons the Steelers used them.
“The teams took different approaches to their downfield RPOs”, he pointed out, “with the Steelers running pre-snap speed outs paired with quicker slants, and the Dolphins generally preferring ‘cut split post-snap’ slants or glance routes”.
Of course, there’s a limit to how much we can realistically expect the Steelers’ offensive line to improve from one season to the next, so there should still be legitimate line-related reasons for the team to continue to make use of RPO-passes.
“Pittsburgh was commonly pairing its runs with a pre-snap read and a post-snap read that were both downfield routes”, he added in passing in the article, noting that most other teams’ pairing of runs with pre-snap reads were on screen passes.
Sadly, he also points out that Roethlisberger was accurate on just 44 percent of his RPO downfield pass attempts, which can’t possible be good. “Still, these plays help create offense without having to use offensive linemen, and the Dolphins and Steelers are not the only teams that would gain from such measures”, he adds.
Given how much help this Steelers offense needs, I would hope that they can clean up their RPO game and reap the benefits that it brings to the run phase, which they desperately need in lieu of unrealistically drastic improvements over the next couple of months.