A deep dive into Mike McDaniel’s offensive scheme: wide zone RPOs

New Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel was one of the architects behind a San Francisco 49ers rushing offense that ranked in the upper half of the NFL in rushing yards per game in four of his five seasons as San Francisco’s run game coordinator (2017-2020) and offensive coordinator (2021).




One foundation of this rushing offense was the wide zone (not to be confused with the outside zone, which was another principle of the 49ers’ run game). The purpose of running wide zone variations is to use the horizontal momentum of defensive linemen against them by creating leverage and forcing defensive backs who may not be accustomed to tackling to engage in the run game.


The overall horizontal movement of the defense because of these running plays often causes the middle of the field to be left wide open, even more so when the defense is in single-high or cover-zero coverage looks.


Combining these wide zone running actions with weak-side slant routes on run-pass options (RPOs) allows the quarterback to make simple reads to determine where the ball should go.



Another variation of the wide zone RPOs that I expect McDaniel to bring to Miami is with a bubble screen in 11 personnel (one running back and one tight end). The 49ers have used Pro Bowl wide receiver Deebo Samuel in these packages over the past few seasons to great success.


This offensive look aims to spread out opposing defenses and put the ball in the hands of playmakers who operate best in open field space. The quarterback in this RPO variation has two options regarding where to go with the ball: hand it off to the running back, who will look to follow the butt of the play-side offensive tackle and then cut up field, or throw a quick pass to the motioning receiver on the bubble screen. That’s it.




Given the confusion that RPOs in general cause defenses, a lot of these reads made by Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will be performed before the snap even happens. 

A rule of thumb I use to determine an RPO read pre-snap is to compare the number of blockers against the number of defenders in the tight end box. If the number of blockers equals or exceeds the number of defenders, expect a run, but if the number of defenders surpasses the number of blockers, expect a pass. This is not a foolproof method by any means, but I have noticed it is accurate more often than not. Try it next time you are watching a team that runs a surplus of various RPO packages.


These wide zone RPO variants are just one of the many ways I expect McDaniel to formulate an offensive scheme that aligns with the strengths of Tagovailoa and the rest of Miami’s offense.




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