Beyond Nebraska fans’ introduction to jet motion and the sweep, Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf’s robust screen package was also another major change from 2014 and Tim Beck’s offense. By my count, Nebraska ran 6 different variations of the screen against BYU. After learning early that inside zone wasn’t going to work against Travis Tuiloma, BYU’s monster nose tackle, Langsdorf began to heavily work the screen game to help remove defenders from the box and get Tommy Armstrong comfortable with easy throws. Let’s take a look at a couple of his core concepts in the screen game.
Play 1 – Double Screen (Bubble and Slip)
Personnel: 11 (1 back, 1 tight end)
Formation: 3 x 1 with RB away from TE
Beyond the smoke screen that Nebraska ran early in the game, BYU’s next introduction to the Huskers’ screen game was a double screen designed to put BYU’s middle-of-the-field defenders in conflict.
On one side, Nebraska drew up a bubble screen to Jordan Westerkamp, the Z receiver. To the other side, Langsdorf called a slip screen to Terrell Newby. Defenses are taught to rally to the receiver on screen plays, and this play takes advantage of that coaching point by separating the defense right down the middle. In this particular play, the MLB, LOLB and SS are the key defenders. If they overplay the slip screen, it leaves Jordan Westerkamp with a one-on-one matchup against the FS in the open field. If the LOLB and MLB react to the bubble, it gives Utter (LG), Reeves (C) and Kondolo (RG) a chance to get out in front of the slip screen working against the SS, CB, and ROLB. In this case, the execution breaks down, resulting in an incompletion.
In particular, you want to see three things on this play. First, and most important, the back needs to be patient working through the line of scrimmage to sell pass protection and then “run the rail” working directly to the sideline rather than fading forward or backward from the line of scrimmage. In this case, Newby works through the line of scrimmage too fast, giving the defensive lineman to that side a run look and causing him to peel off his pass rush. Newby gets caught up in the action blocking that lineman, preventing him from getting out to run the rail. Slow into the line gives the defensive end time to get upfield, giving you a natural space to run flat to the sideline.
Second, you want to see your RG, in this case Kondolo, get a clean run on the alley defender. Here, he tries to break down and chase the ROLB. The 300lb guy is never going to win that battle. Instead, turn it loose and make that LB pick a direction to run AROUND you. By doing so, the RB is responsible to set up the block off the LB’s loop to get around the RG.
Third, the C and LG need to get out clean to pick up any backside defenders rallying to the ball. I’m not sure how long Coach Cavanuagh instructs his guys to hold their blocks, but a 2 count is pretty standard on a slip screen. In this case, both Reeves and Utter pass protect for 3 counts or so, making them a bit late out to the perimeter even if this had been a completion.
Coaching Tip: Teach your back to delay his release so that he’s inside the RG, or closer to the middle of the field, when he runs the rail to catch the ball. Staying inside the RG allows the RG to set up his block and gives the RB time to read that block. When the RB gets outside the RG, the alley defender has a clear lane to the RB and often the RG has no chance to catch up to the play when that happens.
Play 2 – Tunnel Screen (First TD of the Year!)
Personnel: 11 (1 RB, 1 TE)
Formation: 3 x 1 with the Y (tight end) detached (lined up away from the OL)
The very next play after the double screen above, Langsdorf dials up a tunnel screen to Jordan Westerkamp.
I love this call and hate the execution. But touchdown, so what the hell am I talking about, right? Reasons why I love that call: (1) it’s Jordan Freaking Westerkamp; and (2) defenses don’t expect offenses to call two screens in a row, mostly because it’s thought of as an xBox move.
Cute little wrinkle before we get to the cutup. With a detached Y, it should be an automatic “crack” alert for the defense. In 11 personnel, offenses often detach the TE so they can throw a crackback block on the DE or an interior LB. That’s also true of any receiver that lines up in a reduced split. Perhaps sensing that alert, Langsdorf calls a tunnel screen, which actually assigns the detached TE to attack and block the nickelback (N) so that Jordan Westerkamp (the Z) can work underneath that block and back toward the releasing OL players.
Reason why I hate the execution: Jordan Westerkamp’s screen route is, ahem, not ideal. Because a tunnel screen works back to the defensive line and 260+lb guys who would like nothing more than to knock out a WR, it takes, in Art Briles’ words, one bad hombre at WR to run it. No doubt Westerkamp is that kind of guy. But on this route, he presents a soft vertical threat and then he never works laterally back to his OL. To effectively run the tunnel, you need a WR to take 2 or 3 quick but explosive steps upfield to initially freeze the DBs (sell the deep route) before pivoting and moving back toward the OL (hence the “tunnel”). Because Jordan doesn’t really do either, he makes this screen tougher than it should be. In fact, if you look at the cutup, you see a nice tunnel open up when the OL players get out; the ‘Stache can’t take advantage of it, though, because he’s too far away to make it work and his lack of vertical threat allows the DBs to close too fast.
But who cares what the chalkboard says? He’s Jordan Freaking Westerkamp, and because he IS a bad hombre, he overcomes mediocre execution by reversing field and housing it. Take note Biletnikoff voters. If this dude isn’t on your list of 2016 finalists, he’s either been injured or you should lose your vote. And I see you Tommy Armstrong, essentially taking out 3 defenders on this play. Man’s game.
Coaching Tip: There are two differing methodologies for instructing your WR on the tunnel screen. One says that he should go “facemask to facemask” with the QB, working in a direct line to the QB before catching the ball; once he catches the ball, get vertical. The justification for this is that it presents a cleaner target to the QB and he doesn’t have to guess where the WR will be. The other method, used by UCLA under Noel Mazzone and a few other teams, is to have the WR arc back toward the line of scrimmage just before catching it. Though this may make the completion a bit tougher, teams that do this think it’s easier to get vertical sooner after the catch. In any event, see what works for your guys. And once he catches the ball, tell your WR to think “Hash, Numbers, Sideline.” Most of the tunnel screens that break big follow this path, and those that get stuffed usually come from interior defenders pursuing the WR from the middle of the field. By going Hash, Numbers, Sideline, your WR can run away from that middle-of-the-field support and isolate what are usually DBs near the sideline.
Play 3 – Double Screen (Swing/Tunnel)
Personnel: 11 (1 RB, 1 TE)
Formation: 2 x 2 with RB away from TE
If one double screen isn’t good enough, add another. And that’s just what Riley and Langsdorf have done on this play, creating yet another double screen to rip the defense down the middle.
This time, it’s the tunnel screen (same concept as the Westerkamp TD above) paired with a swing screen to the RB. And again, it’s designed to put the LBs in conflict and hold the ROLB from jumping the swing screen. Because Nebraska showed the tunnel screen once on the Westerkamp TD, BYU’s LBs and DBs have to be cognizant of rallying to it. On this play, however, it’s the swing screen that comes at them. Out of this alignment, and with 2 detached WRs to the field side, this is an unwinnable battle for the ROLB. If he doesn’t align in an apex position, he’s never going to be able to properly leverage the RB on the swing, and doubly so working through the block by the Z receiver. It’s an easy pre-snap read for Tommy Armstrong; once he sees that OLB inside the box, he’s throwing the swing screen. The nickel’s late show to the LOS means nothing because even if he comes on a blitz, the ball will be out and over his head (unless BYU has him in a peel technique). The nickel stays, the ball comes out fast, and Wilbon (WILBON!) rolls for 12 yards despite some pretty solid effort by the BYU DBs to that side. Oh, and perimeter pancake by Jordan Westerkamp. Bad. F*^&ing. Hombre.
Play 4 – Bubble and Go (Constraint Play)
Personnel: 11 (1 RB, 1 TE)
Formation: 2 x 2 Y Off (TE off the line of scrimmage)
By my count, 9 of Nebraska’s first 20 passes in this game were screens of one variety or another. And when you run that many screens, it’s only a matter of time before defenders start anticipating screen and jumping them. When that happens, CONSTRAINT PLAY TIME!
3:06 left in the game, Nebraska up by 1 on their own 44-yard-line with 2nd and 10. In this scenario, you have dual motives as an offense: gain enough yards for first downs and run clock doing it. And the defense knows this. So how do you answer a heavy box? Langsdorf did it by pairing the bubble and go with a 7-man protection, playing on the defense’s reactions to a litany of screens before this point and the overwhelming expectation of a running play to burn clock.
Holy hell was this play beautiful. It’s a constraint play, which is by definition a play called to prey upon a defender overreacting to some action he’s seen before in the game. At this point in the game, we had either called a bubble screen or tagged a run with a bubble 7 times. And that CB is sick of seeing it, so he jumps the bubble screen and forgets about the white WR streaking by him. Look, it happens.
If this ball is on location (i.e. out in front of Brandon Reilly so he doesn’t have to wait for it), Nebraska is up 8 and the Hail Joseph Smith never happens. Little things. They matter, especially from your QB. Even with an underthrown ball, this is still a 28-yard gain. Great sell on the fake stalk block by Football Billy Hoyle. And the perfect constraint play at the perfect time.
Wrapping It Up
There is no doubt that Riley and Langsdorf’s screen package is one of the most robust and well-developed in the country. It’s designed to get athletes the ball in space and let them do what they do. Insert Coach Keith Williams: don’t let the first guy tackle you or you’re coming out the damn game. At the same time, I almost wonder if the multiplicity was too much for this team THIS year in a transition period. The timing on the releases from the OL never seemed to click throughout the year, and Nebraska’s RBs also had difficulty staying patient into the slip screen. Sometimes, less is more when you’re installing offenses, and I suspect that was the issue with our screen game this year. Fewer screen designs and better execution may have helped us out immensely.
That said, with a year plus in the system and the numerous looks that our screen package presents defenses, I expect this area of our offense to be substantially better in 2016. Devine Ozigbo showed some great chops as a screen runner in the bowl game, and our new interior OL for next year should, I repeat should, be better at getting out into the perimeter and knocking people on their asses. Keep an eye out early in the year, as Langsdorf tends to lean heavily on the screen game as a way to get his QB easy throws in the first half and work him into the game. Oh, and did I mention J.D. Spielman and Derrion Grim?