Although Nebraska overwhelmingly leaned on inside zone against South Alabama to move the ball down the field, they did show a couple of new plays in the process, including their first formation-into-the-boundary (“FIB”) look. Here are three new plays that Nebraska unveiled against South Alabama.
Play 1 – Red Zone Tunnel Screen
Personnel: 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs)
Formation: 3 x 1 (Trips to Field)
This was a nice little play designed to force South Alabama’s defensive backs to tackle Jordan Westerkamp in space. Unlike Nebraska’s typical tunnel screen, where the receiver presents an initial vertical threat to back the DB off before working into the tunnel, this screen relies on a quick horizontal stretch from the WR before working back inside. The reason for this action is that the red zone doesn’t allow enough space to present a true vertical threat, and so the offense needs to find a way to displace the DB long enough for the RT to work out into the flat to create the tunnel. It also takes advantage of Nebraska’s tendency to run the bubble screen, hoping that the DB will jump that route and naturally set himself up to get blocked by the OT.
In this case, it’s Jordan Westerkamp taking two quick steps to sell the bubble before working back to the tunnel created by Nick Gates releasing. However, this play shows three of the common flaws in Nebraska’s screen game throughout much of the year. First, Gates has difficulty finding the DB and whiffs on him; ideally, you’d like to see Gates take a bit flatter path here parallel to the line of scrimmage so that he has a better angle to block the DB. Second, Armstrong’s throw is behind Westerkamp and holds him up, allowing the DB to make the tackle for a 6-yard loss. QB accuracy is paramount to screens, which rely on intricate timing to prevent the WR from slowing down. Third, you see Kondolo and Reeves release to block near the goal line, but neither one targets anyone to block. Even if Westerkamp makes this catch, it’s likely that South Alabama’s goal line defender runs right by Kondolo and Reeves to make the tackle. These are three areas where Nebraska must improve next year to make these types of plays work.
Play 2 – Formation Into Boundary Passing
Personnel: 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs)
Formation: 3 x 1 (Trips to Boundary)
One of the other wrinkles that Nebraska put into this game is the formation-into-boundary plays. By formation into boundary, we mean that the passing strength (or majority of receivers) is to the boundary or short side of the field while typically a single receiver is lined up to the field (or wide side). Cue Solich nightmares of the short side option.
FIB passing plays work by forcing defenses to declare how they are going to defend the formation. Football at its core is a game of real estate. An offense can put 11 guys across 53 1/3 yards through the width of the field. By placing the passing strength into the boundary (or short side of the field), offenses force defenses into a binary choice: either they can defend the passing strength (i.e. highest number of receivers) into the boundary or they can defend the wide open real estate to the field.
Teams with dominant receivers, say Baylor with Corey Coleman, frequently use FIB to line that single receiver up to the field and give him space to work. The defense must choose whether they want to help the corner against that receiver, in which case they are at a numbers disadvantage against the passing strength to the boundary, or whether they play that receiver man to man to help push defenders against the passing strength. Though Nebraska doesn’t have a truly dominant receiver in the mold of a Corey Coleman or Laquon Treadwell, they’ll still use FIB to get one on one match ups to the wide side.
In this play, Nebraska had Lane Hovey to the field side and put the formation into the boundary with Sam Cotton, Brandon Reilly, and Jordan Westerkamp all lined up to the short side of the field. Given Nebraska’s personnel and the binary choice between defending numbers or real estate, South Alabama chooses to defend the passing strength 5 over 3 (5 defenders to 3 eligible receivers), with 3 LBs, 1 SS, and 1 CB to the short side of the field. This leaves Hovey in single coverage, with another deep safety over the top to help as needed; South Alabama didn’t view Hovey as a real threat, so no need to help the CB with him. If Nebraska lands a Joseph Lewis in the 2016 class, that calculus changes. This would be a play you see a lot for Lewis simply because of the natural openings it creates. Though the pass is incomplete, you can see the real estate open up for Hovey had it been completed:
You can’t ask much more of your offense than getting the ball in a playmaker’s hands in the open field. Nebraska doesn’t necessarily have that guy yet, though Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore have shown big play capability.
Here is another FIB look, though Nebraska uses jet motion out of it to set up a tunnel screen into the boundary:
Because Nebraska had been so effective running the ball this game, South Alabama had to respect the jet motion and backfield flow to the field side. The defensive reaction before the snap makes the play work, as it creates great blocking angles for Alex Lewis and Trey Foster on the screen. Though they don’t do a great job of blocking it (likely because of the corner blitz), Alonzo Moore does a great job of making a guy miss and picking up 6 on the play.
Pay attention to how Nebraska uses its personnel in FIB situations this year. With Cethan Carter as a physical, pass catching nightmare, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him occasionally line up as the single receiver to the field side. San Diego did this a lot with Antonio Gates for similar reasons. Corners aren’t big enough to play him man to man, and moving a safety or linebacker out to cover him leaves a defense soft in the box against the run. This is also a place where Nebraska could put Brandon Reilly or even J.D. Spielman should he get up to speed. With the former’s speed and the latter’s shake, that’s a match up difficulty for defenses, and doubly so given the number of talented WRs Nebraska can line up into the boundary.
Play 3 – Boundary Tunnel Screen
Personnel: 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs)
Formation: 2 x 2
Against BYU, Nebraska favored running the tunnel screen primarily with the #2 receiver to the field side. They changed that in the South Alabama game, debuting a tunnel screen to the boundary side. We saw the example above to Alonzo Moore from a FIB look. In the next play, Nebraska runs the tunnel screen from a more traditional 2 x 2 set, with Hovey and Westerkamp set to the wide side of the field and Cotton and Reilly to the boundary.
Reilly is an interesting player. When you think of an explosive wide receiver, you generally think of someone with amazing agility (Corey Coleman) or a rare blend of speed and pure power (Laquon Treadwell). Reilly is fast, but at 6’2″/200 lbs, he’s not the type of guy who can throw a DB off him on vertical routes, nor can you ever imagine him doing this:
Yet Reilly is tremendously productive, with 10 of his 40 catches in 2015 going for 25 or more yards (that’s almost the same ratio as Biletnikoff winner Coleman). Rather than explosive change of direction like Coleman above, Reilly is more subtle with his moves, allowing him to maintain speed out of his cuts. He also has great acceleration, something that allows him to be productive in the screen game. Below, we see both of these attributes in action:
There is nothing exotic about this boundary tunnel screen, but it goes for 25 yards primarily because Reilly’s acceleration is so fast once he catches the ball that help side defenders can’t close angles on him. This is also a nice throw by Armstrong and shows how valuable delivering the ball on location in the screen game can be. On the numbers allows the WR to immediately accelerate up the field. Also notice how the flare route from Newby opens up the middle as the LB vacates to cover him from a 5-man pressure.
Wrapping It Up
The South Alabama game, for the most part, was about basic football. Line up and run inside zone straight at them, coupled with a lot of motion and some new wrinkles in the passing game. Nebraska had no issue with either, though as we all know by now, it wouldn’t be so easy the rest of the year.