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Air Raid Playbook: Running back screen

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The perfect, ruthless counter to a heavy pass rush.

WSU Athletic Communications

Football is an ever-evolving chess match between offense and defense. With the evolution of passing offenses came beefed up pass-rush specialty defenses. Offenses had to adapt, and one play in particular began to separate as a devastating counter to aggressive defensive fronts: the running back screen.

It didn't take too long after Notre Dame revolutionized the forward passing game against Army in 1913 for delayed draws and screens to become part of the offense's arsenal. Head coach Ray Flaherty is credited with first introducing the running back screen in the 1937 NFL title game for Washington against Chicago. It has since become a staple in nearly every style of football offense.

For the first three years under Coach Leach, Washington State hardly (if ever) utilized a running back screen. The same quick trigger that allowed Connor Halliday to be such an effective passer, limited the offense's ability to get the timing right, which requires quite a bit of patience out of the quarterback.

Coach Mastro developed a wicked RB screen game out of Pistol at Nevada with Chris Ault. The Wolfpack "Smoke 3" looked like this;

Nevada_Smoke3

The main point is to always have three lead blockers in front of the running back, a theme you'll see in most successful RB screen play designs. For the quarterback, the play is slow developing. He'll take a normal tempo 3-step drop, delay, then drift back another few steps to draw in pass rushers before delivering a touch pass to the running back.

The offensive line feigns pass blocking -- giving the initial impression of a pass to bait secondary defenders into coverage drops and the defensive line into a pass rush -- before shedding their blocks and getting downfield to lead the way for the running back. The RB will step up in the pocket similar to what they'd do in pass protection before turning around to receive the QB's pass.

The coaching point on tempo for the QB is typically "1-2-3-456", with the offensive line working at a "thousand one, thousand go" pace.

For Nevada, the right guard would work "trap chains", meaning he doesn't go downfield and just books straight down the line of scrimmage to the sideline -- where the chain gang stands. After the left offensive tackle releases his block and gets downfield, a smart defensive end will typically read screen and turn to catch the RB. The RG would get a free-running killshot on the DE in that scenario 9-of-10 times.

Coach Mastro has tweaked his play design a little bit for last season at WSU.

WSU_Smoke3

For the Cougs, the two offensive guards and center lead the way downfield with the tackles holding their pass blocks. This has a couple conceptual* advantages;

First, the offensive tackle is a key for the defense to identify whether a play is a run or pass. Offensively, you can do a lot of misdirection and tomfoolery in the backfield to disguise a play, but you can't really be deceptive about whether an offensive tackle is run or pass blocking. Having the OT hold a pass block increases the amount of time it would take for a defense to recognize it's a screen play.

Second, keeping the OT engaged with the DE keeps the (typically) fastest defensive lineman out of the play almost entirely. Most of the time they didn't even recognize it's a screen until Keith Harrington was already second-level on the defense.

*And this might have been done with consideration for a blocking rule change too. Offensive players cannot chop-block defenders when they're (offense) not facing "forward". Forward being between 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock if the offense's end zone is at 6 o'clock. Or when the ball-carrier has left the "box", which would be quite possible for the RG during this play. The RG blocks on DEs may have an increased likelihood of being flagged for "unnecessary roughness" in today's college football as well, they mostly involve a defensive player that doesn't see the block coming at all, very similar to the "crack block" that college football has recently tried to tamp down.

With the DE occupied, the RG doesn't need to mop him up on his trap chain route, so he gets downfield and works to seal off any attention coming from the backside of the play, usually an ambitious linebacker. The center and LT bust downfield and take out whatever wrong colored jersey they encounter first (MDM - "most dangerous man").

Washington State absolutely wrecked teams with this play last season. We don't track play-specific stats (which is a pretty tall order for anyone outside a program), but it wouldn't surprise me if the RB screen hit an explosive over 80 percent of the time it was called.

The Cougs will run their RB screen out of either their Ace (2x2) or Trips (Early/Late, 3x1) formations, to both the short and wide side of the field, depending on defensive tendencies.

On the game-winning drive against Rutgers, WSU dialed up a screen to the short side of the field that almost hit pay-dirt.

WSU_RBscreen_Rutgers

You can see that Rutgers gives the Cougs a very favorable pre-snap look, with only three second-level defenders responsible for a third of the field. The corner is essentially ran off the play by Dom Williams (X receiver), and the middle linebacker takes a full five yard zone pass drop before realizing the screen is coming.

The two pass defenders to the wide (trips) side of the field both flip their hips and bail at the snap, not concerned at all with whatever happens in the backfield.

Harrington does an excellent job evading a recovering corner (and totally not stepping out of bounds, if I can don a "fan hat" for a moment) before slicing up through an out of position secondary.

WSU took the lead against ASU in the middle of the third quarter on a RB screen that Harrington housed from just outside the ASU redzone. The Sun Devils played a lot of man-coverage that game, combined with their exotic blitz package. The Cougs countered with pre-snap motion that would garner an extreme numbers advantage.

WSU_RBscreen_ASU

Wazzu initially sets in their Ace formation on the right hash, then motions H across formation into trips (Early) on the short side of the field. ASU linebacker No. 28 chases him across formation, both corners move to bump-n-run press coverage and the safety to the trips side crashes to press the Y receiver.

This leaves three second-level defenders to cover two-thirds of the field on the wide side, with two of those players being a corner in man-coverage and a meandering safety 15 yards off the line of scrimmage.

The ASU middle linebacker makes a good read on the play but isn't quite fast enough to make a difference and the safety makes a poor effort at an open-field tackle that Harrington is able to side step.

The Cougs provide a textbook example out of Ace against Portland State. There's no real formation advantage pre-snap, just an execution level about as perfect as you can get. Pay special attention to the steamroller with a floored gas pedal, No. 73 Eduardo Middleton at right guard. That's 6-5/320 setting pace for a running back, with hostile intentions aimed at a safety.

And one more that wouldn't normally have counted because of a holding penalty, but did because UCLA declined it to end the half ... just because this play is so damn fun.