The 2019 season has brought certain schemes to the forefront of offensive football. Like it has throughout the history of football, the pendulum has swung back and forth between scheme trends and this season has seen defenses answer the RPO that hurt them for several seasons using more man and match coverage.
Of course, it’s always about who gets the chalk last. In addition to the mesh play becoming a staple for many offenses, the second-level screen, which doesn’t put the linemen on level-two defenders but rather has receivers releasing on stems and pushing the coverage back and then blocking before or as the ball is thrown to a recover or back behind the line, has proven to be an effective strategy on third down and in the red zone.
The play has been around for some time. Oklahoma State was running a version of it around 2009. The variations and the use of the concept have multiplied significantly this season. Here are three versions that have proven effective.
The first is the shallow screen much like Oklahoma State had run. While their version had a swinging back becoming a blocker for the shallow, many of the shallow versions have multiple blocks taking place on level two. The key to any variation of this is that the blocks are legal because the ball is thrown to a shallow runner behind the line of scrimmage. The coaching point is to run down the line of scrimmage using the heels of the defensive line as an aim point. The quarterback is looking at routes down field to be sure defenders are moving, then he can come down to the shallow runner for the throw. Ideally the receivers are stemming so that they can get leverage for their blocks to allow the shallow to continue the run to get outside the hash and up the field hash to numbers to sideline.
The next version is the “Texas” screen, which Notre Dame has used effectively over the last few seasons. The play looks very much like the Texas concept in which the running back releases like he is going flat and then plants and brings his route back towards the middle. On the drop-back concept, the idea is that the linebacker stretches like he is going to cover flat and then the back beats him back to the inside. That reaction is still desired, but in this concept two inside receivers are releasing and stemming what looks like a route in order to become lead blockers, who have leverage to create a running lane in the middle of the field to the back who is catching the ball before he reaches the line of scrimmage. Again, the quarterback is getting eyes downfield to move defenders so that blocking leverage is created before throwing to the back.
The next version is very much like a bubble route but because the back is running a flat route, the illusion is created that the play is a drop-back pass. With no bubble cue for the defensive backs, they are more likely to get into their drop and stay in it a split second longer, again allowing the stemming receivers to turn into blockers with leverage to spring the flat runner for a big gain. The quarterback can glance downfield quickly to help this and then throw to the flat. The key for it to be legal is that the flat never crosses the line of scrimmage.
These plays are tough to defend because to a defense everything initially shows that it is a drop-back pass. There are not linemen releasing to get downfield, so there isn’t a key to defeat a block to beat the screen. For the quarterback, the thinking is out of his hands. He needs to get eyes downfield first and then throw underneath. The complicated reads are removed, allowing for a dynamic player to have the ball in space with blockers.
This is an effective strategy when facing teams who get into their drops well. The teams who will capitalize on this strategy best will be the ones who can incorporate it into passing concepts they use frequently to sell the illusion to the defense. It should work, until the defense takes the chalk back that is.
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