Photo Reel: Tunnel Screen

North Carolina countered Clemson’s defensive pressure with a pair of second-half tunnel screens that went for long touchdowns, including a 41-yard score for T.J. Thorpe early in the third quarter.

Clemson inserted defensive back Korrin Wiggins into its starting lineup against the Tar Heels to create a 4-2-5 look, thereby removing its strongside linebacker from the field. With Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables dialing up a variety of blitzes to disrupt the Tar Heels’ up-tempo offense, UNC assistant head coach for offense Seth Littrell responded to the aggressive approach with a tunnel screen less than three minutes into the second half.

The key to stopping a tunnel screen is with solid linebacker play. By accounting for, and ultimately removing Clemson’s linebackers from the middle of the field, a well-executed tunnel screen morphed into a quick score.

In the photo below, UNC lines up in a 2x2 formation with running back T.J. Logan set up to the right of quarterback Marquise Williams. Thorpe is lined up as the outside receiver to the right of the formation, while tight end Jack Tabb is lined up in the slot. Weakside linebacker Tony Steward has inside leverage on Tabb at the LOS. By sending Logan in motion to the left sideline, Williams is able to read Clemson’s man coverage as middle linebacker Stephone Anthony tracks the tailback.

Here’s an end zone view of the formation just prior to snap. Steward will blitz from off-screen left, while Anthony begins to follow Logan.

Once the ball is snapped, Anthony is in full pursuit of Logan, thereby removing him from the center of the field. Steward is blitzing off the left edge, while Tabb immediately aims for cornerback Gary Peters, who is covering Thorpe.

UNC’s playside tackle, in this case right tackle Kiaro Holts, stays in place and is tasked with encouraging the edge rush up the field to give Williams a passing window. If Steward is able to get to the inside, the passing window closes and the defender can either get a hand up or throw the play’s timing off. The other four linemen are operating on a two-count punch-and-go. Show pass, jab the opposing defensive lineman in the chest with two hands to disrupt his forward progress, and then release up the field.

Note safety Robert Smith standing at the 34 in the below photo. Tabb, who is Smith’s responsibility, is setting up to block Peters. Smith, however, has bigger problems headed his way.

Two critical blocks to this play’s success are in the works in the photo below. Holts has forced Steward up the field, effectively creating a passing lane for Williams, while Tabb has sealed off Peters to free up Thorpe’s release to the inside. Right guard Jared Cohen’s responsibility is to cut the defender over the Y receiver (Tabb), so he’s heading straight for Smith. Thorpe’s job is to tuck under Cohen (No. 65) and hit the burners. Center Lucas Crowley and left guard Caleb Peterson are responsible for putting hats on the linebackers, although Clemson’s linebackers have already taken themselves out of the play.

There are seven defenders behind Thorpe when he catches the ball and Anthony is even with him some 15 yards across the field. Wide receivers Ryan Switzer and Mack Hollins have occupied two other defensive backs on the left side of the field, leaving Smith to contend with three offensive linemen to make a play on the ball.

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney described the play as “just the perfect call” on Wednesday.

“Screen passes are rush control plays,” UNC offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic said. “So if you’re facing a team that wants to blitz you a lot or they have tremendous pass rushers, that’s a way to slow them down. Obviously, that team is gifted with great pass rushers and they were bringing a lot of pressure early. So that was one of the things that we brought into the game that we felt like could be good for us and it was.

“When you’ve got a team that’s coming after you and playing man, it’s just execution. If those linemen just stay in their tracks and pick up the people they’re supposed to, there’s nobody left, and that’s kind of what happened.”

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