Working the Screen

For all who watched Notre Dame sneak past San Diego State last Saturday, an enigma was made as to the direction the Irish squad was taking after a disappointing 2007 campaign. At times the offense looked stagnant, with drives stalling on third and longs and turnovers. The Irish did show, however, that when a play is needed, the halfback screen is always an alternative.

When they did show it, the Irish proved to be successful at the screen pass out of the backfield, gaining valuable yards in many situational cases, including the series that saw the go-ahead touchdown. As it turns out, one of the bigger plays of the contest may have been a pass completed to Armando Allen for a gain of five yards.

As offensive coordinator Mike Haywood turned to the two-minute drill with Notre Dame trailing 13-7 early in the 4th quarter, the Aztec defense found itself on its toes, struggling to keep up with the pace of the offense. Jimmy Clausen was 5-for-5 in the drive, one of which was a screen to Allen. In the three-wide formation, Clausen had multiple options throughout the entire series, with Golden Tate, David Grimes and Michael Floyd all on the field, in addition to tight end Kyle Rudolph.

Coming off of a completion to Tate for 14 yards, the Irish had first and 10 from the San Diego 43. The call was a halfback screen, which Allen caught, halving the yardage needed for the next first down. Since the offense had effectively turned to the screen throughout the contest, Clausen saw the soft cover one look on Tate, and decided to take a chance. The rest is history, as Clausen completed a perfectly lofted ball to his wide out for a 38-yard score. Had the screen not been called to lull the defense to sleep, perhaps the Aztecs wouldn't have been playing the cover one, allowing Tate to blow by Vonnie Holmes.

Both Robert Hughes and Allen finished with three receptions apiece although Hughes gained yardage more effectively in these plays. The Chicago, Ill. native picked up 32 yards, while Allen gained 18. The first screen was displayed in the 2nd quarter to Hughes for a 14-yard first down. The next one, however, predicted the defense's actions and exploited them. With a 2nd and 1 situation, the San Diego State squad was thinking the Irish would run the ball for a short gain and a new set of downs. Reading in between the lines and expecting a blitz, Haywood called a screen to the Hubbard High School product for a gain of 10.

Head coach Charlie Weis agrees that the screen is an integral part of his offensive scheme, although, according to him the play must be called in the right context.

"… When a team is pinning their ears back just coming after you on defense, I think a screen is a very underused weapon for defenses that play like that," Weis said. "Now, with that being said, you also have to call the screens that match the schematics of who you're going against. Because let's say you're playing against a team that's playing man coverage the whole time and you're running screens. Well, now, you have to teach linemen how to block a hugger, which is the cover guy on that back, rather than just getting the running space and going to the look DB's down the field. So I think it's a combination of the two things. It can slow a pass rush down, number one. But, two, you have to apply the screens to the schemes the teams you're going against."

Weis also views the screen as a way to gain some momentum for a struggling quarterback, which was evident against the Aztecs. Before the first screen pass was executed, Clausen was 5-of-9 for 65 yards. Although these figures could be worse, the screen passes seemed to get Clausen settled and in more of a rhythm.

"We've spent a lot of time off season on screens," Weis said. "The other thing, which goes hand in hand with those is that screens are also a way to get a quarterback going, to get the quarterback a little momentum, get a few completions under his belt. If all you do is just come out slinging it down the field all the time, the risk/reward is high, but the completion percentage goes down."

At Tuesday evening's press conference, Haywood seemed to echo the same thoughts of his head coach regarding the screen pass.

"I think it's really important because you have individuals that are getting up the field, because of the play-action pass, because of the run game and the draws," Haywood said. "And I think that guys are getting up the field so much to get to the quarterback, that it provides an opportunity. Sometimes it's a little bit harder versus guys that are blitzing and to blitz your own guys it may be a little difficult, but you just have to create your formations to be able to run those screens."

Haywood will admit that the Irish struggled with the screen last season because of poor timing, missed blocks and blown assignments. This year, however, the squad is much improved.

"We are a better screen team," he said. "We work on it everyday. Guys that aren't involved in the special team of the day, they go down and in that entire special team period, they work on screens and we spend individual time working on screens. We spend a lot of time from a runningback's perspective working on screens and working on pass protections."

For the players executing these plays, not only is it effective, but enjoyable as well.

"I love screens," Allen said. "It's a great play, it gives me an opportunity to be out in the open field. It's always good to get a chance to hide behind some of the offensive linemen. I kind of hide behind them and I can see people that can't see me."

Although the screen is amusing for the halfbacks, it becomes more difficult for the linemen that pave the way for the speedier and flashier Hughes and Allen.

"The screens are definitely some of the harder plays to run as an offense," Chris Stewart said. "Timing is a big deal. Filling out the front line, the linebackers, everything, the back getting out cleanly. It's one of the harder plays to run so sometimes there's more emphasis on it."

Just because the play is more challenging for Stewart and those at his position doesn't mean that he fails to get his hits in the play either.

"I definitely like screens," he said. "To be honest, especially when you get a chance to go against a corner who doesn't know whether to beat you with athleticism or take you head on, but I love to take them on, every time."

In Hughes' eyes, when a halfback screen is called, the runningbacks must be alert, even if the ball doesn't come their way.

"In our offense, [the runningbacks] aren't the primary target," Hughes said. "… I guess the other guys were covered. Jimmy checked the ball down, so you've got to be there ready to catch the ball."

So will Irish fans see more of the screen against Michigan?

"Well I hope we don't have to throw it to me," Hughes said with a laugh. "I hope we can throw it down the field to the receivers. It's my job to run the ball. When we throw the ball, we'll go down field and get some more yardage."

If the Irish find themselves in a situation in which a screen could catch the defense off-guard, however, odds are likely that Hughes and Allen will have to be ready. If San Diego State is any indication as to how effective the play can be, the Wolverines will have to be too.


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