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Film Study | Offensive Balance, Constraint Theory and The Screen Game

Isaiah Pead has come to embody the spirit of the constrain theory of offense  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Isaiah Pead has come to embody the spirit of the constrain theory of offense (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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One of the things that I love about Football, and Football strategy in particular, is that there is never an objectively "right" answer. Its a simple game, with a simple objective of moving the ball through the 11 people in front of you to the end zone. There are as many ways to try to do that as there are grains of sand on the beaches of Earth.* In Football in this day and age the means matter much less than the result. If the result is a win the means are irrelevant.

*Massive exaggeration

For the most part college offenses all have the same plays in their playbook, particularly in the passing game where the defensive coverages they face haven't changed since roughly the mid 80's. Every playbook will utilize the smash, mesh, stick and so on and so forth. In the same vein every team has the same constraint plays in their playbook. Every team has screens, draws and play action passes in the offense some where. Everyone works with the same raw materials to one extent or the other. The difference comes in how an offensive coordinator chooses to deploy the weapons in their arsenal. In other words the difference is in the OC's play calling philosophy. (continued after the jump)

As Football fans we are all predisposed to roll our collective eyes at any talk of Football coaches as philosophers. We shouldn't. All they are trying to do is impose order on the random and unpredictable. While that isn't a dictionary level definition of philosophy, it hits the main parts on the head.

Variations of Constraints

In the past I have devoted much time and thousands of words debunking the idea that Brian Kelly and Butch Jones run essentially the same offense. In retrospect it would have been easier to illuminate the difference by examining the attitudes both coaches have to the screen game.

For Kelly the screen was the proverbial extension of the running game. It seemed that he would call 1 or 2 per quarter in every game. The call was almost never determined by the defensive look, it would be used against the blitz (as it was against South Florida) but it was called just as frequently against base defenses (see the Louisville game from 2008). What was evident about Kelly is that the screen was a throwaway play. His offense with the Bearcats was all about pushing the ball vertically. Everyone knew that and set up their defenses accordingly. But Kelly would run that tunnel screen a half a dozen times per game to stop everyone from dropping back and playing quarters.

UC did have some big plays in the screen game while Kelly called the plays. But those were a bonus. Created as often as not through the open field running skills of Mardy Gilyard. It was far more important from Kelly's perspective to make defenses play honest and respect the line of scrimmage while at the same time knowing that all Tony Pike/Zach Collaros wanted to do was hit them over the top. For Kelly the screen game did exactly what it was supposed to do, prevent everyone from setting up to take away the vertical passing game which was the bread and butter of his system while in Clifton. The screen game bought Kelly the appearance of balance without any of the hard work that comes with actually running the Football. In fact the screen game did provide balance for Kelly, just not in the conventional sense of 50/50 run/pass ratio's. But it did balance defenses because they were forced to commit men to stop the screen game rather than just playing for the deep ball.

Butch Jones and Mike Bajakian are/were big fans of the screen game as well, but the reasoning behind it is completely different. The Bearcats are a zone run team. That was true of the team under Brain Kelly was well. But for Kelly the running game was an afterthought. For Jones and Bajakian with their NFL backgrounds the running game is the foundation of the offense.

There are two ways to run the ball. You either block gaps or you block zones. Each have their strengths and weaknesses, which I won't get into here other than to say that the easiest way to blow up a zone scheme is with penetration. The easiest way to do that (outside of having Ndamukong Suh on your defense) is to overload one side of the line with blockers blitzing. If you watch cut ups of the Bearcats running game from last year (here, here and here) you see team after team send overload blitz after overload blitz into the play side of the zone with varying degrees of success.

The only tactics at Mike Bajakian's disposal for dealing with the threat were the draw which was run maybe 5 times all year, and the screen which became the go to blitz beater for the offense. To wit.

Those are all three of Isaiah Pead's receiving TD's from the 2011 season. They are also the only three TD's to come from the screen game last year**, and they were all called because UC expected a blitz and got it. In the first two Zach anticipated the blitz and checked to the slip screen into the blitz. The third was the original play call which anticipated the blitz, based on down and distance as well as Syracuse's tendencies, and again exploited the hole in the defense left by the blitzing linebacker(s) to great effect.

** I think, could be wrong on that one

Ultimately that is the entire point of constraint plays. They punish the defense that isn't sound from front to back or that overplays an offenses basic sets at the expense of the counters. That is really all constraint plays are. A counter to expectations, like the original constraint play; The counter.