Screen passes have been responsible for a decent portion of Nebraska’s passing game since coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf arrived in Lincoln, but the numbers of attempts are steadily decreasing.
In 2015, nearly 18 percent of the Huskers total pass attempts were screens plays. That percentage dropped slightly in 2016 to just over 15 percent.
So far this season, it’s dropped again to just above 12 percent.
In fact, quarterback Tanner Lee didn’t throw a single screen pass in Nebraska’s 28-6 win against Illinois last Friday — the first time in 31 games during Riley’s tenure in which that has happened.
To put that into perspective, Nebraska threw 15 screen passes — 34 percent of the total pass plays — in Riley’s first game as head coach against BYU in 2015.
After practice Monday, Langsdorf said a screen pass was called against Illinois, but it didn’t count because of an offside penalty by the Fighting Illini.
So, why have there been fewer screen passes?
Specifically in the case against Illinois, Langsdorf said it would have been a “counter-productive” play with the lack of pass rush from the Illini’s interior linemen.
“If they give a hard rush and you get up the field, then you have that separation,” Langsdorf said. “When you’re not rushing great or you’re not getting too much push in the interior, you run into a lot of problems and that’s what happened on that play.”
Langsdorf added Illinois was in a lot of man coverage, which also makes running screen passes difficult.
When it comes to the overall decrease of screen passes, Langsdorf gave a few reasons, but said it’s mostly due to the different defensive looks the offense has faced this season.
“The 3-4 teams make some of it difficult because of their width, some teams in a 3-4 don’t rush the nose very hard,” Langsdorf said. “If he’s not a 2-gap rusher, he can be a problem in there for some of the interior screens.”
Assuming the majority of interior screens are to running backs, Nebraska has run a higher rate of interior screens so far this season compared to the previous two, but has been very inefficient with just two of nine attempts resulting in a successful play, based on success rate measures. These measures mean the offense must gain at least 50 percent of the yards needed on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third or fourth down.
As for the perimeter screens, Langsdorf said at times the Huskers have blocked them well, on others they’ve gotten beat.
Assuming a majority of the perimeter screens are to wide receivers and tight ends, Nebraska has been successful on 50 percent of those attempts, nearly nine percentage points higher than the overall passing success rate of the offense.
It is worth noting, when the perimeter screens haven’t been successful, they’ve tended to be costly.
Lee’s first pick-six against Northern Illinois was a bubble screen to De’Mornay Pierson-El in the slot.
Langsdorf said there’s a lot that goes into having a successful screen: timing, positioning on the block and the width of the back or receiver. Practicing this type of play isn’t easy.
“You’re not always getting the same rush from your defensive look team,” Langsdorf said. “So you try to do some things on air, some things on bags, some things with the scout team. So it’s a combination of different ways of practicing.”
Nebraska has been successful on just under 40 percent of its total screen passes in 2017, slightly higher than its 2016 rate, but lower than 2015.
The issue hasn’t been completing screens, as it was last season. Lee has completed 76.19 percent of screen passes, nearly eight percentage points higher than the combined total of quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong and Ryker Fyfe in 2016.
“I think I’m confident throwing screens,” Lee said on Monday. “But it’s somewhere we need to improve. I think we could be better there in terms of getting big plays from them.”
The Huskers haven’t gained many yards on screen passes this season, averaging just over five yards per completion, nearly two yards less than 2016 and four yards less than 2015.
In fact, Nebraska has had zero screens result in an explosive pass play — a gain of 20 or more yards.
“It’s a work in progress,” Langsdorf said. “We’d like to get it going better than it’s been, but it hasn’t been great for us yet. We’re continuing to work it.”
As for this weekend’s matchup against Wisconsin, which runs a 3-4 defense, it will be interesting to see how often the Huskers call a screen pass.
In two games against the Badgers during Riley’s tenure, Nebraska has thrown just five combined screens on 60 total pass plays, a rate of 8.33 percent. That percentage ranks third lowest against Big Ten teams.
However, of those five attempts, three have resulted in a successful play, for a rate of 60 percent, which ranks tied for third highest against all opponents from the past two and a half years.