The Duke Blue Devils Short Passing Attack

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When any sports fan hears of a DukeNorth Carolina matchup, the two rival’s annual clash on the gridiron is not the first thing that comes to mind. The matchup has certainly gotten much more enticing as the Duke football program has reemerged as a contender in the ACC in recent years but it has a long way to go before it can give their rivalry in basketball a run for its money. The problem for the Tar Heels in Week 11, however, was that nobody told that to the home underdog Blue Devils.

A 12-point underdog at home coming into the game, Duke was having a forgetful season after playing in four consecutive bowl games from 2012-2015. They were able to pull off an upset over Notre Dame in South Bend earlier in the season but the Irish have done nothing since to legitimize that victory for the Duke. With an 0-5 conference record coming into the game, this matchup versus the #17 ranked Tar Heels, was the Super Bowl for the Blue Devils and they played like it.

With redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones at the helm, the Blue Devils have struggled this season creating explosive plays down the field. As such, head coach David Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Zac Roper have focused on the running game and short passing game to fuel the offense, a strategy many defenses would be more than happy to accept. When the running game is working, though, almost any strategy becomes increasingly difficult to stop.

The Blue Devils rushed for 227 yards and three touchdowns on the night which included 94 yards and two touchdowns from Jones as well. The offensive line ran primarily inside zone throughout the night, occasionally running power but mixed it up with a variety of backfield formations QB options. Jones was able to burn the Tar Heel defense on several occasions in the red zone and on big third downs plays with the read option or QB Power and threatened the edges of the defense all night. With so much success up front, this allowed Cutcliffe to keep the passing game simple for Jones with some short but effective concepts that repeatedly hurt the UNC defense.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The Swing Screen

It’s early in the first quarter and the Blue Devils have the ball on their own 37-yard line. The offense lines up with 11 personnel in a pistol wing formation, slot formation to the wide side of the field in a 2X1 set. The Tar Heels have their 4-2-5 nickel personnel on the field with one high safety after the other drops down in the box. When Jones (#17) receives the snap, he will quickly get it out to running back Shaun Wilson (#29) on a swing pass.

On most occasions, a swing pass is usually the last read or check down option for the QB. On this play, however, the swing pass was the primary option. Instead of the two receivers to the wide side side of the field and wing tight end releasing into routes, they immediately begin to block downfield as they would on a screen play.

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The slot receiver, Johnathan Lloyd (#5), cracks down on the pursuing linebacker and the outside receiver Chris Taylor (#82) seals the slot defender inside creating a lane outside for Wilson. As Wilson turns the corner, wing TE Daniel Helm (#80) performs a beautiful cut block on UNC cornerback Corey Bell Jr. (#18) giving Williams the first down and a gain of 19.

The Blue Devils called the swing screen several times throughout the night with a lot of success primarily on 1st or 2nd down picking up solid yardage and setting themselves up well for another 1st down. Later in the game, as the Tar Heel defense adjusted and started attacking the swing route, Cutcliffe even threw a changeup and took a vertical shot over the heads of the over aggressive defense but the pass fell incomplete.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The Bootleg Three Level Stretch

The bootleg passing game is staple in every offense and is an excellent counter and constraint play for an effective running game. Having success throughout the night on the ground, the Blue Devils were able to suck the defense in with their directional zone running attack and beat them to the other side in some crucial moments throughout the game.

The one limitation to the bootleg passing game is that it generally limits the QB’s options to one side of the field. The Blue Devils executed several types of bootleg calls throughout the night. They put receivers in motion pre-snap before releasing into the flat or had a TE block the backside of a zone play before peeling off and releasing into the flat. These designs are effective in isolating these receivers and they were executed fairly well versus the UNC defense; however, if the defense was able to match up with those players, the QB’s options would be severely limited and the play would be bound for failure.

This is why making the three level stretch concept a part of the bootleg passing game is so effective. The three level stretch is a classic flooding concept because it floods one side of the field with receivers and gives the QB three options to choose from, all at varying levels on the field.

Early in the 3rd quarter with the game tied at 21, the Blue Devils are facing a 2nd and 8 with the ball on their own 29-yard line. The offense aligns with 12 personnel in the 2-back pro pistol formation facing UNC’s 4-2-5 nickel personnel with two high safeties.


At the snap, the offensive line takes a zone step to their right as they would on an outside zone play before dropping back into pass protection. The backside guard also pulls out and around to the front side as a personal protector for the QB on the bootleg. Jones receives the ball, turns and fakes the handoff to Wilson and rolls out to the wide side of the field looking to throw. TE Erich Schneider (#88) lined up in the backfield also takes a zone step with the offensive line but then peels back and releases into the flat in front of Jones drawing the middle linebacker with him to the sideline. Helm, who was on the line of scrimmage, releases vertically and runs a 17-yard corner route taking the nickel defender and safety with him.  Meanwhile, from the backside of the play, receiver T.J. Rahming (#3) runs a shallow gets inside leverage on the cornerback and runs a shallow drag route across the field in between Helm and Schneider creating the three level stretch for Jones to read.


As Jones rolls out, Rahming creates good separation on the CB and Jones hits him coming across the field for a gain of 16 yards and a first down.

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Cutcliffe called the bootleg several times for Jones throughout the night with great timing and the Blue Devils executed perfectly beating the UNC defense several times including on a few back breaking 3rd down conversions.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The Hitch-Slant Conversion

The final play is not a passing concept in and of itself but more of a wrinkle that can be applied to multiple passing concepts that can be really effective versus an unsuspecting defense. It is 3rd and 7 with just over five minutes remaining in the 4th quarter and Duke is on its own 28-yard line, trying to hold onto a one-point lead. Converting on this play would go a long way in securing the victory for Duke by continuing to bleed more time off of the clock and not allowing Mitch Trubisky and the Tar Heel offense on the field.

The Blue Devils have their 11 personnel package on the field in the shotgun double slot formation. The UNC defense is in their 4-2-5 nickel personnel package and showing a Cover 2 look with two deep safeties. When Jones calls for the snap, the Blue Devils run mirrored smash concepts to both sides of the field to attack the honey hole, the primary weakness in the Cover 2.


The interesting part of this play, however, was not the smash run to the honey hole but the underneath route run by Rahming. When the ball is snapped, Rahming runs a quick hitch to freeze the cornerback in underneath coverage. This should open up the honey hole for TE Davis Koppenhaver (#81) running the corner route behind Rahming. When Rahming stops on the hitch, however, UNC cornerback Des Lawrence (#2) cheats back to try to get in front of Koppenhaver’s corner route. Unfortunately for Lawrence, however, this is exactly what the Blue Devils wanted him to do. Just as Lawrence begins to cheat back, Rahming turns and converts his hitch into a short slant across the middle and finds himself wide open as Jones hits him for a crucial 1st down and a 12-yard gain.

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A look at the replay angle shows the route up close and just how deadly it can be.

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This was another route that Duke ran multiple times versus their rival and, like the other two concepts above, was run at the perfect times and proved devastating to the Tar Heel defense.

Over the course of a season, winning becomes difficult if an offense cannot vertically challenge a defense and that is one of the primary reasons for Duke’s disappointing season thus far. As they showed in Week 11 versus their crosstown rival, however, when they can win on the ground, their short passing game can be just as effective, if not more so, than the vertical game. Being able to consistently beat your opponent on third down can be extremely frustrating for them and really impact their will to win. Playing against their bitter rival, the Blue Devils wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Follow Sean on Twitter @PhllyDraft. Check out more of Sean’s work here, such as what Dorial Green-Beckham can do for the Philadelphia Eagles, how coach Bronco Mendenhall gets to the quarterback, how North Carolina State uses motion on offense, what Justin Fuente brings to the Virginia Tech Hokies offense, and on Mark Richt and the triangle offense in Miami.

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All film courtesy of ESPN.

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