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Under first year offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, the Cal Golden Bears have found some success in the passing game by utilizing elements of the scheme he ran from the previous three years at Texas A&M. With stability at quarterback following the departure of Jared Goff, Spavital has found success using the short side of the field to run screens under senior transfer quarterback Davis Webb.
The Cal offense features a variety of quick screens to all areas of the field. One of their favorite plays to run on the short side is a quick screen with a smoke route from a slot formation. Webb will take the ball and immediately throw to the outside receiver, who takes one step downfield before turning back for the ball. The inside receiver blocks the closest defender, hopefully opening a lane for the receiver to gain a few yards quickly and easily. This play design is one of the best ways to attack zone or off man coverage. If a defense is in zone coverage they may under-defend the short side of the field at the beginning of the play, perhaps only shifting a linebacker part way over the receivers. If the defense plays off man coverage there is enough room to quickly catch the ball and get upfield for a few yards before the corner or safety can come downfield for the tackle.
The first example of a smoke screen to the short side of the field comes from Cal’s game against Stanford with 14:21 remaining in the third quarter. Cal has an empty set, with a slot formation to the left and short side of the field. Stanford is showing Cover 4 zone coverage but will roll into Cover 3.
At the snap, Webb (#7) will throw quickly to outside receiver Demetris Robertson (#8), who takes one step and waits for the throw. Slot receiver Bug Rivera (#26) will get inside leverage on Stanford linebacker Peter Kalambayi (#34), while cornerback Alameen Murphy (#23) is forced to come down from his deep third zone responsibilities to make a tackle, allowing a gain of 6 yards and a first down.
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This was a very simple, high percentage throw for Webb and an easy reception for Robertson, thanks to the great block from Rivera. As a result, Robertson has a fairly easy path to a first down. Since it was zone coverage, the corner over the top of Robertson began the play about 9 yards off the ball, which gave the offense room to work with even on the short side of the field.
Another example of Cal using a smoke screen to the short side of the field comes from their game against the Washington State Cougars. With five minutes remaining in the second quarter and facing a 1st and 10 in the redzone, Cal will throw a smoke screen to the right, where the receivers are facing off coverage from a slot formation. Webb reads the off coverage before the snap and abandons the inside zone run play to the left Cal had originally called.
At the snap, receiver Chad Hansen (#6) will run the smoke route and catch the ball at the 13 yard line. Slot receiver Jordan Veasy (#15) gets upfield to block cornerback Darrien Molton (#3), creating room inside of the block for Hansen to gain 6 yards on the play.
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Spavital has been running this play since his days at Texas A&M, even with questionable quarterback play after the Johnny Manziel era. In this example from Texas A&M’s 2015 game against Ole Miss, quarterback Kyle Allen (#10) throws a smoke route to receiver Josh Reynolds (#11), where they incorporate tunnel screen varieties.
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Using the short side of the field is a simple but effective wrinkle in the Golden Bear’s spread offense, creating matchup problems against off man and zone coverage. With a quarterback like Davis who can change plays at the line of scrimmage to take advantage of the short side, the Cal Bears have an effective play to check into against a lot of defenses.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @DBRyan_Dukarm. Check out the rest of his work, including covering the UCLA Bruins’ use of Spot Concept, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ end around rush, and Buffalo’s double track block scheme and deep passing game.
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Editors Note: A reader pointed out the receiver in the second video is Chad Henson not Demetris Robertson. The article has been updated.