Neck Sharpies: The Tunnel Screen of Doom

Submitted by Seth on September 13th, 2017 at 8:42 AM

Re-watching Saturday’s game the damage didn’t look so bad—take away Cincy’s illegal picks and we’re down to quibbles about McCray’s position and Kinnel finally taking a bad angle that one time. There was only one play that Michigan didn’t seem to have an answer for, despite Cincy running it SEVEN times: The tunnel screens.

This is not a new problem; Maryland got 103 yards on four of them last year. Did Fickell find a hole in Don Brown’s attack? Was it a certain player? Was Cincy just good at that?


Screen Shot 2014-09-24 at 10.02.35 PM

Coincidentally I got this from Kyle Jones of 11W’s Cincinnati preview in 2014

A tunnel screen is kind of the reverse of a bubble: you block outside-in with a slot guy and bring your receiver inside-out. Typically covered linemen will seek to delay an insta-pass rush while uncovered OL release to cut off the second level.

It’s mostly a counter versus an aggressive man defense because you’re punishing linemen from running upfield so far you can squeeze a ballcarrier and his convoy behind them.

However in this game Cincy was doing some odd stuff with it. I’ve listed them by increasing order of weirdness:

1. Get the Ball to Your Athletes

Like Maryland last year, Cincinnati came into this game with a plan to negate their offensive linemen and trust their athletes in space. Michigan for its part refused to back off the pass rushers, or to change up their simple man assignments for this game. Even on the 7th time they see this, Don Brown is not going to give any quarter inside to win a DT spy. He’d rather David Long wind up the Viper:

Bush did as well as you could ask to redirect with a TE cutting his legs out, but Cincy’s RB caught it in stride and accelerated quickly. Long on the other hand was way more hesitant in his turn at trying to woop the OL and ate a block. Kinnel arrived just in time to make this a 4th and 2.

Part of Michigan’s problem with these all day was the screen targets were very precise in their routes and excellent at accelerating with the catch. Running back Mike Boone (above) and slot receiver Kahlil Lewis were Cincy’s best offensive players, and this play was a good way to put them in a position to make that count.

2. Tight End is Blocking a CB Off the Snap Like It’s a Run Play

Here’s the first tunnel screen against Michigan last week and you can watch the tight end motion across and make the key block on the CB (Long) in man coverage on the screen target (Michigan’s in straight-up Cover 1, with Hudson following the TE across rather than switching with Kinnel).

That gives Cincy a TE rather than a slot receiver removing the man in man-to-man coverage.


You’d like David Long to realize faster what’s happening and attack but that’s asking for him to make a big play.

By the way if you’re wondering if the TE can cut block while the ball is in the air, this is contact within a yard of the line of scrimmage and thus a legal block:

ARTICLE 8. b.Offensive pass interference is contact by a Team A player beyond the neutral zone that interferes with a Team B player during a legal forward pass play in which the forward pass crosses the neutral zone. It is the responsibility of the offensive player to avoid the opponents. It is not offensive pass interference (A.R. 7-3-8-IV, V, X, XV and XVI):

  1. When, after the snap, a Team A ineligible player immediately charges and contacts an opponent at a point not more than one yard beyond the neutral zone and maintains the contact for no more than three yards beyond the neutral zone.

The releasing center’s block on McCray wouldn’t be a legal block if he made contact with McCray, but he is just getting in the way and that too is legal.


Hudson is able to recover but now the receiver has momentum and gets 6 yards. Now that it was on tape Cincy eschewed the subterfuge and usually lined up the receiver directly behind the tight end in a stack.

On the second tunnel screen (to the RB) they get Devin Bush playing off coverage, but the TE can still lock onto Long and take him for a ride.


I circled the TE’s block on Long this time because this play erroneously made the (mostly legit) list of missed offensive PI plays. But read that same rule above again:

ARTICLE 8. b.Offensive pass interference is contact by a Team A player beyond the neutral zone that interferes with a Team B player during a legal forward pass play in which the forward pass crosses the neutral zone. It is the responsibility of the offensive player to avoid the opponents. It is not offensive pass interference (A.R. 7-3-8-IV, V, X, XV and XVI):

The ball is caught behind the line of scrimmage, which the NCAA defines as a run for downfield blocking purposes. With Long blocked out by a TE it’s now all three interior OL escorting the RB downfield. Two of them are doing what you’d expect: the right guard authoritatively cuts out Devin Bush’s legs to make a lane, and the center is trundling downfield to take out Michigan’s last defender, Tyree Kinnel.

[After the jump: Seth loses his sanity, then we have five more of these]

3. Flare Option to the Backside

Very often a tunnel screen includes a flare option to the backside. Notice above that Bush, in man coverage on the RB, has to chase that away from the play. That’s key because if you can’t get that linebacker occupied with misdirection he’s hanging out right where this play attacks. If the LB lets him go you can just toss it out to the RB instead like so:

Sorry the beginning of this got clipped—the point is visible. Watch Hayden Moore on the rest of these as he quickly checks the other side to make sure someone is bothering to check the flare.

They can also swap jobs, using the RB as the tunnel target and a slot receiver as the flare:

This is the same concept from 5 wide. Putting the RB in the slot essentially flips the sides. The Z receiver on the left side is now running the RB flare, and the RB is the tunnel target. Metellus is now the dude they’re removing.


The QB watches Metellus go with the flare and comes back to the tunnel. With the RG ending Bush and a 5th man blitzing there’s nobody until Kinnel. Fortunately for Michigan Kinnel shot past the center and held this to just a 10-yard gain.

4. Didn’t Even Bother Blocking the DTs

It’s easy to say Cincy came in knowing that Michigan likes to get aggressive, and Don Brown got RPS’d:


That’s five defenders going hell for leather into the backfield and that never goes well versus a tunnel screen. But it’s also OL getting out really early, and that’s unusual. Typically the way a screen like this is blocked is you have the covered linemen chip/delay their guys while the uncovered linemen release. That buys your QB enough time to get the screen off.

Cincy had a different idea. The linemen let the DTs through and just block the ends, since those guys often have the speed to get to the QB before this can develop. To make sure this doesn’t end up with a VICIOUS SACK every time they had the quarterback drop waaaay back and just blocked the edges. Moore at least would know where the pressure’s coming from and get the pass off on a timer.

This was to negate a tactical advantage that the 3-3-5 provides and which helped nerf Florida’s attempts at the same:

See how slowly the Gators’ OL got out to block? That’s because the 3-3-5 (when run correctly) is really a 4-2-5, you just never know which LB is going to be the fourth lineman and where he’ll come. Not knowing delays the OL; by the time #65 gets out there, Bush has already inserted his face into the unorganized muck.

Now look up at the Cincy one and watch what happens to Hudson trying to do the same thing. The OL don’t waste time delaying Hurst and Gary. They just go, and are downfield fast enough to set up a vicious chop block on Hudson.


5. They had an Offensive Lineman Turning Around to Check Pursuit

I clipped the below from the second tunnel screen but I noticed it on every one of these, and I’ve never seen it before.


The first time I saw a guy do this I figured it was confused Cincy OL being themselves. The second time I wondered if they were coached to do that, and the third time I was sure.

And it makes sense: Usually a tunnel screen happens a bit beyond the line of scrimmage (why hang back any further than you have to?) But Cincy has backed up this whole operation. The quarterback is dropping way back so the interior DL can’t get home even without token resistance, the big kickout block is happening within a yard of the line of scrimmage, and the ball is being caught in the backfield. That could mean trouble if a defensive lineman smokes this quickly and doubles back. And you just saw Florida lose a couple of screen plays to Gary and Hurst running them down. And if you’re Cincy what would you rather have if you’re the offense:

  1. An extra (bad) OL who’s likely to get wooped by a Michigan safety, OR
  2. Insurance against All-American DT Mo Hurst reading the screen and putting your receiver in his belly?

What was Michigan’s Response?

A lot of vanilla, and switching up the viper. There are different ways to defend it but the best way to avoid eating five to eight yards on this is to have a DT smoke or spy—meaning he’s looking for the offense to try something like this and hanging out in the area. You’ll see a lot of teams do this with a Mone-sized nose tackle, since he’s unlikely to get upfield as quickly as Mone, let alone his friends.

That’s not how Brown does business—if you make him leave a DT at the line of scrimmage it’s probably some sort of zone blitz that brought eight. All the other plays in the playbook hated those aggressive DTs—what, are they gonna run this one all day?

Michigan did change up some personnel at times. On the above they decided to have Kinnel try to rush the edge faster since Gary and Winovich weren’t getting home, while leaving Furbush’s heft out at Viper. The plan all day was to have the inside linebacker take out the blocking while the Viper screams past his block and knocks this out. Furbush almost makes this play but the TE gets just enough (rubbin’s racing) of him that he only forces it back inside where there’s a mess from Bush eating a chop.

How are you SUPPOSED to beat it?

For one, whenever a defensive lineman meets zero resistance he’s got to react, stop, and retrace his steps. Michigan’s DL were emphatically not doing this against Cincinnati, as if they thought they could get to Moore in time to disrupt his pass. That happened once:

And on this one you can see Hurst reacting correctly to the running back and becoming a cover guy.

However Michigan saw these screens enough that you’d like to have seen something in the playbook to beat it. How do you rock this scissors? We learned this lesson the hard way: watching Brady Hoke call this early on with Denard under center. This is a play from the EMU 2011 game. Jeremy Gallon is at the bottom of the page. He’s going to run a tunnel screen. It ain’t gonna work. The kickout block (that Cincy was making with their TE) is going to be left tackle Taylor Lewan. Here’s the setup:


Look how far off that DB is. That’s playing super-soft. Also the DL are not going to be rushing pell-mell upfield because that’s how you eat a 46-yard Denard highlight. The carefulness results in a lot of defenders and Lewan standing alone on the 40 wishing for someone to block.


So yeah, the way to really kill this is to play super soft. Of course, remember what this is: a play designed for the offense to punish aggressiveness, so most of the answers are to not be super aggres—


er…I mean run a few more nasty zone blitzes out of that 3-3-5 we’ve barely scratched the surface on.



September 13th, 2017 at 9:11 AM ^

I was always taught that you aren't Reggie White just because you put on your jersey... We have a talented DLine, but if you bust through the interior of the line with no resistence, retrace your steps because the screen is coming. That was a basic concept for us and the fact that they aren't doing it almost makes me think they aren't taught it for some reason.


September 13th, 2017 at 2:21 PM ^

They don't need to run down the ball carrier, only outrun the OL. By definition, the ball carrier has to set up behind these blocks for the play to be successful and they run back towards the center parallel to the LOS for much of their route. If the DL retraces back fast enough, they can get right to the area the releasing OL are shielding from the rest of the defense. They can also circle back and get into the throwing lane. Hurst doing this is what caused the QB to double clutch the ball on the one play Seth highlights as the DL getting home. 

EDIT: imagine how this play goes if Gary is at the circle with his momentum going the direction of the arrow.


September 13th, 2017 at 10:09 AM ^

Having your D-line sit back opens up other things.  The OC WANTS them to hesitate.  Brown may not come up with a great solution for this, but he's seen it before, and the one thing he won't do is what the play is designed to make you do -- call off the dogs.  It's not like the OC's having a good day when his best play is a screen that goes for 5-7 yards.

Bear in mind it's typical for a defense to give up about 300 yards of offense and about 3 TDs.  These days we're annoyed if the opponent gets a first down.  Brown has a weird way of resetting expectations.


September 13th, 2017 at 9:37 AM ^

The thing is, teams will only run this when they don't have a lot of other options. Now that Cincy put this on film, good teams might run this. IMO, to solve this, the CBs and LBs need to play press-man *cough* neck-breathing the opponent *cough* close to the line of scrimmage and make open-field tackles. This just shows how far our secondary has fallen without JL and Co. Lavert Hill just didn't play press-man that time. A tall task for sure, but if you want to blitz every play, your coverage just has to be better. Also, when our D-line busted through with so much ease, wouldn't that be too good to be true against good teams (ala perfect screen indicator), or is Cincy's O-line blocking almost nonexistent?

Will teams later in the year be able to run this? For this, I think we should look in hindsight to 2016 when UCF and Colorado exposed our D by spreading playmakers out wide. Remember when OSU attempted that in the shoe last year (refs don't count)? They say young players improve quicker, so here's to me hoping that we will clean up these issues so we could shut down Mr. Barkley.

Also, isn't it unsportsmanlike to target a player's knees? 


September 13th, 2017 at 9:42 AM ^

I guarantee you Maryland will run this. This is the scissors play and Michigan loves to throw paper. The vanilla way to beat this with Michigan's defense is you have the Viper shoot past the block and the defensive tackles really ought to turn around faster when they realize they meet no resistance.


September 13th, 2017 at 11:12 AM ^

You asked about targetting a player's knees. That's OK unless the defender is already engaged with a blocker, in which case it's called a chop block and it's a 15 yard penalty. I saw 2 of those in the clips above. The question is, with all that quick action happening downfield, is an official going to be able to see the chop block happening and throw the flag?

In gridiron football, a chop block is an attempt by an offensive player to cut block (block at the thigh level or lower) a defensive player while the defender is already engaged by another offensive player. The chop block is usually considered illegal and penalized by a loss of 15-yards due to the injury risk it presents to the defender.[1]


September 13th, 2017 at 9:42 AM ^

This is awesome stuff!  I'll credit Fickell for coming up with something that worked because he watched how UF failed.  I'm sure DB will find a way to fix it, though.  Or maybe he'll just decide to accept a few plays that work against him for the benefits he gets elsewhere?  Seems like a good tradeoff...


September 13th, 2017 at 10:21 AM ^

This type of analysis is very much appreciated, thank you. 

One coaching question - when the D-line gets a free-run, they seem to 'take the bait' and go heads down, full speed at the QB.  If they sense the free-run, should they go hands-up to disrupt the passing lanes? 

micheal honcho

September 13th, 2017 at 10:25 AM ^

If that pass goes 1 inch beyond the LOS that play should be flagged, unforturnately in these modern days that rule is ignored therefore this play along with most other spread RPO's work.


Call the damn penalty!!


September 13th, 2017 at 10:38 AM ^

I really love when you guys do stuff like this. Great worrk as always. 


I will however have to disagree with your solution. I believe the solution could be seen in 2015 and 2016 Michigan defenses. In those years Peppers and Lewis played up on the line tight press coverage. They had the quickness, aggressive nature, confidence and toughness to play so tight that they couldn't be scrapped off by a slot. 

What you did a great job of pointing out is the angle that the outside DB creates by taking a step or two back off the line (either because the WR drives hard up field one or two steps or because the defender is playing a little off. What I believe we say Lewis and Peppers do is play so tight that they had their hands on the defender being he could enter the tunnel and duck under the incoming blocker. This allowed them to make the tackle at the catch and sometimes even break up the pass. 

One thing that stands out from all the clips above is how the primapry defender "catches" the block everytime. Long, Watson, Hill, Bush, Furbush as shown above were all blocked by either the slot of the tackle. In the first clip Long is the guy who should have blown up that play but he didn't trust his eyes and fire up, insted he caught the block from the tackle. 

The questions is can this group play that way.  We all know Lewis and Peppers had no fear playing in your back pocket coverage and they would be tackle you and put their nose in there to do it.

I give Cincy credit for the motions that ran which either sent Bush away from the play or turned him into the Primary cover man taking away his ability to read and react from the middle of the field and run and hit. 

Have to believe we see a ton of this against OSU both with their tunnel screens and flair routes that run away from the playside. 



September 13th, 2017 at 11:04 AM ^

That was what Michigan wanted to do but Cincy took it away by first motioning the TE out there and then using a stack.

This prevented the cornerback from being able to get up on the intended receiver. Or they put their RB out there, meaning Devin Bush (in m2m) is basically your cornerback:



September 13th, 2017 at 12:48 PM ^

I agree with you for the most part but even your top play... I'd like to see Watson playing more heads up on giving the top reciever a hard jam. Even without the Jam he doesn't trust his eyes and waits before trying to fire up. Either way what he did left him in no-mans land. 


The seconds play is one reason I give Cincy credit... Actually both plays are. The top does a great job of running Bush out of the play and the bottom puts Bush out on an island. I think he would be fine to cover there but he wouldn't be use to play tight press or knowing how to ready a tunnel screen from outside the numbers.




September 13th, 2017 at 10:49 AM ^

At some point, whoever gets motioned into the viper position is going to see that inside-out kickout from his man, see the jab-step from the outside reciever, and jump the tunnel route for a pick six.

I don't know if Dr Blitz can coach a guy to read those two things quickly enough to intercept or if it is just going to require a guy to MAKE A PLAY, but I can't wait to see what happens. I love neck sharpies.


September 13th, 2017 at 11:14 AM ^

Love this level of analysis. You just don't get it anywhere else...not the local "newspapers"...not ESPN...not BTN (lol). This is what makes us all coming back for more. Keep it up!


September 13th, 2017 at 1:11 PM ^

This kind of analysis loses about 90% of the folks that watch football and don't have the understanding the real games in schemes and counter-schemes.  

It would have to be a mid-week show for football geeks.   

I could see a BTN feature show "Review the Tape" or similar but that would be quality programming that is much harder to write than the "replay the game in 60 minutes" edit.

However, espn has released so many truly knowledgable guys so that those who're left are only qualified to opine about what Harbaugh dresses like.  Last form of this I remember are the Pro game breakdowns that Jaws did on Sunday am.  (Does that still happen? I don't know because I've kinda given up on watching pro ball.  Too many other fun things to do.)



September 13th, 2017 at 11:58 AM ^

but sees no reason to reveal it against a Cincinnati team that was really no threat to move the ball? I'm sure if we sit on it, PSU or OSU will try the same stuff. Why show them our counter when there's no reason to?


September 13th, 2017 at 12:19 PM ^

Not sure PSU has any playmakers at the WR position capable of scaring DB enough on a screen that he'd change his defense for it.  Barkley will get his own special coverage - probably Hudson and Mettlus spying him all day.  As for OSU, thier WRs have been dogcrap these first two games.  Need more info...

But again, the tunnel screen doesn't seem to be a big part of either of those offenses.  PSU wants to go downfield with arm punts all day.  Not sure what OSU is trying to do...


September 13th, 2017 at 1:03 PM ^

and gives me a greater understanding of many things. Not least of which is how terrible Cincy's center is. If that guy doesn't suck out loud then a couple of these plays go for much longer.


September 13th, 2017 at 2:05 PM ^

Good stuff. I do get a sense that Brown was fine with giving up these completions because he (probably) has a counter but isn't going to show it in this game. I mean, he's been around long enough to see tunnel screens.


September 13th, 2017 at 2:36 PM ^

...if Brown ran his Trap 2 then the corner would be in the throwing lane almost immediately.  Even if the #2 WR made the block it's right in the throwing lane.

A great offensive constraint play would be to run a dual screen, with the tunnel on one side and a traditional TB screen to the other.