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Raiders preseason: Dose of screen time

Josh McDaniels’ offense gives glimpse of how to combat pass rush

Jacksonville Jaguars v Las Vegas Raiders
Raiders head coach and play caller Josh McDaniels dialed up a few screen passes during Las Vegas’ preseason opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars last Thursday.
Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images

There’s a lot that goes into running a screen pass successfully. So much so, that it’s a perfect play to call if a football coach wants to see exactly where his team is in terms of cohesion and execution. It’s no wonder we saw Las Vegas Raiders head coach and play caller Josh McDaniels dial up a running back screen a few times in the team’s preseason opener.

A dose of screen time gave McDaniels and his coaching staff a bird’s eye view of just how well their Raiders have come along in terms of timing and all-important execution. For a screen to work, the entire offense needs to be in sync. A lot of selling needs to be done.

The quarterback take the snap and scan the field as if it were a pass downfield, the running back needs to appear to be a blocker before moving out for the pass, the offensive line must appear to miss their blocks, while wide receivers and tight ends must run their routes at full speed to draw defenders downfield. Then there’s the quarterback finding the running back — who must be in position for the pass — the offensive line running to a pre-determined area of the field to block — and the tailback actually catching the pass and taking off to gain as many yards as they can behind the wall of offensive lineman.

Any of that misfires and the screen pass is dead on arrival.

There were instances where the Raiders executed the running back screen passes well. A trio of screens gained chunk yardage — Josh Jacobs’ 14-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter; Ameer Abdullah’s 17-yard scamper to end the first quarter; Zamir White’s 19-yard catch-and-burst midway through the second quarter — against the Jacksonville Jaguars defense last Thursday. There were instances, however, were Raiders execution coupled with the Jaguars defense pouncing, that resulted in no gains on screen passes. But, like any other coach, McDaniels will take the good and bad — especially in a preseason opener. Hence why it’s an excellent play call to put it all on tape for future film sessions and team meetings.

“Like I said, I thought we had great energy. I thought our guys really had a great approach to the game,” McDaniels said during his Monday press conference. “We didn’t do a whole lot schematically, which is fine, but we wanted to see fundamentally some of the things that we’ve been working hard on. I think some of those things showed up.

“When you play a game, now you’re on film for everybody to see. We had a great opportunity the day after the game to go through every single play of the game. And now the players see it, it’s on film, it’s not just a practice period or an individual drill, now it happened in a game. So to me, that’s one of the biggest positives you can take is, okay there’s a clearer focus on what needs to improve, and that’s kind of how we set our week up this week.”

NFL: Hall of Fame Game-Jacksonville Jaguars at Las Vegas Raiders
Screen passes allow running backs like the Raiders’ Zamir White to use their speed and power to gain yardage behind blockers.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

McDaniels brings up an excellent point of being on film “for everybody to see.” Las Vegas showing it’s game to deploy the screen pass gives us all a glimpse of how McDaniels is going to combat the pass rush this coming season. One of the ways to negate a ferocious and effective pass rush — be it of the natural variety with no extra defenders or one that calls for extra rushers — is to draw them in and nail said defense with a screen pass. McDaniels’ Raiders showed that the particular play call comes from under center or shotgun and looks like any other play the Vegas would normally run. That’s key.

Making the defensive play caller on the opposite sideline or up in the booth second guess themselves is always to the advantage of the offense. Getting burned by a screen pass is going to make a defensive coordinator antsy to dial up another blitz or have their defense pin their ears back. And that reservation is compounded if the Raiders come out in formations where they’ve execute running or throwing the ball out of.

The amplified emphasis on fundamentals during OTAs and the early portions of training camp will help the Silver & Black in terms of execution as it’s an ongoing thing. We saw some of it in the Hall of Fame Game and McDaniels expects more as his team progresses through preseason and into regular season play next month.

“You start to see the habits that have been formed or we have yet to form. That’s really what you can see in the game is they have to revert to what they feel comfortable with and subconsciously what they know,” McDaniels said. “They don’t have time to stop and think once the ball snapped, should I make this decision, or should I make that decision? They have to go and react. It gave us a pretty clear blueprint on what we’re doing okay, but we need these things to improve. I think they do understand the ‘why’. I think the habits we’re trying to form here; the fundamentals are trying to continue to work on, the techniques that we’re drilling. We’re not there yet. But I don’t know that any team would be there at this point. And so that’s where our focus is going to be this week.”