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Coaching Breakdown: A deep dive into Chris Strausser’s screen game Part 1

Looking at the elements of a successful screen game from Chris Strausser

NCAA FOOTBALL: NOV 12 USC at Washington Photo by Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The NFL offseason is my favorite time of the year. Obviously, I love following and analyzing the Colts during the season but the offseason is just so much more intriguing to me. The team building aspect along with the NFL Draft and Free Agency are so interesting and there are always so many ways an offseason can go.

Another thing that I like about the offseason is the chance to study up on legendary coaches and even study some tendencies and techniques from Colts’ coaches themselves. Since I already study quite a bit on these coaching points every offseason, I figured I would make it a weekly series here and we can learn a good bit about this coaching staff together.

The first couple pieces in this series are going to focus on Offensive Line Coach Chris Strausser and how he coaches the screen game for the Colts. The screen game in Indy was atrocious under the first two seasons of Frank Reich’s tenure. This past offseason though, Strausser made it a big point of emphasis to improve that area of the offense. That focus led to Philip Rivers going 32-33 for 248 and a touchdown on screens to running backs this season. That is a passer rating 108.8.

So in part one of this look at the Strausser screen game, we are going to look at the key elements to a successful screen game, what each position’s responsibilities are, and look at some examples of successful screens from this past season.

All of the pictures and screen grabs posted in this piece are from Chris Strausser: Coaching a Successful Screen Game coaching clinic that he did back when he was the Tight Ends Coach at Boise State back in 2008. The full clinic is available for purchase on Amazon.

Keys To Success

Strausser breaks down the keys to a successful run game at the top of the clinic. The quick cliff notes version of each point are as follows:

Space- Can’t run a successful screen without proper spacing from the defense. If the defense is playing tight man coverage or having a linebacker mug the running back in man all game, a screen isn’t going to work. There has to be an element of proper setup and situation to be successful.

Angles- Pertaining mainly to the offensive line, angles are important for how they get out in space. A huge coaching point for Strausser is that the offensive linemen who release on the screen have to stay flat along the line of scrimmage until they have a proper angle on the defender they are hoping to reach.

Timing- Timing is everything in the screen game with so many moving parts. The running backs and offensive linemen operate on a 1.5-second timer in their heads. If a player is even a quarter of a second too early or too late, it could throw off the entire play.

Sell- The body language is key to setting up the play. Strausser teaches his guys to go against the traditional thinking of offensive linemen throwing defenders by as they release. He doesn’t want any player along that defensive front to be able to tell the screen is coming from the line’s movement.

Take Care of the Dead Rusher- The dead rusher is the interior defensive lineman that is essentially in the way of the screen play. If left completely unblocked, the whole screen can be thrown off. The interior linemen have to control that dead rusher at the point of attack before releasing into the open field.

Running Back and Offensive Line Responsibilities

The points above are a bit more specific in terms of what each position group is required to do on these screen plays.

For the running back, Strausser mentions how eliminating protection responsibility for them helped with the timing of the screen. The running back will still have to sell like he is pass blocking but won’t directly be given a player to block or chip in most situations. The most important aspect of the play is for the back to stay in the hip pocket of his pulling guard and get vertical as soon as possible.

For the offensive line, it gets a bit trickier. That 1.5 second count has to be perfect or the timing of the play is thrown off. When it says “play fast in space” it essentially means that Strausser wants his lead blockers on screens to lunge or chop block rather than perform a traditional block. His line of thinking is that if his linemen are playing fast and getting a big enough chunk of the defender, then the running back will have enough space to create a solid gain. The tackles on the play are responsible for either cutting their outside defender or widening them out of the play.

Clip of Strausser talking about the screen game

While I can’t put too much of his clinic into this article, here is a little snippet of him breaking down the screen game at Boise State. You can hear him talking about the importance of angles on the offensive line and their assignments in space well in this clip:

Looking at the Colts Screen game

From watching this coaching clinic and from studying the Colts’ screen game, I have come to realize that the screen game is much like a musical performance. There are going to be mistakes on almost every single call but the key is making it look good enough to get a solid gain on the play.

As you can see in this first clip, there are a lot of good elements of the overall play. Ryan Kelly does a nice job of controlling the dead rusher at the point of attack and even though it does prevent him from getting in space, he does handle that aspect of his job. Quenton Nelson is a little late getting out but for the most part, the timing is good up front. Mark Glowinski does a nice job of staying flat and locating his defender in space. Nyheim Hines catches the ball and immediately gets vertical off the hip pocket of his lead guard. While the overall play isn’t perfect (Glow likely should have cut his guy), this is a good gain and a win for the offense.

Different play but again there are elements that work and also don’t work on the screen. The dead rusher on the play actually reads the screen from the jump but Glowinski does an excellent job of washing him out of the play. With Glow focused on the dead rusher, Kelly should be filling his lane in lead blocking. Unfortunately, he slips and that lead blocker is taken away from the play. However, this play is made by an incredible effort by Quenton Nelson as he gets in front with elite athleticism and lunges at the defender to give Jordan Wilkins space at the second level. Wilkins also does a great job of getting vertical off of Glowinski’s block and getting those extra yards.

I realize it is a lot to take in at once so I broke down one with audio and descriptions slowed down a bit. This play below is from the Colts’ 35 yard gain back in week one against the Jaguars. It is as perfect as a screen play can get and it hits on nearly everything Strausser wants his guys doing on this play call.

Final Thoughts

Chris Strausser’s opinion of the screen game can be summed up by how he starts his clinic. Screens tend to be frustrating and that is because there are so many variables involved in having the play be successful. The key to success in these plays is technique and fundamentals and those are two areas where Strausser strives as a coach.

It has been a long time since the Colts have had a successful screen game but in 2020 we finally saw it become a viable part of the Colts’ offense and Strausser had a big hand in that. While these may be fairly simple concepts to work on, they were vital to Strausser and this coaching staff in creating positive plays out of this call. These are just the fundamentals however as next week we will be breaking down different types of screens that Strausser likes to run to mix it up and throw off the defense.