After rushing for nearly 190 yards per game in 2012, Notre Dame is averaging a meager 137 yards per game this season. While there are a number of reasons why the run game has struggled (graduation of key personnel, playing from behind, etc.), it is clear that the Irish miss Everett Golson’s mobility. Defenses are attacking the line of scrimmage with little fear that Tommy Rees will make them pay for over-pursuing the Irish running backs. Although Rees will never be a running threat, Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin should force defenses to account for Rees in the running game by using more packaged plays.
What are Packaged Plays?
Packaged plays consist of a run and a pass combined into a single play. The quarterback reads one defender and determines whether to pass or hand-off based on that defender’s movement. If the defender plays the run, the quarterback throws; if the he plays the pass, the quarterback hands off to the running back.
The most commonly used packaged plays are bubble screens and stick/draw plays, but the possibilities are endless. High-scoring teams like Baylor and Texas A&M are having great success packaging rhythm throws with inside and outside zone plays. Temple showed the Irish first-hand how packaging rhythm throws with inside and outside zone plays can keep a defense off balance. The Owls repeatedly abused Notre Dame’s linebackers by isolating them and forcing them to commit to defending the run or the pass.
Below is an example of Temple packaging an outside zone with a backside slant to the slot receiver.
The Owls line up in a three receiver, one tight end spread formation. The quarterback will read linebacker Dan Fox on this play. If Fox flows toward the run, the quarterback will throw the slant to the slot receiver; if Fox stays home to cover the slant, the quarterback will hand-off to the running back.
While Fox and Jaylon Smith attack the line of scrimmage, the quarterback pulls the ball and hits the slot receiver in stride. The void left by Fox makes for an easy read and ultimately results in a 25-yard gain for the Owls. As you can see in the video, Elijah Shumate compounds Notre Dame’s problems by taking a bad pursuit angle.
On the next play, Temple packaged an inside zone with a pop pass to the tight end.
The Owls line up in a three receiver, one tight end spread formation, but this time the tight end lines up to the same side as the twin receivers. The inside zone will go to the weak side of the formation. Once again the quarterback will read Fox.
With Fox rotating to cover the tight end immediately after the snap, the quarterback hands off to the running back heading in the opposite direction. The center gets to the second level and blocks Carlo Calabrese which allows the running back to get well into the secondary before being tackled.
Although the Irish have occasionally used packaged plays this season, below is the only example that I can recall where Notre Dame may have packaged a rhythm throw with a zone run.
On this play, the Irish line up in a 2X2 spread formation. Tight end Troy Niklas is the slot receiver to the boundary. Given Notre Dame’s tendency to use Niklas as a lead blocker on quick screens, it’s not surprising that the outside linebacker lines up directly over over Niklas, while the safety lines up way outside of the hash marks. The middle of the field is wide open. Rees will read the inside linebacker. If the linebacker takes away Niklas on the slant, Rees should hand-off to Amir Carlisle; if the linebacker crashes to stop the run, Rees should have Niklas open.
Niklas immediately gains inside leverage on the outside linebacker. As the inside linebacker rushes, Rees pulls the ball and throws to Niklas. Had Niklas held on to the pass, it would have been a big play. It’s hard to say whether this play was a designed “option” for Rees or a predetermined play-action pass, but it does illustrate how defenses have to respect backside rhythm passes.
Running more packaged plays will not remedy all the issues with Notre Dame’s run game, but it can open some running lanes for the Irish backs. As you can see from the examples above, packaging rhythm throws with inside and outside zone plays would complement the “check it and chuck it” philosophy that Notre Dame has become too dependent on when defenses key the run.