The field is condensed in the red zone, and defenses become more aggressive. As Bill Walsh once said: "...every defensive coach in the country is going to his blitzes about right there. The pass coverage, by and large, will be man-to-man coverage. We know that if they don't blitz one down, they're going to blitz the next down."
Of course, Tony Franklin knows the same. One of his favorite concepts in the red zone has become variations of his throwback screen (note: others may use different names for this screen...I will say throwback for simplicity's sake, but others may call it a solid, throwback, jailbreak, or rocket screen, and all refer to specific variations). Against a blitzing team such as San Diego State, it was no surprise that Franklin's throwback screen made another appearance in the end zone for Cal.
Why is the throwback screen valuable against the blitz? Simply put, a screen (of any sort) "wastes" defenders. If the defense rushes five or six men and the offense executes, those rushers will be too fast up the field, and will be "wasted" in pursuit when the ball is thrown behind them. The throwback screens adds even more misdirection; a defense that is in "red zone blitz mode" is more likely to chase fakes and pursue their first reads (necessitated by how close the offense is to the end zone and their man principles), thus potentially exposing themselves to misdirection.
The downside for the offense is that throwback screens are some of the hardest plays in football to execute. The quarterback is almost throwing blind (seeing his receiver at the last moment), the receiver must prepare himself to catch the ball in traffic, and the timing of the play (between the quarterback and receiver as well as among the linemen) is essential for success and difficult to master. If the defense reads the play and/or the offense does not execute well, it can lead to a big hit on the receiver or an interception with few offensive players available to stop the defender from scoring.
As we have seen, however, Cal is executing at a high level. Saturday's throwback screen was quick, crisp, and led to an easy touchdown.
Goff receives the snap and immediately looks to Daniel Lasco, who is running a swing to the right. Raymond Hudson breaks down as if blocking for a swing screen to Lasco. These fakes are quick, subtle, and effective. We see two San Diego State defenders move towards Lasco; they are another two defenders who will not be in position to stop Harris.
This isn't the first time that the Sonny Dykes/Tony Franklin led Golden Bears have found the end zone with variations of their throwback screen.
In the red zone to Kenny Lawler, against Arizona in 2013:
From near midfield to Chris Harper, against Ohio State in 2013:
There are likely other examples as well.
Cal's execution of the throwback screen also pays dividends beyond the play at hand. Defensive coordinators know that Cal can and will execute such a screen near the end zone, and this can discourage those coordinators from bringing pressure. This, of course, leads to less pressure, which makes things easier for other elements of the Cal offense. Franklin thrives on putting defenses and defenders in conflict, and his throwback screen does the same to opposing defensive coordinators.
Keegan Dresow is the head coach of the Avedøre Monarchs of the Danish American Football Federation, the author of Offensive Football Systems and Gridiron Cup, 1982, and the operator of totalamericanfootball.com.