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Purdue Football: Graham Harrell Film Study - Wide Receiver Screen

The wide receiver screen is a staple of Coach Harrell’s Air Strike offense.

West Virginia v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

If you’re looking for an example of Coach Harrell’s offense at West Virginia, the Mountaineers upset over Oklahoma is a nice place to start. The Sooners, in theory, are built to stop the spread. Venables plays a defensive back heavy 4-2-5 that asks their secondary to make tackles in the open field while the defensive front heats up the quarterback. That’s what you want when defending a spread offense. Make them throw it short because of pressure and then get their guy on the ground.

You also get to see why Coach Harrell made landing Hudson Card his first priority. The Mountaineers start the game with a typical drop back quarterback in J.T. Daniels. Daniels, a former 5* recruit and started at both USC and Georgia before transferring to West Virginia (and subsequently transferring to Rice after last season). Despite his wanderlust, he still has a quick trigger and big arm, but injuries have sapped his athletic ability. At this point in his career, he’s a pocket passer.

The first 3 drives of the game for West Virginia ended in a 4th down interception, and 2 punts. Daniels wasn’t terrible, going 7/12 and a pick, but any time Oklahoma needed a stop, they brought pressure, and J.T. had no answer. After the third fruitless drive of the game Garrett Greene, the Mountaineers dual threat quarterback, is inserted into the game, and things start to click for the offense. Having a quarterback capable of running turns this offense into something totally different. The run game improves because you pick up an extra blocker in the box and the passing game gets better because a mobile quarterback is better at buying time to let the screen game develop. Card is on par with Greene in terms of running ability and has an overall better skill set from the pocket.

For me, the key drive of this game occurs right before the half. Oklahoma scores a touchdown to go up 12-0 with about a minute left to play in the half. West Virginia needs something to happen on offense, because the Sooners smell blood and want to put this away. As a Clemson fan, I know what this means. It means Brent is about to dial up some heat and try to force the quarterback into an early mistake.

Luckily for the Mountaineers, they break off a nice return and put themselves in good position for a 2 minute drive. This is the first play of the drive.

Wide Receiver Boundary Screen




Blue Box - Boundary Receivers

Green Box - O-Line

Purple Box - Field Receiver

Gold Box - QB/RB


Red Oval - Defensive Line

Light Blue Oval- Linebackers

White Oval - Corner

Black Oval - Safety

Note: A quick reminder, I try and keep the football terms as accessible as possible in these articles. I know there is an entire football vernacular that I ignore.


West Virginia comes out in a 4 wide look with a 3 receiver bunch to boundary (the side of field nearest the sideline, blue box) and a single receiver to the field (purple box). They have the traditional 5 offensive linemen (green box) and the QB in the shotgun with the running back offset to the field.


This is a typical Venables set up. You’ve got 4 down-linemen (red oval), 2 box linebackers (light blue oval), a LB/S hybrid (light blue oval), 3 corners (white oval), and a safety (black oval).

The defense is set up for outside pressure from the defensive ends, while the defensive tackles push the pocket to keep the quarterback from stepping up. The outside corners and safety play off, and the underneath players (linebackers and defensive backs play an underneath zone). Everyone has their eyes on the ball looking to make a play.

Wide Receiver Motion


This play is designed to go to the boundary. The pre-snap goal is to get as many players away from the boundary as possible. The safety (black oval), in particular, needs to move.

The receiver closest to the offensive line on the field side goes in motion, balancing the boundary and field. This pulls the safety from outside the boundary hash marks, to inside the hash marks. He’s responsible for the deep middle, and putting the slot in motion to the field makes him a threat down the middle.

In terms of blocking assignments, the only clear assignment you see in this clip is the slot receiver on the boundary side picking off the slot corner. The offense tackles take deep pass sets to catch the defensive ends and try to force them outside, while the interior line all steps and engages the defensive tackles immediately, establishing the line of scrimmage.


Other than the small shift from the safety towards the middle of the field, the motion doesn’t change much for Oklahoma. Their “Cheeta” linebacker/safety hybrid goes from being free to having the slot receiver deep. That keeps him from crashing the boundary screen.

The outside boundary corner is responsible for the outside boundary receiver and the field side box linebacker is in a zone looking to stop a quick slant from the field slot receiver and picking up the running back in the flat.

The defensive ends are both on a straight pass rush around the edge, while the defensive tackles look to push the pocket into the lap of the quarterback.

Post Snap


There was a bunch of stuff going on pre-snap, and things were starting to get too busy for my taste so I got rid of some superfluous circles and boxes.

One thing the air raid does is essentially establish 3 lines of scrimmage. You’ve got the traditional line that includes the offensive line, but you need to consider the boundary and field side as separate lines. This offense is all about spreading the field wide in order to take away defensive depth and then punching holes vertically through the spread out defense.

I’ve put the area of concern in the black box to the boundary. At this point, Oklahoma is in good shape. They’ve got 3 boundary defenders on 2 wide receivers. The dropping outside defensive back gives them depth, while the slot corner and boundary side linebacker give them two players at the point of attack. It’s 2 wide receivers vs 3 defenders on the boundary, and the Sooners will take that all day. West Virginia needs to get more players into the outside box if they want this play to work.


This snapshot is good for the defense. They’ve got the boundary box covered. The field is 2 on 2 with the safety (outside the frame) in position to provide support in case of a quick throw to the field.

The ends are both trying to turn the outside corner to get to the quarterback, while the defensive tackles are preventing the QB from escaping through the pocket.



Check out the boundary box. The interior offensive line release down the field for the wide receiver screen and the defensive tackles don’t react. West Virginia now has 3 linemen and a blocking wide receiver in the boundary box (4 players total) matched up against an Oklahoma boundary box featuring 2 defensive backs and linebacker (3 players total). Harrell and the Mountaineers have numbers to the boundary.

This play works better when the ball starts on a hash. It’s easier for the interior line to get to the boundary, and there is less space for them to contend with once they get to the boundary. It’s tough to run this play to the field side or when the ball is in the middle of the field because it requires more movement from the offensive line.


The defensive tackles don’t feel the screen. They need to latch onto the linemen headed down the field. Instead, they keep moving up field, despite the interior line releasing them on purpose. Things have gone from “a good snapshot” to “oh no” in a second for the defense. Coach Harrell is using their aggressive front 4 against them.

Make the Throw!


The outside boundary receiver runs a square in, the slot receiver is in position to block the slot corner, and 3 linemen are rumbling down the field. The linemen have specific blocking assignments, they’re not just trying to get in the way. The right guard (closest to the sideline) is hunting down the outside corner, the center is hunting down the boundary linebacker, and the left guard is looking to clean up anyone else the joins the box.

This play requires the quarterback to drift back, buy time, and throw off their back foot as the pass rush closes. He’s got to hit the square out in stride while still getting the ball over or around the boundary defensive end. It’s a tight fit and tougher throw than most people realize. Make a mistake and you risk the defensive end either knocking down the pass, or worse, picking it off.


This is not what you want to see as the quarterback releases a screen pass. The only chance they have to keep this from going for big yardage is the defensive end figuring out the screen, stopping his rush up the field and getting into the passing lane.

He doesn’t figure it out in time.

Blocked Up!


Greene delivers a perfect pass to the boundary receiver. This picture is the best case scenario for a wide receiver screen. The receiver has the ball in space with a convoy of linemen picking off linebackers and corners. The hardest thing for the receiver is not over running his blocks in sheer excitement.

Notice the slot receiver blocking at the top of the screen. This play does not work if he doesn’t nail his block. That’s an under looked aspect of this offense. Receivers have to block. If you’re trying to move the point of attack from inside the tackle box to outside the tackle box, the receivers have to hold up blocking. If he misses the initial block on the slot corner, the corner plants the ball carrier and does a dance. Receivers that can’t block, no matter their size, will struggle to find time in this offense because they’ll end up getting their teammate killed. The receiver making the block for West Virginia on this play is 5’11, 185 slot Sam James.


Harrell ate the Oklahoma coaching staff’s lunch on this play. It’s set up perfectly. The only way to stop a play like this is an individual beating their block and making a play in space.

A Crease!


The slot receiver has the slot corner sealed to the outside, the center has the boundary linebacker sealed to the inside providing the perfect crease in the defense. This is what makes the air raid deadly. It spreads the ball horizontally to create vertical creases. To make things even better, the right guard is out front matched up against the boundary corner. If the ball carrier is patient enough to make it through the crease without running into the back of his lineman, this play has touchdown potential.


Someone has to get off a block and make a play or the boundary corner has to hold up against the guard long enough for the back side pursuit to get involved in the play. Either way, it’s not looking good.

Another Crease!


The ball carrier makes it through the first crease only to be met with another crease. He’s untouched, picking up speed, and only has a safety (black circle) to beat for 7.

I talked about wide receiver blocking, and this is another example. The field side slot receiver (the guy who went in motion, now in the red box) has a chance to hustle up and get to the safety or at least give the receiver a blocker to cut back into to seal the safety outside.


The safety (black circle) either makes the tackle or it’s a touchdown.

One Man to Beat!


If the ball carrier (blue box) gets to the outside without getting touched by the safety (black circle) it’s all over. The only thing that didn’t work on this play is the final block. The slot receiver can’t/doesn’t get to the safety. If you watch the clip all the way through, he loses focus for a few steps, throttles down and watches before kicking back in and looking for a block. If he doesn’t hesitate, he’s in position to block the safety, or at least give the ball carrier a cutback.

Instead of going untouched, this is a footrace to the sideline between the receiver and safety.


They’re called a safety for a reason. It’s his job to keep a good play from turning into 7 points.

Need Shorter Shoe Strings


If the receiver can avoid the closing safety, this is a touchdown. Instead the safety manages to get into his legs and get him on the ground for a 15 yard gain instead of a touchdown.


This is why you have a safety. Good work on getting the receiver on the ground.

How does this Look with Purdue’s Current Roster?

Wide Receiver

Purdue’s most experienced returning receivers are slot guys. Can Sheffield move to the boundary and compete for down field 50/50 balls? Can a more typical boundary receiver like Yaseen, Canion, Deville, or Rice step up, lock down the boundary spot, and make these plays?

The simple solution is to move either Sheffield or Burks outside when you run this play, but that tips your hand, and tipping off a screen pass usually ends in disaster. Purdue has to find a boundary receiver.

Out of those 4, Rice made some strides last season, can the former 4* give Purdue the juice they need on boundary screens and 50/50 balls? Can Yaseen and Canion stay healthy and compete for the spot? What does Deville bring to the table? Can any of the slot guys block? These are all questions the coaching staff will attempt to answer in fall camp short term, and on the recruiting trail/transfer market down the road. This is a staple play in the air raid.

Offensive Line

Is Purdue athletic enough to run this play? Ideally, M’Bow and Grant hold down the guard spots because both are more athletic than road graders. That leaves Hartwig, Purdue’s best offensive lineman under Brohm. Can the 6’5”, 310 center get outside and lead a boundary receiver screen? If he can, this play could pay huge dividends for Purdue, especially against any defense that wants to stop the air raid with quarterback pressure.


The wide receiver screen is a staple in the air raid offense. Purdue is going to run it next season. The only question is how effectively and consistently they run it. Nothing is more frustrating than a wide receiver screen game that consistently gets stuffed. I anticipate this play to get plenty of work in fall camp.