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Jimbo Fisher's big, small adjustment to Florida State's passing offense

A look behind the screen

Florida State's passing offense through four games was not good.

An extremely young offensive line struggled to protect a transfer QB who struggled to pick up the pro-style system and get the ball on time to an extremely young receiving corps that didn't always run the right route or catch the football.

But give credit to Jimbo Fisher for abandoning the attempt to make Everett Golson into a pro-style passer and making the most of what he has on hand.

In FSU's last two games its yards/attempt up are 25 percent. That's awesome. As Jared Shanker of ESPN has shown, FSU has done it by drastically slashing how far its passes are going in the air -- almost in half, from 8.22 to 4.48. That is really short.

Huh? Shorter passes, longer gains?

The answer is screens. Lots and lots of screens.

Florida State's percentage of pass plays that are screens has has nearly tripled over the last two games -- from 12 percent in the first two games to 34 percent over the last two, according to plays charted by Tomahawk Nation.

In those two games, FSU has averaged 8.4 yards per screen, and 76 percent of its screen calls have gained five or more yards. Those are great and consistent screen numbers, prompting Jimbo Fisher to call them "an extension of the run game."

This is working well for several reasons.

First, screens are relatively easy to run. Everett Golson doesn't really have to understand the offense or how to read a defense to throw screens. And they aren't a difficult throw. Screens don't really require a tough route by the receiver, and they are not tough to catch. The offensive line does not have to hold up very long in pass protection.

The screen game has helped to minimize FSU's weaknesses, while playing to its strengths including receivers who are willing to block for each other. And screens get the ball in the hands of some very athletic receivers, like Kermit Whitfield, allowing them to make yards after the catch. A few have also gone to Dalvin Cook.

The screen game also keeps defenders off Dalvin Cook. Many of these screens are run/pass checks that Everett Golson makes before the play, based on how the defense is aligning. This isn't revolutionary, but it does punish defenses who are too focused on stopping the most explosive back in college football who is on his way to shattering FSU's rushing record, or who are too aggressive.

Plus, screens very rarely result in turnovers, and FSU's offense has been brilliant (lucky) at avoiding turnovers, which means that even it doesn't score, it is making opposing offenses drive long distances to score against its own defense.

Is this sustainable?

These have worked well against average (Miami) and good (Louisville) defenses, in part because of the surprise factor of the calls, but also due to the variety of screens Jimbo Fisher is calling to keep defenses off balance. Tunnel screens, middle screens, bubbles of all sorts, tight end throwback screens, downfield screens (not always legal but officials allow far more egregious flaunting of the rules by some spread teams).

But Florida State will play better defenses than Miami and Louisville, like Clemson and Florida, and they will have seen it. The offense cannot survive on screens as its pass game. Better defenses will try to cover down on the receivers and stop the running game with less personnel.

This is both a good and bad thing. Making defenses respect the screen will keep the run game open, and if Everett Golson can learn to keep the ball on the zone read (this is currently a weakness hindering the offense), defenses will stop hitting FSU's run plays from the backside and these constraint plays will put defenses in a bit of a bind.

FSU will need counters as well. In the last two games, just 4 percent of its passes have traveled 20+ yards in the air, compared to 15 percent in its first two. FSU has to improve its downfield play-action passing game which is currently not very good considering it is faking the ball to Dalvin Cook.

It also will need to work in some shot plays off the screens where players who appear to be locking release downfield, like Jimbo Fisher did at 1:04 in the video from 2008.