A teachable moment: the screen game

Have you ever noticed how bad the Broncos are at defending the screen game?  Seemingly, for years, it’s been a consistent weakness.  The main reason is that they have mostly had to rush more than four men to get any pressure on the opposing Quarterback.  A secondary cause is that the Broncos have rarely fielded good tackling teams over the last 25 years or so.  Even in today’s victory against the Texans, numerous screens were successfully run against the Broncos.  It’s frustrating, isn’t it?

The other side of that coin is how you can frustrate the other team by maximizing the effectiveness of your own screen game.  This has never really been an area of strength for the Broncos, either, over the last 25 years.  The reason why is the Quarterback, going back to John Elway, and continuing through the recently-ended Kyle Orton era.  The Broncos just haven’t ever had guys who were very comfortable or consistent with setting up the screen game, so a potentially devastating weapon has often not been used much.

There are certain “learned observers” (guffaw) of Broncos football, such as Vic Lombardi and Dullard Krieger who just hate them some screens, especially ones to WRs.  They never go anywhere, and they’re just, like, SOOOOOO predictable!  Here comes another WR screen for no gain!  Jeremy Bates/Josh McDaniels/Mike McCoy is a bad play-caller!!!!  Every time they don’t work, it’s the same line of commentary.  I think many Broncos fans have the same attitude toward the screen game, because, as already mentioned, it’s never been executed well by the Broncos.

That’s pretty clearly about to change, because Tim Tebow has a very good skill-set with the screen game, and that’s the most important thing to being effective with it.  He did some screening at Florida, and he’s obviously worked hard at it since coming to the Broncos.

Let me reiterate a counterintuitive truth.  The QB is the most important player in properly executing the screen game.  (Most people consider screen yards to be cheap passing yards for the QB’s stats, but they really aren’t.)  There are certain QBs who are very good at setting up screens, such as Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Phillip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, and Brett Favre.  There are also good QBs who seem to struggle with it, and therefore, do it less often, like Michael Vick, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, and Matt Ryan.

Several things must happen for an effective screen:

1.  The QB must be a good ball-handler.  That means he must receive the snap cleanly and quickly, either from under center or the shotgun.  This is crucial to proper timing.

2.  The QB must keep his eyes downfield, and his footwork/drop consistent with a deep throw. This causes the safeties to drop backward, rather than to rally forward to the catch point.

3.  The QB must be willing to take a frontal hit.  For most screens, he has to invite the rush, and let it get close to him.  Best case, he takes a little shove, and keeps backpedaling safely.  Worst case, he takes a shot in the face, and ends up on his back.  In either case, he has to be tough and calm enough to wait until the last minute to throw the ball.

4.  The QB must play with good pace, and have a strong sense of timing.  This is the most important thing.  Pace means the speed at which the player’s body is moving; you want to play at a comfortable and consistent pace, which is mechanically effective.  The correct pace varies from player to player, but each player has one.  It’s most easily illustrated through a basketball comparison.  If you think of Monta Ellis from the Golden State Warriors, his pace is very quick, but he stays under control as he gets to the rim, and his level of momentum aids his accuracy around the hoop.  (An incredible 63% for a Guard.)  Steve Nash mostly plays at a medium pace, but he often stops very quickly.  He gets separation for his pull-up jumper through that quick deceleration, and that quick movement gives the jumper consistent pace and feel, which leads to exceptional accuracy.  Andre Miller plays slow, and posts up a lot, and he uses that slow pace to draw a lot of and-one fouls.  The contact he gets gives his shots rhythm.

To run a good screen, the QB can never get in a hurry, especially in his lower half.  That has always been Kyle Orton’s issue, that his feet get screwed up because he panics at the quick rush.  You’re asking for that rush, and counting on it, so you need to move quickly, and narrowly avoid it, but stay under control.  Tom Brady is slow-footed, and he often drifts away from the rush to help him keep separation.  A quicker-footed guy like Rodgers may not need to do so.  By playing with pace, and always having your feet ready to throw on time, you set the receivers up for a lot of success by earning them separation from the rush.

5.  The QB must make an accurate throw.  This is harder than you’d think, making an accurate throw in a short area, which gives the receiver the ball heading in an upfield direction.  It’s a lot like shooting a fade-away jump shot over a 7 footer.  It requires pace, as mentioned before, and athleticism, as well as solid throwing touch.

Tim Tebow showed a lot of all of these qualities today.  That has me very excited for the future, because the way he looked, and with the mobile linemen the Broncos have, I can definitely envision them quickly running a lot of different screens, and gaining 100 yards per game on them, like the best screen teams do.  The Learned Few don’t get this, because they’ve only really ever watched the Broncos with their lack of historical success with the screen game, but 100 yards of screens per game goes a long way toward being an outstanding offense.

It’s relatively easy, low-risk yardage, and it has the benefit of slowing down the pass rush, and/or causing secondary players to jump screen routes to their detriment.  You want to have a lot of different kinds of screens from different personnel groupings, so that it doesn’t become stale or predictable.  The Chargers and Saints are exemplary in this way, and their screens really help to open up their downfield passing.  You can really mess with a defense by being able to screen and go deep from all of the same formations and groupings, because the threat of each of the two things helps the other be more effective.

Vic Lombardi tweeted to me today that the seven or so completed screens by the Broncos may be a team record.  He didn’t seem to mean that positively, but he’ll get on board with that record being broken frequently when he sees how well it works.  A well-executed screen game combined with an effective downfield effort is unstoppable.  For Vic, and for everybody else, this is today’s Teachable Moment.  Peep this diagram.

This play is commonly called a Bubble Screen.  It’s not actually a screen, in the most technical sense, because there’s no delay to it, and it doesn’t scheme offensive linemen out in front of the ball-carrier, but it has the same effects as a true screen.  The look here is Trips Left against a 3-3 nickel, most likely a zone.  (We know that because the Left CB is aligned on the TE, away from the strength of the formation.)  This is a good defense to run the screen against, because there are 3 blockers (SE, SB, LT) to hit 3 defensive players (CB, NB, WLB).  Actually, if it works correctly, we’d like the Split End (let’s call him Brandon Lloyd) to push the charging CB outside, and then go hit the FS.  It’s on the Flanker (maybe Demariyus Thomas or Eddie Royal) to ultimately make the CB miss, once he catches the ball.

This is the sort of thing that works really well, until eventually, the FS and the CB read it pre-snap and jump it.  When Jabar Gaffney got clocked on Tebow’s bad throw today, that’s what was goingon .  That’s the time when Vic and others start bitching on Twitter about how the offense is too predictable and conservative.  Then, you do this.

The CB and FS step up to prevent the quick throw, and Tebow fakes in that direction. Lloyd half-heartedly hits the CB this time, and then takes off downfield, past the out-of-position FS in Cover-2.  It’s pitch and catch, and it was set up by the “predictable, conservative” bubble screen.  Next time, the defense doesn’t know what to do against this look, so both options are likely to be effective.  This is a small part of what non-Learned people like me call good offensive design.  You make multiple options look the same, and it’s a killer.

Finally, here’s something that Tebow is tremendously effective with that isn’t done too much in the NFL these days, but could be.  It’s also not a screen, but is also similar in purpose.

Does anybody remember the shovel pass?  You need the right kind of TE to run this, like Tebow had at Florida in Aaron Hernandez, but this can be an absolutely deadly play.  Think of it as a different take on a cross between a triple option and an old-school trap.  Tebow receives the snap, and can hand it to the RB if the 5T DE crashes hard inside.  Ryan Clady is going to shove the 3T DE inside, and then head outside to hit the Will LB.  The 3T is the play-side read.  If he goes and tries to tackle the RB, (the trap read), Tebow should shovel the ball to the TE coming around the edge.  If the 3T reads the shovel pass, and follows the TE, Tebow should run the ball into the left B-gap.  It’s really hard to defend all three options, and Florida used to run this action 4-5 times per game, and get 3-4 first downs with it.  With a quick TE, this should enter the Broncos playbook.

When you see somebody question the use of screen plays out of hand, you should be skeptical of their understanding of football.  Teams which can properly execute their screen game, and are creative with the design of it can use it to great effect.  Tim Tebow showed a good feel for running these plays today, and it should only improve with more reps over time.  There are suddenly a lot of reasons to be optimistic for the future, and this is one that I don’t want to be missed.

Originally posted at One Man Football

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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