Denver's defense has bitten - and thus been bitten - a few times on screens this year. The screen that Denver has been biting on is the slow screen, which is sometimes called the conventional screen - it's hard to run and not that many teams use it much. The reason for that is simple - once the team has been together for a while, they usually won't bite on the slow screen.
It's a very hard play to run and time properly. If you're a defensive lineman and you're suddenly not being blocked, there's a reason for it and it generally isn't clean living and good fortune - it's because they're trying to make a sap out of you. Denver has been terribly undisciplined defensively for years now, and I've been a bit disappointed in the lack of progress there - but I do believe that if we give DC Dennis Allen a full season he’ll put a stop to a lot of it, and I doubt that it will be as much of an issue. It’s early in the season, but Broncos DC Dennis Allen looks like one of the finds of the offseason.
Every team needs a screen pass or three on hand to keep the on-rushing defenders honest or to make them pay when they’re not. There are five screens that are generally considered as such - and there is an additional option called a ‘smoke route’ that I’ll also cover, since it does much the same thing - run properly, it makes the defense pay for their tendency towards aggression.
1. The Traditional, Conventional or ‘Slow’ Screen:
Although it’s the one most folks know best, the least commonly used screen in today's football is the slow screen. This play requires plenty of timing and execution and involves a lot of deception. It is effective against zone defending teams and defensive linemen that get up the field, causing separation. It is generally not effective against man-to-man coverage, as a linebacker immediately zeroes in on the running back.
The quarterback, instead of taking his traditional five-step drop, actually drops deeper to allow the defensive linemen to rush up the field farther. This also allows the linebackers to drop deeper into coverage which creates separation.
The offensive tackle to the side of the screen sets as if to pass block and then attempts to chop down (legally) the defensive end -- so that the ball can be thrown over him. The guards and centers hold for a one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two count and then release to form a wall -- usually to a specific landmark on the field.
The running back stays in, fakes pass protection and then slips out to become the receiver. The QB, rolling back and to that side, has to be fleet enough to keep a passing lane to the receiver open. As you can see, it takes a lot of timing, movement and execution, but if you catch the defensive in zone coverage with it, it can be an excellent play. If team are looking for it and prepared for it, though, you’re pretty much toast, with one guy chasing the QB deep behind the LOS and the rest holding back and shutting down the running back and receivers.
2. The Tunnel Screen
In the tunnel screen, the quarterback takes a three-step drop (at most). Other times, he will simply rise up and zip it out to a receiver cutting inside a block, often catching the defense off guard. By leaning toward his inside route, the targeted receiver can give away the play, so you might want to watch for the tell. The WR must keep his center until the ball is snapped and then burst in, ready to receive the ball in his first steps.
The difference between the tunnel screen and more traditional slow screen to a running back is how quickly the wide receiver screen can get on top of a defense. In the more traditional version of the screen (conventional), the quarterback holds onto the ball while backpedaling to try and draw the defense further into the offensive backfield, before dumping it off to a back. One DL coach said that his linemen must recognize that they are not being blocked and react accordingly.
According to him, you’re not going to get a clear line rush on the QB more than a couple of times a year, so if you find yourself in that situation, you have to assume that you’re being suckered in and look around you - fast. Offensive line coaches are too good at picking up blitzes and pass protection. Players in that situation should not continue to rush the passer; they should not think they’re the man and are going to get to the quarterback. You're not suddenly The Man. You're not being offered a real gift - it's the same one that the Greeks gave the Trojans, with a similar outcome. The rushers need to realize what it really means and make sure the outlet guy is covered.
3. Jailbreak Screen
The jailbreak screen is a wide receiver screen that involves the wide receiver coming back to the quarterback at the snap of the ball. The reason it's called a jailbreak is because the offensive line releases automatically downfield to block - it’s commonly confused with a bubble screen, which I’ll talk about in a moment. The offense uses a tight end or wide receiver to go away from the line of scrimmage to pick the outside receiver's man. The linemen punch the defensive linemen to stop their initial charge then release downfield to form a wall. The offensive tackle stays in and chops the defensive end to get his hands down so that the ball can be thrown over the top of him. That's particularly important if the QB, as has been the case with Kyle Orton over the years, tends to throw a slightly flat ball over the line scrum. If the hands go up, the ball will potentially be tipped or even intercepted.
4. The Bubble Screens
The infamous and much-hated bubble screen that fans complained about for an entire season is actually Bubble Screens, plural. What gives? Yes, there are two different situations in which a bubble screen is run, and they face different obstacles and can produce different results. By the way, many of the ‘bubble screens’ that fans were crying about in 2009 weren’t bubble screens at all - they were tunnel or jailbreak screens.
Bubble Screen vs. 3-deep or soft man-to-man
Used against the Cover 2, the 3-deep or the soft man-to-man, this bubble screen is a wide receiver screen where the receiver actually 'bubbles' away from the line of scrimmage and the quarterback. It's also very effective against today's zone blitzes, so when the QB goes to the line and sees a 'tell' that the zone blitz is coming, he may audible to this play. The most common form involves the other wideout picking the defensive back and giving the receiver a chance to run after the catch. The wide receiver turns or ‘bubbles’ back to get the ball, allowing this play be timed perfectly. This is a great route against a 3-deep zone or soft man-to-man if the outside defender is giving a cushion because the screen is caught so quickly that if done properly, there is little time for the defense to respond.
It's a simple scheme, but the throw is not as easy as it looks. The quarterback must throw it accurately so the wide receiver can catch the football in full stride on his way toward the line of scrimmage and it's too far from any defender for them to get their hands on it. A WR can see if the defender can tackle in the open field, if he's a solid run-after-catch receiver, and turn him loose as he heads for and grabs the ball. Keep in mind, as a fan - this one has to be a touch pass and it has to be perfectly accurate. It's heck to catch a full-on fireball when you're running at the QB, so this pass isn't for the cannon-armed young QB, but more for the players who have developed a touch pass as well as a faster pass that is still accurate. Denigrated as it has been in Denver, this play takes a lot of practice and can be extremely effective.
Bubble Screen 2 (vs. zone blitz)
The bubble screen is used to combat today's zone blitz schemes, and most teams, at this point, have added zone blitz plays to their arsenal. The receiver catches the ball and then turns to run downfield. If the defense blitzes and goes from a 2-deep hide to a 3-deep, it is a great play. Some offenses - really, some QBs who are smart and keep their eyes open and focused on the defense - will abort a running play and throw a bubble screen if the linebacker shows blitz (via any number of tells that he will be coming in fast). Denver, you might recall, had serious OL problems in 2009 and as a result they started to see almost constant blitzes. The only players who make the judgment of whether or not to use this screen are the wide receivers and quarterback. The offensive linemen and running backs actually go ahead and execute a running play, and that can loosen the defensive rush, as they see a running play also developing and can't tell who to grab. What the QB has done in the huddle is call two plays. The QB has to call the bubble play at the LOS, once he's seen the defensive formation.
5. Swing screen
It’s just what it sounds like - you can run it out of the I-formation, the I-far or I-near, the pro set and any of dozens of different formations. It showed up several times during the Broncos' preseason - one of the backs swings to the outside and the QB gives him a quick touch pass. This is a common candidate for a pulling guard - the swing goes to the same side that the guard pulls to, helping clear a lane for the RB. Why the touch pass? The QB is close enough to the receiver that too much pepper on the ball can break fingers, which is a common hazard of the trade for receivers.
6. Smoke screen
So, with all of these screen options, you can see why folks easily get confused. On top of all of these, you've got the smoke route, the simplest play in the passing arsenal - the QB takes the snap, stands up and fires the throw to his receiver, who can be a wide receiver or tight end - it doesn’t matter, as long as the pathway is clear for the pass. Sometimes the QB will use a three-step drop on this, but if the defense is successfully defeating your OL, hitting the smoke route receiver as soon as the ball’s in the QB’s hands can save his life. I never saw Josh McDaniels call it, and to tell the truth, much as I like a lot about McDaniels, it drove me nuts when the defenses were swarming blitzes every third down, Orton kept getting killed and the plays that counter that weren’t called. There are a few blitz-busters in the offensive playbook, and every coach needs to know them and use them when the defenses have your number. Once you’re not dictating to the defense, they own you.
Which is why the screens are such successful weapons when used right. Your QB has to have the right skills for the ones you’re using, and not every QB will be good at all of them. If you’ve been doing traditional Coryell-type mid-to-long passes and alternating with a decent running game, tossing in a screen of whatever kind when the defense is sure you’re going long can go for a lot of yards. A lot of football comes down to very fast decisions: making the other player believe that you’re going to do something that you’re not, or springing something unexpected that you haven’t used in a certain down and distance can keep drives - and quarterbacks - alive.
Many thanks to IAOFM readers underdog for providing the impetus for this column and slowwhiteguy, who contributed to the information on bubble screens.