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Point Counterpoint: The Screen Passby: David Purdum
© February 2006
When the rule was changed allowing downfield blocking on any pass completed behind the line of scrimmage, the quick wide receiver screen, also known as the “tunnel” or “rocket” screen, gave blitz-weary offensive coordinators a counter attack capable of causing of mass destruction.
“It’s such a good football play,” said James Madison head coach Mickey Matthews. “It’s changed football. If they get the play executed, and you’re in a blitz, it’s going to be a big play for the offense.”
To avoid such situations, defensive coordinators have become more cautious and are constantly looking for signs that the screen might be coming. Anticipating and recognizing the tunnel screen are the biggest keys to defending it. If neither occurs, the play is nearly impossible to stop. Former Evangel Christian Academy (Shreveport, La.) head coach Dennis Dunn, who was recently named head coach at Division III Louisiana College, uses screens not only to slow down the pass rush, but also to open up the other facets of his high-octane spread offense.
“The wide receiver or tunnel screen makes people rush fewer than they normally would because they have to account for the screen,” he said. “It utilizes the speed and breakaway ability of a wide receiver. “[Screens] offset a lot of things that the defense is trying to create when you can run them successfully, because they have to account for them in their scheme, and then it just opens up the rest of your offense in terms of being able to run the ball out of the shotgun, being able to have time to set up to throw your vertical passing game, your deep outside comebacks, your deep crossing patterns. All those things that, obviously, you like to do with a vertical stretch passing game. The screens help offset that rush. Then, when they start having to account for the screens, it just opens up what we like to do.”
Here’s how Dunn disguises and runs his tunnel screen and how Matthews anticipates, recognizes and defends it.
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, a 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. Matthews says his linemen must recognize that they are not being blocked and react accordingly.
“The thing we tell our defensive players, especially our D-line,” he explained, “when you’re rushing the passer and you’re unblocked, that just doesn’t happen but once a year. Offensive line coaches are too good at picking up blitzes and pass protection. Do not continue to rush the passer; do not think you’re the man and are going to get to the quarterback.”
In the tunnel screen, the quarterback, at most, takes a three-step drop. 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 rout, the targeted receiver can give away the play.
At Evangel, the Eagles orchestrate the screen out of the spread shotgun formation, just like they would when attacking down the field. The play-side guard releases flat down the line of scrimmage and kicks out the first man outside the box. This is the most crucial block and the one the receiver will try to work under. “If this block isn’t made,” Dunn insisted, “then the plays is dead.”
With that in mind, Matthews instructs his corners to focus on the receivers and run through their tackles. “We used to, even in man-to-man coverage, have our corners key the quarterbacks, looking for that three-step drop,” said Matthews, “but the line was getting out on them so fast that we had to change the way we taught our corners. Your corners have to realize that there is a big offensive lineman looking for you,” he continued, “and he’s in a foul mood. Run through your tackle; do not slow down.”
On offense for the Eagles, the play-side tackle stays locked on for three steps and urges the defensive end to work outside. The tackle then comes back downhill and picks up any “trash” inside the box. “A lot of times, they’ll spy a defensive lineman,” said Dunn. “So the tackle’s responsibility is to pick up that spy, which we call trash.”
Meanwhile, both guards and the center are to punch away from the play and step away from the most dangerous man, before each releases on a 45-degree angle toward the play. The center tries to cut out the first linebacker inside the box. If the play-side guard is facing an outside shade, he is to step with his right foot inside, punch with his left hand and release behind that shade. If he’s facing an inside shade or a head-up shade, his main objective is not to get two-gapped. “Don’t let the guy center you up and be able to release to either side,” said Dunn. “He’s got to step away from it, but still punch to stop his rush just for a second, just for a count, then he releases. This is a one-count screen. So it’s punch and go.”
The backside guard also punches and steps away from the most dangerous man. He is responsible for the second linebacker in the box. If there’s only one linebacker, then he heads for the free safety. The backside tackle stays locked on. The inside or slot receiver on the play-side is responsible for the kicking out on the cornerback. The backside slot is to angle toward the free safety, and the backside wide out is to cut off the backside corner. The running back heads away from the screen, and the quarterback gives a short play-action fake to the back to hold the linebacker for a count.
Matthews says linebackers are the key to stopping the screen 9 out of 10 plays. It is imperative that your LBs find who is coming to block them, beat their man and then head for the receiver. “We don’t want to trade one for one,” Matthews said, “because our linebackers are better athletes than their offensive linemen. We tell our backers to find the blocker that is coming after you, make him miss, then go make the tackle.”
and How to Disguise it
The best time to call the screen is when you’re anticipating the blitz. To disguise when the screen is coming, Dunn prefers to run the play from the same formations that he uses when attacking down the field vertically. The Eagles primarily run their offense from a four-receiver spread formation.
“From film, you can get an idea of when a defense likes to blitz,” Dunn said. “Some coordinators love to blitz on 2nd-and-long, 3rd-and-long or anytime when you have look down the field. Depending on how many times we’ve run it in a game or in the previous game, we’ve scouted ourselves to see when our tendency is to run it, then we’ll run it another time. Sometimes 1st-and-10 is a good time to run the screen. Basically, scouting ourselves is important.”
Dunn says when defenses smell a screen they will often spy a defensive lineman. “Our defensive line coach says, ‘If they smell a rat, they’ll stop rushing and drop and drift,” he added. “Zone blitzes, where they play zone behind a blitz, send linebackers then spy linemen and account for the blitz.
“When they’re doing that, though, it opens up other things. When they’re doing that a lot, it sure opens up the running game and the vertical passing game because you don’t have that heat coming up field at your quarterback.”
While Dunn’s busy predicting the blitz, Matthews is concentrating on sniffing out the screen. He looks for tendencies on certain down and distances or field positions, something that might signal the screen is coming. When he feels a screen is on the way, he avoids any and all blitzes and prefers to stick with his base defense.
“When [current New Mexico State coach] Hal Mumme was at Kentucky, he did a good job with that play on 2nd-and-medium, 2nd-and-long and 3rd-and-medium,” said Matthews, who worked with Champ Bailey during his tenure as a defensive assistant at Georgia from 1996-98. “Every once in awhile, we’ll face an option team that will run it a few times. That really catches you off guard sometimes.”
With the quick timing of the play, Matthews says it’s important that the first player to recognize the screen is coming let his teammates know vocally. “Don’t keep it a secret,” he said. “You cannot wait until the ball is thrown to react. It’s too late by then. They’re already by you.” Matthews says he repeatedly runs the screen with his scout offense in practice to give the defense as many looks at some of the elements of the play that they can recognize.
“In most people’s protection, they are double-teaming the A-gap,” he said. “Also, the offensive tackle will quick set--that’s a key to a screen.”
1. Cornerbacks have to focus on the receivers: “We used to, even in man-to-man coverage, have our corners key the quarterbacks, looking for that three-step drop,” said Matthews, “but the line was getting out on them so fast that we had to change the way we taught our corners.” Remember, according to Dunn, the play-side guard’s kick-out block on the nearest defender outside the box – which often will be the defensive back on the slot receiver – is the key block. Finding out where he’s coming from can be the difference is stopping the play for a loss or having it go for a first down.
2. Don’t keep it a secret: “As soon as someone recognizes it’s coming, we want it called out loud and clearly,” Matthews said. Often, WR’s on the backside of the play will appear relaxed, while the playside receiver will look anxious, even leaning toward his inside route.
3. Let them see it in practice: While repetition is the best way to develop the play’s timing, the more defenses see it in practice the quicker they will be able to recognize it in a game. “You cannot wait until the ball is thrown to react,” said Matthews. “It’s too late by then. They’re already by you by then.”
4. Offensive linemen don’t lie: Matthews says, “The thing we tell our defensive players, especially our D-line, when you’re rushing the passer and you’re unblocked, that doesn’t happen by accident. Offensive line coaches are too good at picking up blitzes and pass protection. Do not continue to rush the passer; do not think you’re the man and are going to get to the quarterback.”
When Matthews believes the screen is coming, he tries to stick to his base defense with absolutely no blitzing.
“Linebackers are going to be the ones stopping the screen 9 out of 10 times,” he said. “We don’t want to trade one for one, because our linebackers are better athletes than their offensive linemen. We tell our backers to find the blocker that is coming after you, make him miss, then go make the tackle.”
James Madison defensive backs are instructed not to break down before making their tackles.
“Your corners have to realize that there is a big offensive lineman looking for you", Matthews said, "and he's on a foul mood. Run through your tackle; do not slow down.
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