Driving home from the game last Sunday I had the chance to hear Doug Dieken on one of the post-game radio shows. Dieken was lamenting the number of ‘bubble’ screens that Jacksonville had thrown. In fact, Dieken said that in the last two games, he had seen more WR screens thrown against the Browns than in entire seasons previously. I had also been thinking that the Browns were facing more of these screens lately, perhaps as a way to combat the aggressive nature of the defense and the blitz schemes employed.
So let’s look at the numbers. Chad Henne threw 12 passes at or behind the line of scrimmage on Sunday against the Browns. That’s 30% of his total pass attempts for the game. A week earlier, Ben Roethlisberger threw seven of his 31 passes behind the line of scrimmage for about 23%.
For a point of reference, those 19 screen passes were 1 more than the Browns had throw against them in the first six weeks of the season combined. Here’s a stat for you- through the first six weeks the Browns saw 18 passes thrown at them behind the line of scrimmage. The second six weeks of the season that number jumps to 39.
I also went through all of Jacksonville’s games. The 12 passes behind the line of scrimmage is tied for the most they’ve thrown this season. The other team they threw a dozen screens at? The Arizona Cardinals, Ray Horton’s previous team. The Steelers have used the screen more often as of late, but the seven against the Browns is also their high mark of the season.
So what in the world is all of this discussion about screen passes for anyway?
Well, it seems to be the way that offenses are trying to attack the Browns lately. We’ve talked in this space in the past about how the Browns like to mix up how they bring pressure and who they do that with. They have fifteen players on the team with at least one sack, which is crazy. They actually have ten players now with at least a pair of sacks. In the last three games however, the Browns have just two sacks.
By using these screens, offenses are attempting to 1. slow down the Browns’ pass rush and 2. use them as a substitute rushing attack or at least a complimentary one.
I had the chance on Wednesday to talk with ILB Tank Carder about the defense and whether these screens were effective against it.
“I think we’re killing people on defense,” Carder said pointing out that the team is fourth in the league in defense. So I asked him if it was frustrating as an inside defender when teams use these screens to get the ball out to the edge quickly.
“That’s how offenses beat teams that either blitz a lot or are good at blitzing, you get rid of the ball quick. It’s choose your poison. Blitz and they’re going to get rid of the ball quick, or you’re playing coverage and he’s sitting back in the pocket reading your coverage.”
Let’s first take a look at what a true bubble screen is.
You can see from this diagram the inside receiver goes around the other two wide outs who are responsible for blocking their men. The idea is to get the receiver to the edge with a little momentum. One missed tackle is all it takes for a hug gainer if not a touchdown. The term bubble came from the motion of the receiver going around that first wide out. A bubble screen these days is often referred to any quick hitting pass to an outside wide receiver behind the line of scrimmage. Kind of like how end around plays started to be called reverses, even though the ball actually never changes direction.
Let’s take a look at a few of these in action against the Browns defense.
Here we have the Jaguars attempting a WR screen. The receiver at the top of the screen is #84 Cecil Shorts. The inside receiver at the top is #18 Ace Sanders. Joe Haden is the defender at the top of the screen opposite Shorts, and Buster Skrine is below him and opposite Sanders. As the ball is snapped, Sanders breaks on a line toward Joe Haden. Shorts takes a jab step and squares up for the pass.
Henne gets rid of the ball quickly, just ahead of Barkevious Mingo’s leap. Mingo actually read the play quickly and tried to make an athletic play to tip the ball. If you want to know how quick Mingo is, take a look at the ground he covered between these two shots compared to the rest of the players. We see Haden and Skrine break on the ball, but Shorts isn’t able to make the catch cleanly. This one went as no gain.
Now look what happens on the very next snap.
Anything look familiar? How about everything. I think that the Jaguars were on a ‘check with me’ audible at the beginning of the game. If the Browns were going to give this much cushion to Shorts, I think the intention was to throw him the screen each time.
This time the pass is right in Cecil’s breadbasket and he heads up-field.
Joe Haden meets him around the 33 yard line, which would have been about a two or three yard gain. However, Haden is unable to bring Shorts down and the play turns into a seven yard gain.
Different verse, but same as the first. This is later in the game and to the opposite side. Again, Shorts is the intended target on the far end. Haden is opposite in coverage.
Here the ball is halfway to the receiver. Haden really hasn’t moved at all. Shorts will make the catch and get 8 yards on the play.
Here the Browns have made an adjustment. They have three defenders covering the two wide outs on the left side of the formation. T.J. Ward also has safety help over the top.
Haden is able to be aggressive to the ball because he knows that he has help. He makes the play for no gain.
I asked Dane Brugler of CBS Sports and NFL Draft Scout.com about defending the WR screen on twitter. Here is his response.
@RickWFNY Few ways, but mainly t's up to the CBs to get off blocks or at the very least win positioning to cause a hesitation in the route
— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) December 2, 2013
@RickWFNY I think Horton has done this some, asking Haden/Skrine to press at the LOS. But then you cant get beat deep (like Haden vs Shorts)
— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) December 2, 2013
It’s a fine line that teams have to walk between blitzing and keeping guys back in coverage, and pressing versus playing off the receiver. The answer to defending the WR screen is probably in the variation of coverages and like Dane said, in beating the block.
These screens are designed to get one on one match-ups hoping to break one every once in a while. Fortunately, the Browns have a pretty good pair of corners to combat this.
There are definitely more ways to screen a cat, (sorry) and the Browns have seen a lot of creative screens lately. Perhaps we’ll take a look at some of these on another day. Thanks Dane and Tank for your input.