Browns, Cleveland Browns Film Room

Cleveland Browns Film Room: Screens, screens and more screens


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.

bubble screen

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.

WR screen one snap

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.

WR screen one 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.

WR screen two presnap

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.

WR screen two pass

This time the pass is right in Cecil’s breadbasket and he heads up-field.

WR screen two run

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.

Here’s another.

WR screen three presnap

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.

WR screen three pass

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.

Let’s show you one more, just so you don’t think I’m picking on Haden. WR screen four snap

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.

WR screen four run

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 about defending the WR screen on twitter. Here is his response.

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.


  • Ezzie Goldish

    THANK YOU. At the last few games I kept noting to the people with me that teams were consistently throwing these bubble screens on the Browns for a pretty consistent 5-7 yards in addition to having the option of quick-snapping as the Browns’ DBs move slowly to their positions. Great breakdown.

    What I would think would be an interesting way to attack it even if just once early in the game would be to have the inside DB watching the outside WR at the snap – if he doesn’t break off the line, try to cut between the QB and WR. Or perhaps even gamble once with the outside DB back and just try and jump it from the snap. If a S can be leaning to that side even a little bit to pick up his man in case it’s not that play, it’s a great gamble to take once – possible pick-six and effectively eliminates that play from the opponent’s repertoire even if that wasn’t what they were doing.

  • Even as frustrating as this team is to watch, these film room breakdowns are terrific. Well done as always.

  • mgbode

    great job demonstrating these plays above.

    I do agree that the best way to deter is for the CBs to be able to get off the blocks and minimize the gains. Tenn and Seattle don’t see many bubble screens because their CBs are so physical that they rag-doll most WRs and make the easy tackle.

    One variation that I really want to see teams start to implement on offense is a motion bubble screen. Part of the risk of the bubble screen is the WR is sitting there as the ball gets to the outside and he has to wait for it while the defense knows where the ball is going. Then, with the entire defense collapsing, the WR has to get to full speed from a stop. I would love to see a sprint-bubble-screen where the WR comes in motion from the other side and it’s more of a timing pattern between the QB and WR. It could potentially go for much bigger gains (of course, you are adding the incompletion risk here as it’d also be a much tighter window).