An ode to the screen pass, the secret weapon of the NFL’s best offenses

“It’s the same f***ing play!”

That’s what an exasperated Raiders defensive tackle screamed after Jamaal Charles scored on his third screen pass of the game early in the second quarter of a 2013 beatdown by the Chiefs. This defensive tackle wasn’t screaming at anyone in particular, but Jeff Allen and I took the opportunity to mock him anyway. We, well let’s be honest, it was more Jeff Allen, hit the Raiders defensive tackle with an “ooohh, kill em” dance, and we laughed our way back to the point after kick.

I’ve always enjoyed a good screen pass, but I really fell in love with them when I came to Kansas City. There’s an art to running successful screen passes, and it has to be taught with extreme detail. The running back must be exactly where he’s supposed to be when the ball is caught. Here’s the lane for the screen, and the linemen must hit their aiming points on the defenders to make it happen. The quarterback has to throw the ball to the right shoulder of the back so he can turn and run as quick as he can. So many small details.

The best offensive minds in the game teach it that way. It’s no surprise the best screen teams in the NFL have outstanding coaches.

The most basic screens involve a few staples. I’m going to focus this article on running back screens, but these coaching points can be altered to fit a tight end, fullback or even a wide receiver screen.

The basics of a running back screen pass

The offensive line is the key to the screen. The line has rules and aiming points to hit when they release into the screen.

They must punch the defenders, get them to stop their feet and then begin a rush again. This is exactly how they normally set on a pass, and linemen want them to think it’s a pass.

Too often linemen don’t take the time to punch their defender and get beaten so quickly that the screen never gets off. Once they punch, they try to invite the rusher to beat them in the opposite direction of the screen. So if you’re the left guard, you want to get beat inside. Once it’s time to get out in space, they have assignments, just like every play.

I drew this play up in an ideal situation. The first out has the force player and looks out-to-up or out-to-in. The second out has the alley, and he looks up-to-in. The third lineman out has the peel-back block. This is an important because they’ll often see defenders running down the screen from behind. The front side tackle wants to get bull rushed and beaten inside to allow the quarterback the right lane to hit the back. Lastly, the backside tackle has a man to man pass block.

For a screen game to work, the running back has a mark they have to hit before receiving the ball so they’re in line with the linemen. If the back is too far in front or too far behind, the timing is screwed up and the play is dead.

With the basics of a running back screen explained, I can discuss the most common, most successful screen play in the NFL — a play action screen with some sort of fly sweep or reverse action.

It’s a slow-paced screen, but the action is such that it can confuse a defense and allow the backs to have access to open field space.

One aspect of this screen that allows for the success is the linemen get a clear idea of who they are blocking. Even though they have marks for where they should be blocking, the players can vary. It could be a linebacker or a player in the secondary. That defender could be coming from the outside in or from the sky down into the box. Sometimes, no one is in the area and they have to adjust and find someone to block.

Calling a screen against man coverage can be money, but man coverage is another issue all together. In zone coverage you have defenders dropping into their zone spots, and they are typically in an area where a lineman can easily see them. In man coverage, the linebacker on the running back can come across the center, depending on the location of the back, or he can be play side and aligned head up on the back. As the screen begins, the man coverage player moves quickly to cover the back. Because that defender is a tad quicker covering the screen, the blocker must release into the screen just a tad quicker than usual. Blockers must also recognize that it’s man coverage, something most seasoned offensive lineman can spot.

Here’s the screen I’m discussing today. I want to show it to you before I explain what’s happening.

The basic screen pass in action

Dallas might have its limitations on offense, but the Cowboys run this screen extremely well.

Here’s how this screen works.

The offense fakes the zone play weak. The offensive line blocks like it’s a run. They block towards the side of the screen and the linemen are closer to their marks. It allows them to sell the run. It also gives the linemen a clear look of who’s in front of them and who their assignment might be.

Also, it’s easy to tell if it’s man coverage. If there’s one defender mirroring the back, it’s man coverage.

Deception is vital.

The run fake gets the defense moving their feet and looking to drop back into coverage. Their eyes go away from the back. The fly sweep action is another eye violation. The defense looks towards that player instead of focusing on the prize. That fly action element also gives the linemen a good indication of man or zone coverage. If a defender runs with the sweep action, it’s man coverage. If it’s man coverage, that removes a defender from the front side of the screen. Awesome things come from this fly sweep action.

The example with the Cowboys is the base way teams run this screen.

A master class on the screen pass

The Saints took this screen and added their own twist to make it even better. This is how the best offensive minds in the game operate.

The play looks the same, but it’s different in a couple of important ways.

First, the Saints have Drew Brees open to his left for the play action fake. Most of the time, probably 99 percent of the time, a right handed QB is going to fake to the right, then back up, and throw to the back. Here they have Drew Brees fake the handoff and start to roll back to his right. It looks like a typical play action pass at the point where Breesfakes to the left and then half rolls back to the right to set up for a deep pass. When you add in the deep over route from Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara on the jet sweep, it looks as though Breesis throwing the ball to his right.

The action from Kamara does exactly what it’s supposed to do. Notice all the defenders running with him? When Brees turns in that direction, all of the Bengals defenders eye Kamara. That’s the appetizer for the main course.

After the play fake, Ingram casually tries to hide himself until it’s time to receive the ball. The offensive line blocks the zone play weak. Left tackle Terron Armstead gets beat inside. The rest of the line is blocking their gaps. Then, time to release into the screen. Because they are already moving in that direction, it’s clear to Andrus Peat, the left guard and first one out, to see the man coverage player. He promptly flattens him. It’s an outstanding block.

The second out is supposed to be the center, Max Unger, but he gets held up so right guard Larry Warford takes his spot. Unger then looks to peel back. Ingram catches the ball, follows his blocks and gets to the promise land.

It’s a beautifully executed play.

Done right, it’s one of the most devastating plays an offense can use. I love a good screen pass.

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