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One of the questions Pewter Report is often asked by Tampa Bay fans is why the Buccaneers don’t call more screen passes under head coach and playcaller Jon Gruden.
That’s a good question, and it’s one we decided to inquire about this week after watching the Bucs call and successfully execute an 18-yard screen play to rookie tight end Alex Smith during the first quarter of last Saturday’s game vs. the Atlanta Falcons.
While there are a variety of screen plays (running back screen, tight end screen and wide receiver screen) used around the NFL, these passing plays traditionally involve the offensive linemen allowing the defensive linemen to penetrate the offensive backfield. From there, at least two of the five offensive linemen head to a specific part of the field with the intention of blocking upfield for the running back, tight end or wide receiver that catches the short pass from the quarterback.
In Smith’s case, the rookie tight end was on the receiving end of a middle screen pass from quarterback Chris Simms. The play resulted in an 18-yard gain, and the drive eventually ended with Simms hitting fullback Jameel Cook in the flat for a 9-yard touchdown.
Screens are used to take advantage of a defense that is relentless in its pass rush, or if nothing else, these misdirection plays help slow the defense’s pass rush down a bit.
Timing and defensive coverage are key in determining when to call a screen pass in games. Bucs running backs Art Valero made it clear that there is a time and place to call a screen play in games.
“The one thing people have to understand is these plays are very situational,” said Valero. “They’re not an every-down call. You certainly don’t want any blitzes being called on those plays, although you could hit one when there is a blitz. It could be hit or miss, and when it does miss it can be costly. It’s very situational, so you have to see deep zone droppers, and if the linebackers want to get good and deep, then you can throw those screens underneath because now you have an opportunity to run. Anytime you have man-to-man situations, those offensive linemen have to block the linebackers out in space, and that’s an athletic mismatch. The timing of the call and the moment that the offensive linemen get upfield is key. What kind of defense the team is deploying at that time really enters into it. Hey, it’s easy to throw a screen because it takes some of the heat off the pass rush, but how about the underneath coverage? If you run a screen and you have the underneath cover guys still hugging the backs, it’s not going to make for a pretty play.”
With Tampa Bay facing a third-and-10 situation and Atlanta’s defensive line coming after Simms on an obvious pass down, a middle screen pass call to Smith was the perfect play call on Saturday.
“You really have to take advantage of the defenses that like to get up the field quickly,” Smith said. “When you have a defense that likes to rush the passer a lot they are susceptible to the screen. That’s what happened against Atlanta, and we took advantage of it.”
But even with the success Smith had with the 18-yard screen play vs. the Falcons, don’t look for the Bucs to model themselves after the Patriots and Seahawks and start unleashing a series of screen plays in games. Why? According to Gruden, screen passes are difficult to pull off against the NFL’s versatile defenses.
“Some teams are a little better at screen plays than others,” said Gruden. “A screen pass is a harder pass to convert nowadays because of the zone blitzing and different things that you see. It’s just a little harder than it used to be, in my opinion.
“A lot of the times in passing situations, they blitz the slot corner or blitz the linebacker and the cornerback has to bluff blitz and then get into the screen. Then, the quarterback is under duress and doesn’t see the throw. I have a nice reel of screens that the quarterback throws to the other team. Screens used to be low-risk, high-reward calls. Nowadays it’s getting increasingly difficult to run them. Seattle is a good screen team, New England is a good screen team, but after that you’d have to tell me who was the third or fourth best screen team in the league. I guess [Washington receiver] Santana Moss is catching some quick screens. We did do a couple of screens the other day and we have screens in every game plan. Hopefully, as we get going here, we can isolate a few more and have some success. It’s not a priority here, but maybe as we look at it in the offseason it will be something we probe.”
There have been some instances where a screen pass was actually called by Gruden, but the quarterback saw a defensive coverage that prompted him to audible to another play.
“You definitely want the right look,” said Bucs right guard Sean Mahan. “Otherwise, you need to audible or bad things could happen. A lot of defenses are smart and can smell those types of plays out. It’s a tough play to run, but whenever you get the right look and execute properly it can be a great play to run.”
Gruden and Co. know firsthand how all it takes is one defender to diagnose the screen play to make a good screen play call turn into a bad play.
In Tampa Bay’s home game vs. Carolina on Sept. 14, 2003, Gruden called a middle screen play to TE Ken Dilger. But the play turned into a disaster when QB Brad Johnson tossed the pass right into the arms of Panthers defensive lineman Al Wallace, who did a nice job of sniffing out the screen pass. The result was a 53-yard interception return that led to a 35-yard field goal by Panthers kicker John Kasay, which gave the visiting team a 6-0 lead over the Bucs. The Panthers went on to defeat the Bucs in overtime, 12-9.
Offenses are hard pressed to get savvy defensive players to fall for screen passes. That’s why it’s so important for all of the offensive players involved to sell the screen play as if it were just a regular passing play.
Selling it requires some acting on the part of the offensive linemen, running backs, tight ends, and of course, the quarterback. The lead role belongs to the lead blockers, who are the offensive linemen. If they don’t sell the screen play well, the play will fall apart.
“The backs and tight ends can do amazing things when they are in the open field, but we’ve got to them started,” Bucs center John Wade said. “That’s the key to pulling off a successful screen play.”
While the offensive linemen are doing their part, a member of the supporting cast, namely the quarterback, must drop back as if he is going to throw a normal pass. Although he’s under heavy duress, the signal caller must wait until the last possible second to throw the screen pass in order to allow the O-linemen to set up a new blocking wall.
Although he doesn’t think much of their acting skills, Simms said his offensive line has the ability to pull off a successful screen play.
“None of these guys are up for any Oscars,” Simms said of his offensive linemen. “I would say the guards like Mahan and [Dan] Buenning have it the toughest because they have defensive tackles over them and they know they have to get downfield and block. But at the same time they can’t just let their guy run straight up field because then I won’t be able to sell it. None of them have any acting skills at all, but they are good players.
“My acting comes into play when I have to sell the normal looking pass. You’ve got to take your five steps and sit there for a second. You can’t just keep fading back. Otherwise, these defenders are smart and they’ll smell it out.”
Screen plays are not the easiest passes to pull off in the NFL these days, but that doesn’t stop players from getting excited about what could be a huge play if pulled off correctly under the right circumstances and against the right type of defensive coverage.
“When a screen play is called you can’t help but get excited about it,” said Bucs RB Michael Pittman. “Most guys do get excited about it because it can be a big play. We haven’t run that many screen plays this year, I think the longest one I had was a 12-yarder or something like that. It’s really either hit or miss, but every time it’s called we get excited about it because we know it has the potential to be a huge play for us.”
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