A screen play usually includes three offensive linemen pass blocking for a couple of seconds before releasing to block downfield for a receiver or running back. The objective of the screen is to get a convoy of mean, moving mass in front of the ball carrier. When called at the right time and executed correctly, screen plays can be explosive and a nightmare for defensive backs who have to get in the way of these linemen, who are like trucks when they have a running start.
However, screen plays can also be dangerous for the offense if defenders are able to anticipate or read the play. Defenders could intercept the ball, which is usually a pick-six on screens, or they could lay a punishing hit on the intended receiver. A type of screen that can help mitigate the risk is the single lineman release screen.
These screens have only one lineman releasing, rather than three, and usually involve an element of deception. The deception helps to bring attention away from the play, while only one lineman releasing helps to disguise the screen. Releasing linemen can bring unwanted attention towards the screen because linebackers or defensive linemen could follow them out to where the screen is being thrown. These stealthy screens require good design, understanding of defensive tendencies, and timing.
Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley is likely going to get a job as a head coach next season and it’s due in large part to his creative play design.
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The Steelers ran this play against the Cowboys in Week 10 of 2016 early in the first quarter. This play works because of deception and an understanding of the defensive structure. The offense fakes a tunnel screen to the left. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger even pump fakes in that direction to get the defense moving that way. The defense is in Cover 2. Haley knows that he doesn’t have to block the corner to the right side because that corner will focus on rerouting the always dangerous Antonio Brown. The corner on that side completely turns his back to the play while trying to reroute Brown and doesn’t get his head around until after the screen is thrown.
This could be the result of film study, as Haley might have noticed that the Cowboys corners are turning their head to reroute. As running back Le’Veon Bell widens out and catches the screen, he immediately turns inside and his cut is perfectly in sync with his releasing guard, David DeCastro, who springs Bell into the secondary with an excellent block on the only defender near the play. By understanding how the defensive scheme works, Haley knew that he would only need one lineman to release because of the misdirection that he built into the play, and it worked to perfection.
Haley is not the only OC that has incorporated single lineman release screens this season. Bill Musgrave, offensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders, is having an excellent season as a play-designer. Week after week it seems as if the Raider offense is able to get at least one big play as a direct result of clever play-design.
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The Raiders ran this play against the Buccaneers in Week 8 of 2016. On this play, the offense line and fullback fake a full slide protection to the right, while quarterback Derek Carr does a half roll towards the right. Jamize Olawale would usually be responsible for blocking the end away from the slide, but instead Olawale pretends to whiff on the block and then he turns around for the screen pass. The left tackle, Donald Penn, does a good job of remaining patient before releasing.
Without any other linemen releasing, the attention remains with the roll out and not on the screen. Also, the roll away from the play takes the inside linebacker on the right away from the screen and draws in the backside end, which leaves only the playside linebacker who Penn is supposed to block.
The linebacker, Kwon Alexander, makes a great play to get around Penn and stop Olawale for an eight yard gain, but if Penn could get a halfway decent block on him, this play could have been an explosive one.
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This is another well designed screen from Musgrave that the Raiders ran in Week 12 against the Panthers. Carr reverse pivots to give a weak play action fake, which sells the protection more. Oakland mainly uses a full slide protection on roll outs or play action and since they are faking a full slide protection, they add a play action element to the play to make it more believable.
As soon as Carr gets out of his pivots, he turns to look towards Seth Roberts and Clive Walford who are running a stick combination. It is unclear whether Carr actually has the option of throwing to them if they were open, but the look draws two defenders with them. This leaves only one inside linebacker left to block. Offensive guard Gabe Jackson releases, almost like he’s pulling, around the tackle and makes a good block on the linebacker. Olawale sells his fake block well, which entices the end to get upfield just enough and gets the ball to the 2-yard line.
The New York Jets have been victims of poor quarterback play all season, and there isn’t a better remedy than a well designed screen play. Luckily, they have at least one in their arsenal, as can be seen in Week 13 against the Colts.
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Although this screen doesn’t have a creative element of deception as the previous two screens, it is called at the perfect time and executed beautifully.
The playside inside linebacker blitzes, leaving only the backside linebacker, D’Qwell Jackson, to account for. The tight end runs a drag across the formation to distract Jackson, which works perfectly as it catches his attention and slows him down for a moment. This hesitation stopped Jackson from going full speed downhill to blow up the play, and gave enough time for the guard to release and get a good angle to block Jackson.
In this case, having only one lineman release, gave the quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, enough time to get the ball off. If the center released instead of staying in to block, the blitzing linebacker would have either sacked Fitzpatrick or rushed the timing of the screen. Fitzpatrick had enough time to look at the drag for a moment before looking back to the opposite side and dumping off the screen to Matt Forte, who does some work in the open field to make this play a huge gain.
The single lineman release screen is effective because there are less moving parts than a full on screen play. When there are more moving parts required in a play, the likelihood of someone messing up increases. The drawback is that there will be less blockers for the receiver of the screen. But as you could see with some clever play design, an understanding of a defensive structure, and great timing, teams can get away with only releasing one lineman on screens.
Follow Ted on Twitter via @RaidersAnalysis. Check out his site and his other work at ITP, such as how Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey seems like an omniscient back, Washington’s use of formations and on the evolution of the counter trey rush.
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All film courtesy of NFL Game Pass