ITP Glossary: Bubble Screen

Football is littered with specialized terminology. From silent count to roll coverage, commentators rarely get to explain everything you need to know before the next play. Inside The Pylon’s glossary was developed to give fans a deeper understanding of the game through clear explanations, as well as image and video examples. Please contact us with any terms or phrases you’d like to know more about.

Bubble Screen

A bubble screen is a type of screen pass in which a receiver or tight end moves on a curved path toward one of the sidelines at the snap of the ball to receive an immediate throw from the quarterback. Upon making the catch, other offensive players on that side of the field (usually receivers) will block defenders to the inside of the field, forming a swath of field space between said blockers and the sideline through which the ball carrier can run. 

Here’s a pre-snap look at the design of the bubble screen play:

Bubble Trouble

The Kansas City Chiefs will attempt a bubble screen to their star tight end, Travis Kelce, hoping to utilize fellow tight ends Brian Parker and Demetrius Harris as blockers to help spring Kelce free. Quarterback Alex Smith operates out of the shotgun with a wide trips bunch to his left. The compressed grouping includes Kelce, who is aligned two yards off the line of scrimmage in the slot. 

Given the positioning of the defensive backs, as well as the spacing and blocking Kelce (#87) should have in front of him, the bubble screen appears to be a safe bet to pick up some positive yardage to start the drive. However, Patrick Chung (#23) has other ideas:

At the snap, Kelce bubblesaway from the line of scrimmage and starts to swing toward the flat in anticipation of the quick toss coming his way. At first glance, the Chiefs have the exact reaction they desire from the defense with McCourty and Butler both initially backpedaling. Furthermore, outside linebacker Donta Hightower (#54) – the unblocked dive read defender on the play has to respect the possibility of a handoff to the running back and / or the read option, making him a non-factor on any quick throw outside the hashes.

But Chungs instincts and awareness overcome any disadvantage forced upon the defense. Perhaps keying off the curious alignment of Kelce before the snap, Chung does not hesitate in correctly deciphering the play. He fires off the ball with urgency, targeting Parker the tight end outside of him. By aggressively taking on Parker, the defender essentially eliminates Harris from making an impact as a blocker on the bubble screen, while also shielding Butler from Parker and any potential opposition in his way. The cornerback, in turn, swiftly closes in on Kelce, dropping him for a two-yard loss.

When It Works

This is a bubble screen thrown to Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper against West Virginia:

The receiver catches the pass behind the line of scrimmage and the linebacker looks to have this play diagnosed, with a good angle on Cooper. But the receiver’s speed and quickness eliminate any advantage the LB might have had. In seconds the overmatched defender goes from having the angle, to having nothing but a view of the 9 on the back of Cooper’s jersey as the receiver races by him.

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Brian Filipiak and Mark Schofield wrote this entry. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield. Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak

All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.

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