|Thursday, September 19
Football 101: The screen package
By Bob Davie
Special to ESPN.com
Editor's note: As architect of Texas A&M's Wrecking Crew defense (1989-93), Notre Dame defensive coordinator (1994-96) and head coach of the Irish (1997-2001), Bob Davie has been recognized as a top X's and O's coach. This season, Coach Davie will analyze offensive and defensive schemes as part of his season-long course on football for ESPN.com. Each week, he will break out the chalkboard and break down the X's and O's in college football.
It is a necessity that every good offensive football team has a diversified screen package to combat today's attacking and blitzing defensive philosophies. Screens are an important element in successful offensive football for several seasons: (1) Screens take advantage of athletic wide receivers and running backs and make defenders tackle in the open field matching the wide receivers and running backs on linebackers and safeties; (2) Screens slow the pass rush and make defensive linemen eye for screens; (3) Screens attack zone blitz teams that give up an underneath zone in pass coverage; (4) Screens give the offense a chance for big plays against man-to-man blitz schemes.
The reason screens are so successful in college football is that offenses take advantage of a very important NCAA rule. In college football, offensive players are allowed to block downfield while the ball is in the air if the ball is caught behind the line of scrimmage. This is a major advantage to the offense because offensive players can actually pick defenders while the ball is in the air. Whether the defense is in zone or man-to-man coverage, this puts them at a tremendous disadvantage. (In the NFL, you are not allowed to block downfield while the ball is in the air regardless of where it is caught.)
Each of today's offenses feature several types of screens. We will explain the following screens: (1) the bubble screen, (2) jailbreak screen, (3) the traditional slow screen, and (4) the crack screen.
Bubble screen vs. 3-deep or soft man-to-man
It's a simple scheme, but the throw is not as easy as it looks. The quarterback must throw it accurately so the wide receiver can catch the football in full stride on his way toward the line of scrimmage. You actually may turn the outside defender loose (not blocking him) and just see if he can tackle the receiver in the open field.
Bubble screen vs. zone blitz
The jailbreak screen
The conventional or slow screen
The quarterback, instead of taking his traditional 5-step drop, actually drops deeper to allow the defensive linemen to rush up the field farther. This also allows the linebackers to drop deeper into coverage which creates separation. The offensive tackle to the side of the screen sets as if to pass block and then chops the defensive end -- once again so the ball can be thrown over him. The guards and centers hold for a one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two count and then release to form a wall -- usually to a landmark on the field. The halfback stays in, fakes pass protection and then slips out to be the receiver. As you can see, it takes much timing and execution, but if you catch the defensive in zone coverage, it can be an excellent play.
The crack screen
Crack screen vs. man-to-man
Q & A with Bob Davie
The zone blitz packages seem to require a premium effort from strongside linebackers and the safety positions when it comes to reading a play, utilizing the speed to get there and then, sure tackling ability to boot.
Is this assessment correct? And if so, could you provide some examples of pro or college players who excel in these particular schemes?
Bob Davie: I think it's obvious that good coaches find a way to do things with their difference making players and take advantage of their abilities. A lot depends on what type of players you have and putting them in a position to be successful. Good coaches design their schemes to take advantage of their best pass rushers and blitzers. Your assessment is correct. In the figures I used in last week's discussion of the zone blitz, I did highlight the strongside outside linebacker and the strong safety.
Watch the games every Saturday in college football and you will see that most defensive coaches will put their best defensive players in a position to wreak havoc on the opposing offense.
When I was at Texas A&M, we really took advantage of former quarterbacks and running backs, converting them to linebackers. Players like William Thomas, Quentin Coryatt, Aaron Wallace and John Roper gave us speed at outside linebacker and allowed us to blitz effectively.
Unless it is Julius Peppers, isn't it asking a lot of the defensive end to cover a 1/4 to a 1/3 of the under coverage? Isn't that where an offense should go to exploit the weakness in a zone blitz?
What's to stop the X from running off the corner with a go and then sending H on a flat route or a wheel up the sideline? Most defensive ends shouldn't be able to run with a running back.
I can see the zone blitz being effective as a changeup, but if a defense relies on it too heavily, I would think it creates a pretty big mismatch for a smart offensive coordinator.
How often did you employ the zone blitz on passing downs?
Bob Davie: I think you bring up a tremendous point. This week's column on screens shows a great way to combat the zone blitz. It's also great to throw in the zone where a defensive lineman is assigned in coverage. One positive of the zone blitz, though, is that the ball has to come out so fast. Normally, the offense doesn't get a pre-snap read that the zone blitz is coming. The defense depends on that surprise element.
Offenses have evolved -- everything does run in cycles -- and are starting to do a better job against the zone blitz. As a result, you're starting to see less and less of it.
Great column. This is just about the best thing espn.com has ever done, in my opinion.
I'm wondering, with regard to the zone blitzes, under what situations a defense would opt to use a given blitz. They all kind of look similar to me, but would there be certain game situations that a defense would blitz a safety as opposed to a backer?
Also, when would a defense use a 3-deep zone as opposed to a 2-deep?
Bob Davie: Actually what happens is that the zone defense scheme has evolved to where defenses will check from one zone blitz to another depending on the offensive formation and tendencies. There are definitely more zone blitzes that are more advantageous for certain formations and against runs or passes. The defense tries to check into those. You are right, with every zone blitz you call, there is a tradeoff. What you try to do is check into the zone blitz that gives you the best opportunity against the formation the offense is in or what play you think they will run.
Just curious, in your version of "SLB zone blitz", you have a tackle dropping back to cover in the middle for a linebacker. Do you expect him to be effective in this or do you just get a big body in there that can disrupt the flow in his zone? And if it is a pass play, can he really get back there fast enough to make a difference? Thanks
Bob Davie: The biggest reason that you would drop the tackle into coverage would be in case it is some kind of screen pass and you just don't want to give up a big chunk of the field. We actually did that zone blitz with a 3-underneath, 3-deep concept many times -- particularly on a running down. We would not ask the nose guard to have any pass responsibility at all. If you are calling that on a passing down, instead of just voiding the middle of the field, you may ask the nose guard to drop out late. If it's a running down, you probably void it completely.
Send in your Football 101 questions. Bob Davie will answer a few of them next week.