Our third stop on the route tree brings us to the simplest route for a receiver to run. It’s the simplest because there is essentially no route for them to run. Today we focus on the wide receiver screen, a route that for a quarterback is a simple case of turn and throw, to a receiver it’s a simple case of turn and catch, and for a defender is a simple case of close ground and tackle. This is one of the routes teams go to when they’re struggling to get a player open, looking to this route to simply “get the ball in his hands” and “let him go to work”.
No route is more defined by the ability of the receiver to beat his coverage defender with the ball in his hands than the quick screen and no other presents a tougher play on the ball for the defender than the quick screen. This is the ultimate test of a defender’s ability to close quickly and make a sure, quick tackle. Anything more and dangerous receivers have the ability to get into space quickly and wreak havoc on a defense. So who does the most damage with ball in hand and which defenders are doing the most to limit the bleeding?
The quick (or “bubble”) screen is one that many raw receivers are thrown early in their career if they are struggling to pick up the playbook and the intricacies of running an NFL route tree. At times this works with the raw talent and agility of the receiver shining through. However, in other cases, it falls flat on its face–the coverage defender is fully aware that the only threat is the receiver getting the ball immediately and as a consequence allows no space to work with.
Though the route itself is simple, at most a jab step upfield before turning back towards the quarterback, it is at its most dangerous as a complement to other successful routes. If a receiver can use the blocking he receives on a quick screen to spring him into space, this simple pass can be deadly. Michael Vick’s receivers proved that last season as five of Vick’s 18 passing touchdowns came on wide receiver screens.
AFC North Leads the Way
When you play in the league’s black-and-blue division, it helps to have a change of pace in your attack to spread the defense a little. Two teams at opposite ends of the division have the two most consistently dangerous receivers on wide screens on their books, with Joshua Cribbs of the Cleveland Browns just edging Mike Wallace of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While Cribbs has struggled to develop his route tree beyond simple routes that get the ball in his hands, Wallace added some variety to his play this past season but at the same time did not lose his threat on quick throws. Only five receivers were targeted more times on quick screens last season than Wallace, but none of those five were nearly as effective. On six fewer receptions Wallace amassed 20 more yards than what second place Steve Smith of the Panthers managed on his 20 catches. These quick throws isolate defenders and really stretch a team’s ability to pursue quickly to the football. Wallace’s ability to beat a man in space and then turn on the jets to stretch the pursuit really shines through.
Doug Baldwin was a jack of all trades for the Seahawks in his rookie season, excelling as both a receiver and on special teams. However, that tagline can suggest that a player is limited athletically, but on a route that allows “athletes” to excel, the former Stanford Cardinal proved that he was not lacking in that regard. His 12.2 yards after each catch was fractionally better than Wallace’s and as only topped by Cribbs and the Rams’ Greg Salas. While he may not post jaw-dropping “measurables” Baldwin is a receiver that fans should not go to sleep on. His production in a variety of roles for the Seahawks last season suggests that he could be an underrated all-around weapon for some time to come.
If a WR screen is all about getting a receiver quickly into space for the offense, then for the defense it is all about defenders within the proximity of the target reacting just as quickly and making smart decisions. If the play is isolated, the closest defender needs to close quickly and make a sure tackle. When a receiver has one or more blocks, defenders need to work together to use those blocks to their own advantage. This is done by turning the receiver towards pursuit rather than towards space. As a result, the best defenders covering screens are those that make the decision, claim the coverage and cut the play down swiftly. Outside is dangerous and teams need to turn the play into their support and that support needs to get there in a hurry.
Tyvon Branch has featured a few times in our offseason coverage for his skills as a man coverage defender and his hustle in chasing plays down from the opposite side of the field. In covering quick screens he again shows his physical ability and his mental acumen in completely shutting down the screens thrown his way. When a corner is faced with a blocker moving his way to set a wall for the outside receiver to cut around and head upfield, the safety to that side has to close fast and no-one does it better than Branch.
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