The NFL is all about hiding weaknesses and utilizing strengths. Teams with dangerous open field receivers are always looking to get the ball into their hands, and one of the easiest ways to do that is with the wide receiver screen.
Wideouts like Julio Jones and Antonio Brown are great at making people miss and, with a convoy of offensive lineman, tunnel screens often result in big plays. With these plays posing such a big threat, defenders need to be aggressive and make the play close to the line of scrimmage. It’s not only tunnel screens either. Quarterbacks often have the option on run plays to pull the ball away from the handoff and throw a quick smoke route to the wide receiver forcing the corner to make a one-on-one tackle.
Bubble screens have also become more prevalent which features a quick-hitting throw to the slot receiver drifting away from the QB with an outside receiver or two blocking for him. Furthermore, offensive coaches have developed a number of plays to initially appear like screens but then have receivers breaking deep. Let’s take a look at a few variations.
This is the prototypical setup with the slot receiver taking the edge defender and the right tackle taking out the slot defender. The QB also fakes the draw to the running back, preventing the defenders in the middle of the field from immediately pursuing.
Here’s an example of the Falcons running this play early in the game against St Louis.
Tony Gonzalez moves from his slot position to pick up LCB Janoris Jenkins, while RT Lamar Holmes comes across to pick up Alec Ogletree. Jenkins plays this well though and is able to get outside Gonzalez and tackle Jones for a loss.
On the very next play the Falcons run the same action, faking the handoff to the running back and having slot receiver Harry Douglas start towards the outside defender. Douglas, however, cuts off his initial line about half way to the cornerback and runs an angle route, taking advantage of Cortland Finnegan’s misstep towards Jones. Here’s what this play looks like on the chalkboard.
Douglas starts out towards the right cornerback and Jones drops behind the line of scrimmage.
Finnegan slightly overpursues as Douglas cuts back on an angle and is wide open. He would pick up 20 yards on this play on 3rd-and-8.
The Steelers used a slightly different version of this play against the Bengals.
No play action here, but three eligible receivers on the left side of the field and, at the snap, Antonio Brown steps back off the line making it seem like a screen. Jerrico Cotchery releases like he’s about to block the outside corner but then runs a wheel route up the left sideline. The tight end, David Paulsen, runs the same route but down the numbers.
As you can see, slot corner Leon Hall immediately bites on the fake screen which leaves Cotchery wide open for a big gain.
The way to defend these plays is with good tackling and discipline. The Steelers face two of the better corners in the league in those departments when they play Chicago on Sunday. Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman have combined to miss a pair of tackles in 24 attempts and are both wily veterans who will have seen a number of these plays before. However, with 2012 sixth-round pick Isiah Frey in the slot, the Steelers may still be able to use this play to good effect.
Meanwhile, the Falcons travel to Miami and Brent Grimes, Nolan Carroll and Jimmy Wilson will be primarily responsible for stopping these plays Sunday. While the starters have played well in coverage so far, none are great tacklers. In his last full season back in 2011 Grimes was right around average with a Tackling Efficiency of 8.8. Carroll improved in 2012 with a Tackling Efficiency of 13.5, up from 8.3 in 2011, but it remains to be seen how he’ll fare this season. The weak link may be Wilson, who’s missed 10 of 48 attempts since entering the league in 2011.
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