In the game of football, you can either run or pass the ball to gain yards and eventually score. While that may sound simple, there are tons of different types of passes and runs that offenses and defenses need to know. One of these many passes is known as a “screen pass”.
So, what is a screen pass in football?
A screen pass is a short pass made to an eligible receiver near the line of scrimmage, that involves offensive linemen running downfield and blocking for the receiver. With screen passes, the quarterback needs to let go of the ball quickly and the offensive linemen need to get ahead of the receiver, so they can block and help open up lanes for the ball-carrier.
While screen passes may look easy to perform, they’re anything but. Screen passes rely on the whole offense selling the play and for every player on the offense to have their timing down. Throughout this article we’ll cover how to run successful screen passes and when you should throw them, different types of screen passes, and much more – so stick around!
How to Run Successful Screen Passes
A successful screen pass needs perfect execution by the whole offense. The success of the play relies on the defense not expecting it and committing to rushing the passer or stopping the deep pass. Two different elements that need to be flawless for the screen pass to be successful
The first element is selling the fake. The offense will fake the screen pass to be a run play or deep pass and needs the defense to commit to stopping the fake. The difficult part is getting the whole offense to successfully sell the play as each player has a particular role.
The quarterback must convince the pass rushers and defensive backs that he is looking to throw a deep pass. This will create space for the running back to receive the ball and take several defensive players out of the play immediately as they commit to the fake.
This is done by keeping his eyes downfield, pump faking to the opposite side of the field, and throwing the screen past at the last possible moment.
In most screen passes the running back functions as the primary pass-catcher, but first will need to do some work in deceiving the defense. At the snap, he will set up as a pass blocker and will block any defender coming his way. At the two-count, he will release from his block and move into the flat to receive the pass.
The receivers play a critical role in this play by convincing the defense the play will be a deep pass. This involves running the routes at full speed to take the cornerbacks away from the play as well as potentially drawing the safeties and linebackers with them.
Finally, the offensive linemen play the most important role in selling this play and must move together. At the snap, they will sell the play to be a deep pass while doing a slow count in their head until two.
At this point, anywhere from 2-4 of the linemen will release from their blocks to slide over and block for the running back. Their role is then to move down the field forming a wall of blockers for the running back as he uses them to pick up extra yards.
The screen pass can be an extremely tricky play for the offensive linemen as they do not know what is going on behind them. They cannot see if the running back has released from his block yet to receive the pass or if the quarterback is getting ready to make the pass.
What Is the Goal of Screen Passes?
The goal of the screen pass is to surprise the defense by selling a deep pass and completing a short, high percentage pass to an athletic playmaker, and use the lineman to set blocks down the field to pick up large chunks of yardage.
In a screen pass the offense is trying to take as many defensive players out of the play as possible. The offense wants the defensive linemen to commit to rushing the quarterback so he can throw the pass over their heads.
The receivers are trying to sell the deep pass and running away from the play to take the cornerback and potentially even the safeties away from the play. This way when the running back releases from his block to receive the pass, there is a large amount of open space in front of him with his offensive lineman leading the way to block.
If the screen pass is successful, it will provide the offense the ability to get a large number of yards while using a relatively safe play as the throw is so short. The goal is also to keep the defensive guessing and not allow them to predict the play that will be called.
When Should You Throw a Screen Pass?
In short, the answer is whenever the defense is not expecting. A more comprehensive answer would be to call the screen pass when you are expecting a blitz from the defense. The more defensive players that are sent to rush the quarterback, the fewer defenders the pass-catcher has to avoid.
One of the most common situations for the offense to run the screen pass is in second and long or third and long. In these situations, defenses like to blitz the quarterback as they know the offense needs to pick up significant yardage. Knowing this, offenses can use the screen as a way to attack the aggressiveness of the defense.
What Is a Bubble Screen in Football?
A bubble screen is a unique type of screen pass that involves 2-3 wide receivers lining up on one side of the field. In this formation, two of the three receivers are tasked with blocking, while the third receiver is tasked with catching the ball. It’s a quality catch-and-run play on offense.
The two blocking receivers generally line up on the outside, while the catching receiver lines up on the inside. To create enough space and time for the receiver to catch the ball, the two blocking receivers need to pick up their blocks and the quarterback must throw the ball quickly.
While that’s going on, the catching receiver runs a quick half-oval route towards the sideline once the ball is snapped. In some cases, he takes a step behind the line of scrimmage, turns toward the quarterback, and catches the ball. Either way, he finds a gap ahead of him and runs.
If the two blocking receivers maintain their blocks well, it leaves one defensive back unblocked up-field. The catching receiver must use his speed, agility, and elusiveness to run by untouched. If all goes as planned, it results in a big play or at least a first down for the offense.
When running a bubble screen, the QB has to make a quick decision on whether or not to throw the ball. If the defense picks up on the screen early, it opens the door for an easy interception. It also opens the door to a loss of yardage if the catching receiver doesn’t have enough space.
Other Types of Screens in Football
The screen pass is an extremely versatile play that comes in a wide range of different forms. It’s a difficult play to defend, especially since quarterbacks often use it as a decoy to keep the defense honest. Let’s take a look at some of the other types of screen passes in football:
- Running Back Screen – in this screen play, the running back originally looks like he’s setting up to pass block, but immediately turns to the quarterback and catches the ball. Once caught, he runs up-field with the defensive linemen in front of him to block.
- Jailbreak Screen – also known as the tunnel screen, the catching receiver runs toward the quarterback, catches the ball, and immediately runs up the middle of the field. The offensive linemen initially block the defensive line, but then proceed to block the secondary defenders.
- Tight End Screen – similar to the running back screen, but the running back is used as a decoy. Instead, the tight end sets up to pass block, but immediately turns to the flat and catches the ball. The defensive linemen block upfield in front of the tight end.
With the way the game is played today, coaches are always looking to put their unique spin on the screen pass. Sometimes it’s used as a big-yardage play, while other times it’s used as a decoy to set up the zone read or run-pass option play. That’s what makes it so hard to defend.
How Do You Defend Against Screen Passes?
There are a couple of different ways to defend against a screen. The most effective way is to predict it or notice the play is being run before the pass is completed. Defenses can do this by scouting the team they are playing against and see in what situations the offense likes to use the screen.
If they notice on third and long the offense typically does a screen pass, maybe they fake a blitz and leave several defenders in coverage against the running back in case he moves into the flat to catch a pass.
Defenses can also vocally communicate if they feel a screen is developing to get the rest of the players to ignore the fake of the offense. The defense needs to spot the screen play before the pass-catcher catches the ball, otherwise, it’s too late.
Defenses can also key on the offensive line to see what kind of play is happening. Since screen passes are hard to time, closely watching the offensive line may provide clues for what the offense will be doing.
If defensive linemen are released by the offensive linemen, they need to realize this is intentional and stop rushing the quarterback and look to identify the potential pass-catcher.
Finally, the screen pass does have some risk for an interception by the defense as it can be easy for a defensive player, even a lineman, to intercept the softly thrown pass. Typically, the pass is thrown with the defensive line right at the quarterback and the potential to grab it out of the air can be particularly high.
Should a defender intercept the ball, the quarterback is the only opposing player in front of them, making it much easier for the defender to gain a high amount of yards or even score a touchdown.