Football 101: The screen package

Originally Published: October 7, 2004
By Bob Davie | Special to ESPN Insider

Purdue and its quarterback Kyle Orton have garnered a lot of attention over the past several weeks. Wins and gaudy offensive numbers will do that for a program. How gaudy? The Boilermakers currently lead the nation in total offense with 549.35 yards per game and are second in scoring at 47.25 points per game.

Since Joe Tiller's arrival in 1997, the Big Ten has been served a steady diet of his spread attack. Purdue's emphasis on the bubble and jailbreak screens has been especially effective. As with any successful trend, many teams have incorporated elements of his system. Now, the Boilermakers are just one of many teams in the country that take advantage of having an excellent screen package.

Why the screen?
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
The bubble screen is a wide receiver screen where the receiver actually bubbles away from the line of scrimmage and the quarterback. The most common form involves the other wideout picking the defensive back and giving the receiver a chance to run after the catch. The wide receiver bubbles back to allow this to time out. This is a great route against a 3-deep zone or soft man-to-man if the outside defender is giving a cushion.

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 bubble screen is also used to combat today's zone blitz schemes. If the defense blitzes and goes from a 2-deep hide to a 3-deep, it is a great play. Some offenses will actually abort a running play and throw a bubble screen if the linebacker blitzes. The only players who make this judgment are the wide receivers and quarterback. The offensive linemen and running backs actually go ahead and execute a running play. What the offense has done in the huddle is call two plays. In our system, we called this a 23 alert bubble (23 indicates a running play). The call allows the quarterback to audible to the bubble screen at the line of scrimmage.

Jailbreak screen
The jailbreak screen is a wide receiver screen that involves the wide receiver coming back to the quarterback at the snap of the ball. The reason it's called a jailbreak is because the offensive line releases automatically downfield to block. The offense uses a tight end or wide receiver to go away from the line of scrimmage to pick the outside receiver's man. The linemen punch the defensive line to stop their initial charge then release downfield to form a wall. The offensive tackle stays in and chops the defensive end to get his hands down so that the ball can be thrown over the top of him.

The conventional or slow screen
The least commonly used screen in today's football is the slow screen. This play requires a lot of timing and execution and involves a lot of deception. It is effective against zone defending teams and defensive linemen that get up the field causing separation. It is generally not effective against man-to-man as a linebacker immediately zeroes in on the running back.

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
The crack screen is a tremendous play against man-to-man coverage when you know which defender is assigned to the running back. You simply crack a wide receiver from the outside in on the defender responsible for the running back. Once again, you are allowed to block back towards the ball as long as the ball is thrown behind the line of scrimmage and you don't block below the waist.

In the example below, the wide receiver cracks back on the mike linebacker who is assigned to the back. As simple as this play looks, it is difficult for the man covering the wide receiver to switch off and take the mike linebacker's man.

Summary
As you can see, there are a variety of screens to choose from. The success of the offense depends on calling the right screen against the defensive matchup. With the wide receiver screens, it is a simple execution play and a lot depends on the ability of the wide receiver to run after the catch. The big positive in screens is that they are basically simple to execute and provide you with the chance for a big play against an attacking defense.

Coach Davie checks into The Show every Monday at 1:30 p.m. ET to talk Football 101. You can drop by then, but go ahead and send him a question now. If you have missed a chat and want to catch up, take a look at his chat archive.

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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. 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.

Bob Davie

College Football
Bob Davie, a veteran college football coach of 25 years, most recently as head coach at the University of Notre Dame, serves as an analyst on college football game telecasts and select studio shows.

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