The jury is still out on Josh McDaniels’s return to New England this season. Through eight games, the Patriots offense has looked inconsistent, and the play selection has often been scrutinized. But while the Pats are using the bye week to address these offensive growing pains, I want to take a minute to look at an aspect of McDaniels’s scheme that has been working and evolving consistently of late: the screen game.
In last week’s game against the Rams, the Patriots ran six screen plays, including one Ryan Mallett pass that was called back due to an offensive pass interference call. That number also includes a “screen-action” play - a play which resembles a screen but exploited the defense’s adjustments to previous screen passes (if there is a more technical term for this, someone please post it in the comment section).
Of the five plays not affected by penalties, Patriots quarterbacks completed 4 passes for 53 yards, good for 10.6 yards per attempt. The four completions went to four different receivers, and screens were called on just about any down and distance except fourth. For the remainder of the article, I’ll look at some screen shots of two plays from Sunday’s game which illustrate just how well this facet of the game is being executed.
The first play we’ll look at is a 17 yard screen from Brady to Gronkowski at 9:19 in the second quarter. The fundamentals on this play are outstanding, as it illustrates two critical elements of an effective screen pass: deceiving the defense into thinking a longer pass is coming, and sealing off the defense’s backside help. Check out this image right after the snap:
Brady has just given the play action fake to Ridley. Three receivers are streaking down the field and the offensive line has created a beautiful pocket. Gronk (top of the screen on the left side of the pocket) looks like he has stayed in pass protection to pick up the extra rusher. To the defense, it looks like this one is going downfield. But if you roll the tape just a second further:
In one instant, four of the Patriots’ largest players have emerged from the formation into the flat and the ball is in the air - this is a terrible thing to see if you play for St. Louis. Meanwhile, five Rams defenders are lined up down the middle of the field and sealed off from the play by Ridley, Vollmer, and Connolly, including anyone big enough to win 1 on 1 against one of the free blockers in front of Gronkowski. Because of the wall the O-line was able to create, no Rams defender is in position to run this play down from behind, and it is now on the six smaller defenders to break through a 900 pound wall of Patriot and stop Gronkowski. Looking at this second image, it’s amazing the play only went for 17.
Now for the screen-action play. With 12:52 left in the third, Brady play action fakes to Ridley out of the shotgun and gives a hard fake on a screen pass to Welker to his left. The first image below is of Brady mid-fake. As you can see, both DE Robert Quinn (94) and CB Cortland Finnegan (31) are sitting on the screen pass and have taken Welker away.
Having “completed” that responsibility, Quinn continues to rush upfield and Finnegan turns his hips to the middle to lend assistance over there (image 2). He now has his back to Welker. Brady’s fake has effectively moved both defenders out of position to help with the situation developing to that side of the field.
Meanwhile, DBs Jenkins (#21 lined up at the 14 yard line in image 1) and Dahl (43, out of picture to the left) are in a cover 2 look with Jenkins responsible for the flat and Dahl providing help over the top. By design, this play puts enormous stress on Jenkins because with Welker and Lloyd both in his zone, he has to choose whether to stay with Welker in the flat or turn and run underneath Lloyd to prevent the big play. All Brady has to do is read Jenkins to decide where to go with the football. As it turns out, Jenkins ran with Lloyd, leaving Welker open to pick up an easy 11 yards. In summary, a quick fake off the screen game left the Rams with one man to cover two dangerous receivers in space.
Some more quick bullet points on the screen game:
- The most impressive thing to me about the Pats’ screen arsenal is the variety - 4 passes to 4 different players, coming from 3 different positions.
- The blocking schemes give no clues either: sometimes blockers wait for the play to develop (like the above play to Gronkowski), and other times they come flying out without ever engaging the D line. They’ll run these plays to the strong and weak sides, running the TEs off or keeping them in there to block.
- Screens are having this success without Logan Mankins and Aaron Hernandez, arguably our most tenacious blocker and our most dangerous athlete in space, respectively.
- While no one scored off one of these plays Sunday, several of them were stopped by shoestring tackles, which means one of these days a Patriot is going to break one of these off for a huge play.
- The most successful screen-action fake is yet to come: not every defense will take away Lloyd the way Jenkins and Dahl managed to on the play to Welker, and I’m sure McDaniels has plenty of other wrinkles off of that concept (think of the Brady-Moss-Brady-Gaffney flea flicker TD in 2007).
- The one incompletion Sunday was caused by tremendous play-recognition and penetration from the St. Louis LBs. Looking ahead, a real test for this scheme will come against the 49ers and their elite linebacking corps.