The New England Patriots called for five screen passes against the Miami Dolphins and gained -8 yards (negative eight!) and it’s definitely a cause for concern for Tom Brady and the offense- and a problem that has hampered the Patriots all season.
According to Pro Football Focus’ Zoltan Buday, the Patriots have completed 33 of 35 screen pass attempts, but have averaged just 4.18 yards per attempt, ranking 29th in the NFL. That’s a terrible efficiency rate for what should be a fairly routine piece of the New England offense.
“Any plays you're not making yards on, it's hard to get excited about those,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “Our screen game hasn't been as productive as we need it to be. We need to, obviously, coach it better and execute it better. We're not getting enough out of it. It's disappointing.”
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels echoed Belichick’s sentiments, but was a little more gentle in his tone. McDaniels explained that screens are a “one-man pattern” and by nature will be “kind of hit or miss” depending on whether that player gets open; if not, the play is over before it even starts.
I decided to look at the various screen passes by the Patriots against the Dolphins to see if we could figure out what went wrong and what New England can do to fix it. For his part, Belichick doesn’t think the failures can be fixed with a single solution.
“I think it's a combination of things,” Belichick continued. “We've run a lot of different types of screens – receivers, backs, tight ends, quick screens, slower screens. We're just not doing a good job. I've got to do a better job of coaching them and we've got to do a better job of executing them. It's as simple as that.”
Here are the plays.
1-10-NE 34 (9:37) T.Brady pass short right to D.Lewis to NE 35 for 1 yard (L.Timmons).
The Patriots run the double fake with the handoff to Dion Lewis and the sweep to Brandin Cooks. Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso crashes the backfield against the run to try and engage with Lewis and disrupts the timing of the screen.
Right guard Shaq Mason stays in to block Alonso to allow Lewis to get a release to the outside, but that means that the Patriots are down one extra blocker in the screen wall. It’s likely that Mason would have been the player to block Dolphins linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who ultimately made the stop.
“Whenever you call a screen, you're obviously limiting your options in the passing game because it's a one-man pattern, and screens, I think, have always been and will always be kind of hit or miss,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “When you invest in them, you could end up with a really good play, not always a huge play or big play, but you could end up with good plays.”
Alonso deserves credit for disrupting the screen and Timmons executes a nice open field tackle. Without Timmons, Lewis would have had a nice cutback lane for some serious yardage. Credit goes to the defense on this play.
2-7-NE 47 (11:40) T.Brady pass short left to B.Cooks to NE 45 for -2 yards (C.Tankersley) [C.Harris].
On this second screen, Tom Brady again fakes the handoff, this time to Rex Burkhead, before turning to the other side of the field to find Brandin Cooks. Dolphins edge defender Charles Harris lands a huge hit on Brady, who barely gets rid of the football.
“You know, there's a lot of good defensive linemen in this league, a lot of good pass rushers,” McDaniels said, “so if you can create a couple big plays on some screens, it's not going to stop them from rushing, but it may make them think about rushing a little bit more under control at times. They know you have the play, they know you have the scheme, and they have to defend against that.”
The hope for the Patriots is that if they can execute this screen pass, then in the future a player like Harris wouldn’t feel comfortable barreling into the backfield because he might instead drop to the flat to defend against the pass.
If this play had worked, Cooks only had to beat one Dolphins defensive back to score a touchdown, so it was well designed.
Brady just didn’t get a good pass off to Cooks, who collected it on the ground for -2 yards. Credit again goes to Harris and the Dolphins defense.
2-10-NE 46 (3:22) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short right to D.Allen to NE 48 for 2 yards (R.Jones)
This was another incredibly well-designed play that should have been a huge gain, if not a touchdown, but poor execution ended it early.
Center Ted Karras was supposed to block Dolphins safety Reshad Jones, while right guard Shaq Mason would block Dolphins rookie cornerback Cordrea Tankersley.
There are some plays where the offensive lineman seems to roll on the ground ineffectively, causing the defender to either jump over or go around their body. This is a scenario where that would have been perfect for Karras to try against Jones, but he instead tries to put his body on Jones in the open field. Jones is too quick and makes the stop after just two yards.
“Based on what we're gaining on them, [the other team] should be happy every time we run [a screen],” Belichick added.
If Karras was able to impede Jones by a split second, Allen could have picked up a lot more. Alternatively, Dwayne Allen could have cut inside with plenty of room to run, but he was simply following his blockers and it’s hard to blame him for doing that.
2-7-MIA 42 (8:00) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short right to R.Burkhead to MIA 40 for 2 yards (L.Timmons)
On this play it appears that Ted Karras was a little too eager to get into the open field that he lost his leverage on Timmons, who again made a nice stop on Rex Burkhead.
Karras doesn’t get the full blame since Dolphins defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (#97) did an outstanding job breaking up this play before it developed.
“You could end up with other things that happen on [screens],” McDaniels noted, before making a list of screen pass pitfalls, “defensive line grabs the screen back, there's other things where they blitz the other side and then drop to the side that you're screening.”
Phillips engaged with Burkhead, disrupting the timing of the Patriots screen pass. If Karras got his block off against Timmons, then this still could have worked, but Phillips affected the Patriots timing.
2-13-MIA 49 (2:38) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short left to D.Lewis to MIA 45 for 4 yards (L.Timmons).
PENALTY on NE-B.Cooks, Offensive Pass Interference, 11 yards, enforced at MIA 49.
Also penalty on NE-B.Cooks, Illegal Block Above the Waist, declined.
There were two penalties against Brandin Cooks that not just erased this play, but set the Patriots back 11 yards, making the Patriots entire day of screen passes fall into the negatives.
This was yet another play that should have been a huge gain, but it was just horrendously executed by the Patriots.
Unlike the previous play where Ted Karras did not try to take the legs out of the Dolphins defender, Karras did go to the ground to try and delay Timmons. Unfortunately, Karras had the leverage on Timmons and probably could have just drove him out of the play.
And then Shaq Mason made the curious decision to come back and help Nate Solder, who was doing a great job sealing the edge, instead of looking to help down the field, where he might have been able to block Timmons once Karras’ attempt failed.
Of course none of this mattered because Cooks started to block the defensive back before Brady even started his throwing motion (offensive pass interference), failed to sustain the block and allowed the defender to get past him, and then hit the defender from behind (illegal block).
The Patriots needed plays from five players on screen side of the field. Nate Solder did his job, but the failures by Karras, Mason, and Cooks prevented Dion Lewis from ever getting a chance to make a play in the open field.
“Obviously, we'd like to improve our production in that area of our offense,” McDaniels said about screen passes. “We've always taken a lot of pride in executing screens well and doing it properly and trying to gain some chunk yardage in those plays. As of late, we haven't done as well as we would like, and we're certainly going to work hard to try to improve that.”
The screen game is incredibly important to help an offensive line that is struggling against a potent pass rush, but Karras appeared to come up short on multiple occasions. Perhaps the return of David Andrews could prove a boost in the screen game, although this has been a season-long struggle and it would be unfair and wrong to place the shortcomings at the feet of Karras.
The Patriots have an incredibly speedy offense with Lewis, Cooks, and Phillip Dorsett, so an active screen game would be a nice tool to use down the stretch and in the playoffs. You can be certain that Belichick and company know they need to improve and understand exactly how to do so.
Don’t be surprised if the screen pass starts to produce in the coming weeks.