All-22: The Art Of the Screen Play

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Brian Westbrook, one of the great screen running backs in the history of the league, continues to be a guiding voice in the ear of LeSean McCoy. It probably came as little surprise, then, that McCoy had a message waiting for him on his phone following the Tampa game on Sunday.

“He texted me after the game and said, ‘Come on, bro. You’re supposed to score on that play.’ ”

The play was a screen pass to McCoy on the Eagles’ first offensive snap of the game. Everything was perfect, from design to execution. What’s more, the Bucs were in the worst possible defense for this particular play call. The seas parted and McCoy was in the wide open field with blockers set up in front of him. He got 44. He could have had the whole thing.

“I should have scored,” McCoy admitted.

Let’s take a look at the anatomy of a near-perfect screen play with the help of the players involved and the screen maestro himself, Westbrook.

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Nick Foles is lined up in the shotgun with McCoy to his left and DeSean Jackson to his right. Tampa linebacker Mason Foster will come on the blitz. Lavonte David will shift towards the middle of the field — away from where the screen pass is headed. So far, so good. Then comes the biggest gift of all courtesy of defensive end Adrian Clayborn. He will abandon his post and run a stunt that lands him on the other side of the field.

Jason Kelce believes that decision was based on the fact that McCoy was lined up on the left side. The play, though, is coming back to the right. Credit Chip Kelly‘s play design here.

“They were in the perfect defense [to run that play],” said Kelce. “They were blitzing away from it. And the end who is supposed to drop out to the side of the screen actually ended up dropping out away from the side of the screen so they had nobody there.”

Kelly adds another wrinkle to create confusion. Jackson bursts into motion to his left, drawing the attention of David, who is frantically waiving at his cornerback to alert him.

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David eventually rushes the quarterback from the left side. Below you can also see Clayborn working his way around to the left, leaving plenty of open space on the play side.

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At this point you can see the offensive linemen are beginning to release from their blocks as McCoy starts to leak out. There is a certain art form to this process.

“You have to sell the downfield pass first of all,” said Westbrook. “For the [linemen], you have to strike your man and almost act like as if they’re beating you. If they don’t beat you then they’re kind of right there in the way of the screen so you have to give the impression that they’re beating you.

“The offensive line releases and starts to go downfield to block. One of the more important things is as a running back, you can’t rush it. If you rush it, you don’t give your offensive line enough time to set up your blocks…I count one one-thousand, two one-thousand, and then I curl back and try to get the pass from the quarterback, I want to have that separation between myself and the offensive line so they can get downfield and start setting up their  blocks.

Foles is selling it as well. In the frame above you can see that his eyes are downfield as if this is a run-of-the-mill dropback pass.

“I think it’s all about deception,” said Foles. “I think that you try to get the defense to go one direction. You try to make it as real as possible. You really want those guys to get as close as they can to you without really smacking you and trying to make sure you can get the ball to the running back, tight end, receiver.

“It’s more of a feel thing. I mean you can work on stuff on the practice field and that’s what you’ve got to do, you work on the techniques, but in a game you’ve got to feel it. You’ve got to trust your techniques but at the same time – like a basketball player – make up a play and be able to execute it.”

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As you can see, Tampa is a mess. They have taken the bait and are in no position to defend the play. Lane Johnson is pushing his defender to the outside, leaving a perfect lane for Foles to throw through.

With Clayborn and the linebackers out of the picture, Kelce and Todd Herremans are free to start advancing down the field. Check out this shot below.

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That’s 616 pounds of mass charging towards 213-pound safety Mark Barron.

“Any time you’re getting linemen on safeties on a screen that’s a good thing,” said Kelce.

Added Westbrook: “It important that you have offensive linemen that not only have the speed to get downfield but also the agility to block the secondary guys. Jason Kelce was a great example of someone getting downfield and blocking a safety on this particular play.”

Kelce throws Barron down like a rag doll.

The image above shows that McCoy had a heck of a lane to run through. Jason Avant had his man blocked, and the Kelce/Herremans duo could handle whatever else came into the picture. McCoy, though, broke back hard to the left — away from his convoy — and was eventually tripped up.

“I’ll tell you, if he would have stayed straight [he would have scored],” said Westbrook. “He’s so good at cutting back that sometimes he overcuts. He cuts back so much and so successfully that sometimes he cuts back when he has no need to. This screen this past game is an exact example of him cutting back too far. He should have cut back and then have gotten into the alley.”

The Eagles eventually scored on a Foles’ QB draw, so no harm done. Touchdown or not, this was a great example of how effective a screen can be in the right situation when executed properly. Perhaps Kelly will start dialing them up some more.

As for Jackson, who drew all that attention by lining up in the backfield and going in motion? He is that speck at the top the screen, sitting harmlessly in the flat.

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“I think DeSean in the backfield kind of draws a little attention,” said offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur with a smile.