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Film breakdown: What happened to the WR screen?

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Press coverage happened, that’s what.

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NFL: Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

That third-and-8 call

Like everyone else, I was howling with rage when the Lions tried a WR screen to Golden Tate on third-and-long midway through the fourth quarter against the Giants. As an aside, Ryan Mathews and I talked about this recently, and I go by the Brian Billick definition, so yes eight yards to go is considered “long.” Anyway, the Lions failed miserably and punted the ball away in good field position near midfield. On further review of the tape, the call is even more infuriating because it seems to violate everything we have come to know and love about Cooterball.

2016 at NYG, 4Q (9:51). Third-and-8 at the Detroit 40.

The play call was shotgun split backs with a misdirection flow by the two backs (46 FB Michael Burton and 36 HB Dwayne Washington) as a “fake screen” to the left while the real play was a delayed screen to 15 WR Golden Tate on the right. 80 WR Anquan Boldin put a slant style move on the slot defender before moving back into blocking position. Meanwhile, 71 RT Riley Reiff and 75 RG Larry Warford released as screen blockers with 60 C Graham Glasgow looping to cut off pursuit from behind. The play was stopped for a loss of one yard: what was wrong with running it as called?

First, consider the defensive alignment. The Giants are up in the face of every receiver showing press coverage. Even if they are not actually playing press man, it means they start the play with a body on every potential target near the line of scrimmage. Tate is already put in a bad spot to get a screen pass because there is no space to catch and work. It turns out the Giants are playing man coverage, but the corner in front of 11 WR Marvin Jones at the top of the screen blitzes; the deep safety is supposed to move up to replace.

Second, look at the defensive alignment. Look at it! The Giants are spread wide with ten men near the line of scrimmage! There is nobody at the second level and a potential overload blitz on Stafford’s left. When in fact that corner blitz comes, it is four-on-two and the widest two rushers peel off to cover Burton’s release — you know, just in case. If the Lions run a play that only threatens wide left (the fake action by Burton and Washington) and wide right (the actual screen to Tate), the Giants are in perfect position to take all of it away.

Third, the offensive play design is one-dimensional. Here is a quick thing I slapped together right after the game when Alex Reno asked if it was as bad as he thought (and it was):

The point is that the entire offensive play design is horizontal stretch: there is no vertical element at all in the play (Marvin only floats out because he has nobody to block when the corner blitzes) and involves a set throw with no read or decision on Stafford’s part. He simply never looks to his left at all. Marvin is wide open, but Stafford has no chance to see it because the timing of the set screen to Tate requires he catch the snap, look ahead neutral for a beat to hold the deep coverage, then fire on time to what is supposed to be an open man. Instead, there is a press corner right on top of the receiver.

This sort of play is what I was thinking of when I commented that “the only WR screens I don't like are the pre-set ones with no options”:

If Stafford comes to the line and sees numbers outside on a bubble-zone option play, absolutely give Tate/Jones/whoever the ball in space and let it rip. The key is giving Stafford the choice of throwing it against a backed off alignment or checking to hit some other part of the field. The only time I ever get irritated at a screen call is when it is forced into traffic against tight coverage and wasn’t there to begin with.

What we have here is:

  1. Giants showing press coverage taking away space from Tate.
  2. Stafford must make a timing throw with no read.
  3. Zero options down the seam or into the middle.

This play had pretty much no chance to work, and sacrifices all of the best aspects of what makes Jim Bob’s offense successful. Cooterball at its finest relies on Stafford’s head as much as his arm.

No, Detroit does not call “too many” screens

The other common reaction that could be found all over social media and our article comments sections here on Pride Of Detroit was disgust with “so many” screen passes. But hold up, is that really true? Do the Lions really throw the Tate screen so much, and even if they did would you want to stop doing something that is often quite successful? To check on at least the first part of that sentence, I watched all of the offensive plays from the Chicago game in Week 14 and the New York Game in Week 15.

It turns out, the Lions only threw the WR screen twice against the Bears and three times against the Giants. Of the five passes, three targeted Tate, one targeted Boldin in the first quarter of the Giants game, and one targeted 12 WR Andre Roberts in the fourth quarter against the Bears. For the three Tate screens, one moved the chains on second-and-5 versus the Bears, one was the play above, and one was a four yard gain in the first quarter against the Giants. So no, it does not look like Jim Bob has over-used the WR screen lately, and in fact you might say he is under-utilizing it.

To understand why the Lions tried the WR so few times in the past two games, one need only refer to Ty Schalter’s thing in FiveThirtyEight about the Giants’ defense (which POD linked in Wednesday’s Notes):

Stafford quickly discovered his array of screens to backs, tight ends and receivers weren’t going anywhere, as New York sniffed them out and schemed them away. Though pass rushers Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul have drawn well-deserved attention for their work up front, it’s the back seven’s outstanding coverage that has suffocated pass-happy offenses such as the Lions’. On Sunday, the Giants defensive backs flew to the ball and wrapped up: Safety Landon Collins, corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, corner Eli Apple and safety Andrew Adams each were among the leaders in solo tackles for the day.

The Lions abandoned the short pass and tried to establish the run. It didn’t work.

As noted a little earlier in this section, the Lions did not try to throw the screen much against Chicago, either. What’s the common denominator? Both the Bears and Giants have outstanding defensive performance against short passes. While the Giants are superb against everything, look at Football Outsiders’ defensive stats for the Bears in the 2016 Defense by Pass Direction section of the linked article.

Ranked just 14th against the pass as a whole due to poor performance versus deep throws, Chicago’s defense is -7.3% (negative is good here) against short passes. That probably means two things: first, their defenders are good at playing tight coverage at the line and second, their people fly to the ball. Now look back at the third-and-8 pre-snap screenshot and what Ty Schalter said about the Giants.

2016 CHI, 4Q (7:18). Second-and-5 at the Detroit 14.

The Lions’ short passing driven offense struggled to move the ball against the Bears most of the game, and this play is a great example why that was the case. It is the one right before Stafford threw the pick-six to 22 CB Cre’von LeBlanc. The design is a set WR screen to Roberts at the top with Marvin blocking. Ebron is held in to block in the empty gun set, and Tate hardly runs a route. The only thing run past five yards is Zenner on a vertical down the sideline. Now, look at the same elements from the failed third-and-8 conversion against the Giants:

  1. Defense is rolled up in tight press man coverage across the board. ✓
  2. Stafford must make a timing throw to a set man with no read. ✓
  3. Zero options down the seam or middle since Ebron is blocking and Tate is stopping short. ✓

Guess what happened?

The response was so quick by the defense that Roberts was hit as the ball arrived and could not even make the catch. This is exactly the kind of situation where Stafford needs to have the freedom to change the play at the line and put his guys in better situations to succeed.

Shoot the glass

What to do about this kind of press look anti-short pass defense? In the spirit of the recent holiday movie listcast by Chris, Ryan, and Jeremy on the PODcast, a clip from that bona fide Christmas classic Die Hard will show how I feel about the lack of man beater reads over the middle.

When the defense keeps throwing man coverage in your face, hit them with stuff that beats man coverage, right? It is hard to tell if the game plans just do not have much of it built in or if the Lions were not expecting “press all day.” It is not like such plays are completely absent from the game plan, and when called against the tight coverage using savvy route runners, guess what? They worked. So just use them already!

2016 CHI, 2Q (9:06). Third-and-4 at the Detroit 21.

Detroit comes to the line in an empty gun set and Stafford sees a combination of press coverage across the board and what looks like an overload blitz to his right. Quickly, he audibles via hand motions to get Zenner over into the backfield as blitz protection and changes the route mix to a bunch of man beaters. To the far left, Andre Roberts has a clearout vertical for Tate to run under and away from his man on an intermediate out. Eric Ebron flexed inside of Tate will be a Y-stick, initially posting up in the paint and then running to open space away from his man. This gives Stafford a quick throw (Ebron) and something a little deeper if he has time in the pocket (Tate), all to one side of the field with deep stuff (Roberts and Marvin) keeping the safeties deep.

Ebron plays it physical and leaks into the open where there are no second level defenders. This play picked up eight yards and a first down by taking advantage of Ebron’s big body and strength to get open in tight coverage. Now, the Lions have another guy on the roster who has size, strength, and a knack for getting open in key situations via physical play—and his name is Anquan Boldin.

2016 at NYG, 4Q (13:20). Third-and-2 at the Detroit 10.

Stafford comes to the line and does not like what he sees. He checks the protection and into a new play:

If the defense wants to attempt to man up across the board and stop every receiver from getting open short, why not go to the guy who has won those battles repeatedly and for years.

Quick slant to Boldin for nine yards gets the Lions a fresh set of downs. Opponents with solid short pass coverage like the Bears and Giants will require the Lions to win some man-to-man duels, but also run plays that have a chance to begin with. The short answer to why WR screens seem to be getting blown up is because the most recent defenses the Lions have faced committed to taking them away.

Heavy press coverage looks mean the WR screen will have a rough time succeeding, and going back to what Schalter wrote, it does not sound like the run game can make up for it. Maybe the WR screen will not be a great call every time those plays are picked, but providing options in those plays or at least giving Stafford enough to time to check into or out of them can make a big difference. In particular, tough play underneath by Boldin and Ebron can keep the chains moving if they are given a chance. Also, one has to wonder how much of a difference a healthy Theo Riddick would have made in terms of attacking the middle of the field.