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The Film Room (Texans v. Chiefs): Do You Like Screen Passes?

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Matt Weston breaks down the staple of Kansas City's offense, the screen pass, by looking at examples from the Texans' 27-20 loss in Week One.

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Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Hello,  Matt Weston, local writer and FOOTBALL enthusiast, here! IS your offense having trouble throwing the ball deep?!?! Are your skill PLAYERS having trouble GETTING the BALL?!?! Do YOU punt oo often? IS there NO answer?

You're SOOOOO stupid!! THERE IS!! Screen Passes! FINALLY!!!! There is a way for YOUR offense to move the ball. Does YOUR offense have tight ends? Running backs? Wide Receivers? IT DOESN'T MATTER. Cuz ONE play fits all!! SCREEN PASSES--you'll score with DASHES!

Last season, Alex Smith was the butt of NFL jokes because somehow, over the course of sixteen games, he failed to throw a touchdown pass to a wide receiver. This statement has been the perfect encapsulation of Alex Smith's inadequacies--a fear and inability to throw the ball downfield that goes along hand in hand with a focus on protecting the football that is so severe that it becomes detrimental to the offense as a whole. How much of this is Andy Reid suffocating Smith with a game plan is unknown.  What is known is how Smith has performed throwing down field.

Mike Tanier looked at passes that traveled further than twenty yards in a Bleacher Report article earlier this year. Here are Alex Smith's numbers in 2013 and 2014 compared to the NFL average:

Category Cmp Att Cmp% YDs TDs INT Y/A
Alex Smith 17 66 25.8% 571 3 2 8.7
NFL Average 45 133 33.6% 1,540 11.4 8.9 11.6

Yeesh. The only argument saving his hide is that he hasn't had skill players who can be described as a deep threat. Dexter McCluster, Dwayne Bowe, and Donnie Avery are the three wide receivers who received the most targets from Smith during his time in Kansas City.  All have one thing in common:  They all are pretty terrible. Yet despite this argument, Smith has still been among the worst in the league when it comes throwing long distances.

To me, the job of a coach is to put his players in the best position to succeed. That's his main focus every single week. For Andy Reid, that means putting Alex Smith in an offense he can successfully run. To make up for Smith's troubles throwing the ball to this part of the field, Reid has designed an offense that plays to Smith's biggest strength--his quick release and his accuracy when throwing the ball short. Rather than mush his feet around in Smith's wounds, Reid has instead focused on Smith's strengths by centering the offense around quick passes, screens, and shorter crossing routes.

In 2014, 472 of Smith's 3,313 yards came on screen passes.  That's 14.2% of his total passing yards. This placed him second in the league, behind Nick Foles, in percentage of yards coming from screen passes.

via Pro Football Focus

Screen Passes

Not only that, but Kansas City has also surrounded Smith with players who are FAST and can make plays in space.

Player 40 YD. Time
Albert Wilson 4.35
Travis Kelce 4.61
Jamaal Charles 4.36
DE'Anthony Thomas 4.34
Jeremy Maclin 4.45

The need to throw the ball deep is mitigated when you have skill players who burst through the womb ready to juke, spin, and make defenders look silly in the open field.

So rather than do what most coaches do, and find players to play their schemes, Reid has instead created an offense to play to his players' strengths instead. This offense and that screen game was on full display Sunday in the Chiefs; 27-20 win over the Houston Texans.

Their first screen came on 2nd and 1 with 13:55 left in the first quarter.

Here, Kansas City is in a 3x1 formation and is running a jailbreak screen. A jailbreak screen is when the receiver comes towards the quarterback when the play begins and the offensive line releases quickly to block down field. This play is all about getting the ball to the skill player as fast as possible.

The key to this play pre-snap is how far off the line the cornerback is playing. Albert Wilson, the receiver furthest from Smith, has almost fifteen yards between him and the defender covering him. That's a ton of space for anyone, let alone a player who runs a 4.35 40.

KC SCREEN 1-1

The wide receivers' blocking assignments are pretty simple here. Block the first threat. So each inside receiver blocks the man in front of them, as highlighted by the circles.

KC Screen 1-2

Before Smith releases the ball, one of the corners is nearly on the ground, and Johnathan Joseph, who's playing at a safety's depth, has yet to take a step. If the slot receiver makes his block, Wilson will have a one-on-one-make-him-miss-match-up seven yards down the field.

KC Screen 1-3

Let's take a look at the behind view and see what the offensive line is doing. From their perspective, this play is all about timing. They need to show pass and release down field at the same time the ball is thrown.

As far as assignments go, Donald Stephenson (LT #79) kick-slides out briefly to get Jadeveon Clowney to come up the field and make linebacker Akeem Dent (#50) sit instead of chase. Ben Grubbs (LG #66) shows pass and doesn't allow interior pressure. The center (Mitch Morse #61) and right guard (Laurent Duvernay-Tardif #76) are shifting one gap over. The plan is to double-team the defensive tackle; once the ball is thrown, Morse will take over the block, which allows Duvernay-Tardif to head down field. Finally, the right tackle (Jah Reid #75) will get really tall to sell the pass, and then cut J.J. Watt to keep his hands down and prevent him from swatting the pass at the line.

KC SCREEN 1-9

The assignments come to life.

KC SCREEN 1-10

The left tackle allows Clowney to speed rush past him and then heads to the second level. Because of how well the offensive line shows pass, both linebackers are stuck in place and ready to be blocked instead of chasing toward the sideline. The right guard is giving the defensive tackle to the center and heading to Brian Cushing's outside shoulder, and Jah Reid is cutting Watt. As Smith begins to throw, Watt's hands are down on the ground and prevent him from leaping for the football.

KC Screen 1-11

It's hard to depict the flow of the play in still images, but the timing is easy to see. When Smith starts his throwing motion, they leave their blocks and head out in space.

In order to make sure the timing is perfect, the linemen have a cadence in their head on screen plays like this. On this one, they will count 1-2-GO or something similar, and on GO they will then shed and head to their next assignment.

KC Screen 1-12

Everyone from Kansas City makes their blocks.  When Wilson gets the ball, there's nine yards between him and the cornerback.

KC Screen 1-5

KC SCReen 1-14

Now Wilson gets to do his job. He takes on Joseph (#24), the cornerback lined up across from Wilson when the play started.

KC SCREEN 1-14

Joseph lowers his head to make the tackle and Wilson runs right around him. All of the Chiefs' skill players were slippery snakes against Houston. I counted seventeen broken tackles.  Seventeen. Kansas City can run plays like this with success because of their ability to make defenders miss. Last season, they ranked 11th in broken tackle rate (7.2% per play) according to Football Outsiders.

The play ends when Kareem Jackson is able to fight off Jason Avant (#81) and tackles Wilson after he gains thirteen yards.

KC Screen 1-16

KC Screen 1-17

Texans gif

This is what execution looks like. The timing is perfect. The blocks are good and are released before a flag can negate the play. The ball gets to a skill player with a pasture of wet grass to run through.

The next screen play the Chiefs ran came on 3rd and 13 with 8:04 left in the first quarter. Even though Alex Smith has trouble with the deep pass, the Chiefs were fifth in the league in 2014 (29.8% conversion rate) on third downs of ten yards or more. This wasn't because Smith suddenly turned into Aaron Rodgers.  It's because screens like the these are made to take advantage of defenses when they slobber at the mouth, pin their ears back, and get ready to rush the passer.

This next play is categorized as a screen, but more specifically it's a crack screen. On this play, a blocker will come back across the play to knock out the unsuspecting defender. The receiver runs away from the quarterback rather than coming back towards the ball.

Like the previous play, Kansas City again comes out in a Trips Right formation, and again Houston is in man coverage. This is the exact defense the crack screen is designed for. It's made to be used when the offense knows who's covering the intended receiver.

In this situation, Brian Cushing is covering Jamaal Charles. This sentence alone is an incredible mismatch, but it becomes even moreso when you take in account that Travis Kelce, the receiver in the slot, is coming across the formation to take out Cushing. When the ball is snapped, Cushing will follow Charles in coverage and run straight into Kelce. Additionally, by running against the grain and into the formation, Kelce takes the man guarding him, Eddie Pleasant (#35), away from the play without even having to touch him. The outside receivers just block the man in front of them. The only difference between the two is the "Z" (wide receiver closest to the sideline) will run down field to take the corner with him before he begins his block.

KC 2-1

At the snap, Charles runs away from Smith into the flat. You can see the beginnings of the Kelce-Cushing collision that will cause someone's premium to increase.

KC 2-2

This is a fairly standard play in football. But like most plays, the innovation doesn't come from overhauling the entire scheme; it comes in the form of little wrinkles. Reid mixes this play up by how he uses the center.

The rest of the O-line is pretty basic. The left side shifts one gap over and the right side plays man to man. The key is that Morse (#61) is the one who becomes the downfield blocker.

KC 2-9

Everyone shows pass except for Morse. He shows his chest and then swims over the top of the nose tackle before heading to the next level to get in Cushing's way. Andy Reid makes sure Cushing doesn't get anywhere close to Charles. Not only is he cracking back on him, but he's having the center chip and slow him down to make the block easier for Kelce.

KC 2-10

KC 2-11

KC 2-12

When the ball gets to Charles, Cushing is flying through the air, the "Z" begins his block, and Morse begins his pursuit up field. The only uncovered man on the field is 30 yards away from Charles. Again, the timing is phenomenal. Again, Reid is putting his skill players in space to make plays.

KC 2-6

Once Charles gets the ball, he accelerates to top speed and zips down the sideline with two blockers ahead of him. He ends up getting squeezed to the sideline and is tackled from behind by Pleasant.

KC GIF 2

The next two plays are where the fun really begins. Each of these are double screens where the offense is running a different type of play on each side of the field.

On the right side of the field, the Chiefs are running a jailbreak screen.  On the left side of the field, they are running a more traditional running back screen. You know, the one where the quarterback takes three steps and dumps the ball ball off to the running back, who then scampers behind a horde of blockers.

Even though it's not in the image, Smith puts the second running back, De'Anthony Thomas (#19) in motion out to the slot. With him out there, Kansas City has a numbers advantage unless Cushing is in man coverage and covering him. If he isn't, Kansas City again has a ten yard gap between the receiver and the unblocked safety in coverage.

The hardest part of writing about an entire offense is you have to write from the outside. I don't know any reads exactly. I don't know what's going on at practice. I don't know their terminology. All I and anyone can do is make educated guesses. To me, Cushing is the player Smith is reading on this play, simply because he goes unblocked. The read seems to be if Cushing chases to the right in man coverage, throw the running back screen to the left; if he sits, then throw the jailbreak screen to the right.

KC 3-1

The behind view displays this inference. The offensive line is blocking as they normally do in passing situations. The left side is shifting one gap over, and the right side is playing big on big. That's it. The main difference is that once their internal clock reaches GO, they will leave the line of scrimmage for the left side of the field. Also the double team between Grubbs and Morse will head up to Akeem Dent (#50).

KC 3-9

Let's go back to the sideline view and see how the play and Smith's reads develop.

Screen 3-2

When Smith turns his back to the defense and looks at De'Anthony Thomas, that entire side of the defense begins to pursue. It even gets Dent to meander over in that direction. As you can see here, Cushing is unblocked and rushing towards Thomas. Smith sees this, fakes the throw, and then flips toward Charles.

Screen 3-3

In the GIF at the end, pay special attention to Smith's footwork on this play. He's precise with his steps and sells the fake perfectly.

Screen 3-4

When Smith gets ready to throw, Morse leaves the double to block Dent. When the ball is thrown, the entire interior of the offensive line leaves to block for Charles.

KC 3-13

Jamaal catches the ball right when Dent is cut. He has twenty yards between him and the closest unblocked defender. It's beautiful. The Chiefs are using every inch of the field on this play and are going from sideline to shining sideline. This play is eight men and twenty-two pairs of short, thick, cotton shorts away from being a rugby game.

KC 3-6

Akeem Dent recuperates from the cut block quick enough to be able to get up and catch Charles from behind to keep this play at a gain of ten yards.

KC 3-7

KC 3-8

Everything about this play is perfect. It has it all. Timing. Execution. Deception. Multiple options. Open field.

I feel like I'm watching a anthill recovering from a cataclysmic sandal, not a football game.

KC GIF 3

The last play left to break down was a simple quick pass to Charles that sealed the win for the Chiefs...or was it?

Before the snap, Charles goes in motion.

KC 4-1

When this play happened live, I assumed it was just a quick pass where Charles had a ton of space between him and the defender covering him. Little did I know what was happening on the right side of the field. Even in the red zone, when space is at a premium, the Chiefs are running another double screen. On the left side, they run a crack screen. Kelce blocks the inside linebacker and the outside receiver blocks the cornerback.

On the other side of the formation, they are running a jailbreak screen. The outside receiver comes back for the ball, the slot receiver blocks the corner, and the guard releases to cut the slot corner.

KC 4-2

Before the snap, Smith knows where he is going with the football. With a crack block coming on the inside linebacker and the unblocked safety standing in the end zone, Smith will take his chances with Charles picking up positive yards, let alone seven for the score.

KC 4-3

KC 4-4

KC 4-5

When Charles catches and turns, the block is made on cue. Kansas City's execution is impressive.

KC 4-6

On the right side, you can see the other screen turn into a gaze as they watch the ball across the horizon. But you can see the potential and the outside blocking assignments turn from words into reality.

KC 4-7

Like the throw to Wilson described earlier, Charles does his job and beats the uncovered man. He then scampers for extra yards until the rules of football constrain him from moving any further.

KC 4-8

27-6. GAME OVER.

KC GIF 4

No matter the down, distance, or field position, the Chiefs are trying to do one thing:  Get the ball out in space. They do this a multitude of ways, but their main way of moving the ball in the passing game comes in the form of screens. Jailbreak, crack, double, or bubble, it doesn't matter. Andy Reid uses every version of the screen, adding subtle innovations and different packages to get the most out of what he has.

When you watch the Chiefs play football, you probably won't see many examples of the most exciting play in sports, the deep pass. Instead, you will see an offense built around getting the most out of their quarterback. In a league focused on "systems" and what players can't do, it's fun to watch a team that utilizes what it has effectively. It may not be the most riveting offense to watch, "BUT, if YOU like screen passes, head down to Kansas City, home of the Chiefs!".

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