The Eagles and The "Bubble Screen"
If you opened Twitter or turned on the radio after the Eagles’ Week 1 win, you exposed yourself to a whole lot of hemming and hawing over sideways passes.
Doug Pederson called a couple of bubble-esque screen plays in the 30-17 victory, much to the ire of Birds fans who just wanted Carson Wentz to throw the football down the field.
Knee-jerk reaction aside, you do wonder if it’s the type of play that works in the NFL.
It’s been incredibly popular in the college game since the resurgence of the spread offense, utilized heavily by Big 12 and west coast teams that veered from the traditional football that was still being played in the Big 10 and SEC.
Oregon has had a lot of success with variations of the quick-hit bubble and flat screen over the years:
Call it whatever you want; bubble screen, flat screen, tunnel, whatever. I’m focusing on the type of plays that get the ball to skill players in space.
The concept is pretty simple; you’re trying to quickly release the ball and give these players room to run. The receivers establish blocks while a tackle will usually kick out as well to seal a linebacker or engage a safety downfield. You’re basically just splitting the field and creating favorable matchups that you feel you can win.
Here’s a typical design for this family of plays, clipped from the video above:
Success is predicated on how fast the quarterback can get the ball in the receiver’s hands. Slow execution or off-target passes often blow these plays up, resulting in loss of yardage, turnovers, or the receiver getting absolutely clobbered by a safety. That’s why they look exponentially shittier when they don’t work.
And that’s the issue with these plays in the NFL; you rarely get a skill mismatch when going up against professional secondaries. This isn’t Texas Tech lining up against UTEP and exploiting the gulf of talent between their skill players and the opposing secondary. This is the Eagles trying to beat guys like Josh Norman and Orlando Scandrick in space.
The Eagles tried a couple of these plays on Sunday with little success.
The first was a roll-out running play, according to Doug Pederson, who explained that the sequence leading to the first turnover was actually designed with a primary rushing option and was never intended to be a backward pass.
This is what happened instead:
Not the time to get cute, that's on Doug pic.twitter.com/WfJ5e0O6SB
— Kansas More Chaints (@AdrianFedkiw) September 10, 2017
Even with a run option there, I’m not sure anything happens. Wentz threw a bad ball and they coughed up possession.
They ran this play on the next drive, which involved motioning Darren Sproles out to the left to try to give him some space to run:
It’s not a bad idea, but you see a smart read from D.J. Swearinger, who gets up to the line of scrimmage and occupies Alshon Jeffery’s block. With Jason Peters slow to get outside, Sproles runs inside and meets Mason Foster for a negligible one-yard gain.
They tried a more traditional-looking bubble in the fourth quarter on a third and nine.
I originally hated the play call, but looking back at the video, I think it had the chance to go for a big gain.
The design is there.
Lane Johnson slips the defensive end and Wentz quickly gets rid of the ball. Torrey Smith and Jeffery completely whiff on their blocks and Agholor goes down for a loss. Washington did a good job at sniffing out those plays for much of the game.
But look at the point of reception– the moment when Agholor gets the ball in his hands and the assignments really match up nicely:
The play is “there” if those blocks are made. Johnson is rumbling downhill to pancake the safety if Agholor makes it to the next level.
Another thing you’ll see is that college offenses will fake that bubble and try to take a shot downfield with a double-move if the corners are aggressively playing close to the line.
The Eagles didn’t try that yesterday, but they attempted a bit of misdirection in the third quarter when they put Agholor in motion and tried to slide Sproles out for a little inside screen, on third and 12. It didn’t come off, since Washington was just going to sit near the line of gain anyway.
This is what it looked like:
Josh Norman sees it the whole way and blows up Sproles before he hits the line of scrimmage. The Redskins didn’t even send anyone to match Agholor’s motion, preferring to just keep the ball in front of them in a third and long situation where they rushed four players.
It was also a poor pass from Wentz, who has room to improve with those touch passes.
Here’s another example of an NFL team trying this concept, with the (then Saint Louis) Rams basically running identical looks on both sides of the field:
Isaiah Pead takes a step back, makes the catch, and then runs behind two linemen that kick out to the next level. At the top of the screen, it’s a traditional bubble look with one receiver slipping two blockers. It’s a really nice design all-around.
So what’s the verdict?
The Eagles didn’t get much out of those bubble/flat looks in this game, though missed blocks and bad throws certainly had something to do with it. Those plays require near-perfect timing and execution, which isn’t always going to be there in Week 1.
More than anything, I don’t think you get the talent mismatches that college offenses often exploit, so I’m not sure those types of play calls make a ton of sense at this level, especially when you now have a franchise quarterback who can sling it down the field.
Were Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith signed for their blocking skills?