Doug Pederson has received a lot of criticism for his use of screen plays in Washington.
Tuesday, Kevin Kinkead broke down the use of those screens and why they didn’t work for the Eagles in the Week 1 win. Today, I’m going expand on that analysis from a different angle. I want to explain why screen plays are important for an offense and why Pederson was right for calling them when he did.
Play calling in the NFL, or at any level for that matter, is never just about running plays that you think will work.
It’s a chess match; you must be able to think three moves ahead. Every head coach or coordinator has bread and butter plays that they like to fall back on in different scenarios. The problem is that opposing defensive coaches know these plays and spend their weeks finding ways to stop them. To counter this, coaches often build “constraints” around those bread and butter plays. Constraint plays can keep a defense honest by giving them different variations of a play out of similar formations. Outside screens, similar to those the Eagles ran on Sunday, serve as a good constraint for the running game.
Stretching Them Out & Softening Them Up
It’s safe to say that anyone following the Eagles in the post-DeSean Jackson era is well aware of the benefits of stretching the field vertically. Equally important, but not discussed nearly as often, are the benefits of stretching it horizontally. Just like a safety, who doesn’t have to respect the deep ball, can do damage to the running game, so too can the linebacker who doesn’t have to respect the offense’s ability to get to the edges.
This is where outside screens become so valuable to an offense.
Outside screen plays force the linebackers to respect the width of the field, particularly in where they align before the snap. This is true with less athletic linebackers, like Mason Foster, who don’t the have speed to play sideline-to-sideline. It puts them in a bind. Do they stay in the box and risk getting beat outside on a screen, or should they cheat outside and lighten up the box?
In 2016, Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator Matt Canada (now in the same role for the LSU Tigers) took college football by storm with an offense that was primarily designed around the jet sweep. Canada packaged the jet sweep or jet motion into almost every one of his offensive concepts and it gave defenses fits. The jet sweeps themselves weren’t the issue. They struck gold occasionally, but it was threat of the sweeps that really stretched those defenses out.
Below is a clip from the Panthers’ early season 2016 matchup with Penn State, when they made sure to quickly establish their outside presence.
This was obviously a successful play, but Canada was probably more excited for what it set up.
Just a few plays and jet motions later, with the PSU defense now zeroed in on the sweep, Canada goes back to his bread and butter and gashes them inside. Pay special attention to all of the defenders chasing the jet sweep at the bottom of the clip.
The jet sweep may look completely different than a screen to the outside, but they accomplish the same thing. They both serve as constraints that can be tagged onto any offensive concept to put defenders in conflict and force them to defend the whole field. Think of these plays as the little jabs or body shots that a prize fighter would give to an opponent to soften him up before unleashing the devastating uppercut.
So, why did the Eagles throw so many screens on Sunday?
Another way to force a defense to respect the entire width of the field is to just run the ball outside. Of course, to be effective, these runs have to, you know, work. The Eagles tried to run the ball outside multiple times on Sunday with very little success, totaling only 12 yards on eight carries.
Finding limited gains with outside runs, it’s likely that Pederson was using some of those screen plays as an extension of the running game to work the edges of the defense, similar to how Canada attacked Penn State and the rest of the college football world. As it turned out, that didn’t work either in this game, but, as I’ll show below, that wasn’t because of the play call, but rather the lack of execution.
The Play Calls Heard ‘Round the World
Now that I’ve discussed the purpose and value that screens and other perimeter plays can bring to an offense, I want to dive into two specific screen plays from Sunday’s game that Pederson was heavily criticized for. The first was the backwards pass to Nelson Agholor, and the second was the quick screen to Agholor on third and nine. Both were bad plays, but neither were bad play calls.
Let’s start with the backward pass.
First, the narrative that this was some type of newfangled gimmick play design is just wrong. For starters, Pederson didn’t even call for the screen pass! He confirmed in his Monday press conference that the play was actually a run/pass option (RPO).
“It was a run, a designed run and that was just an advantage throw.”
Carson Wentz was given the option to hand the ball off to Sproles on an outside sweep or throw a screen to Agholor. As for his decision on the play, it’s impossible to know the specifics of what he was actually reading, but by the looks of it, it appears as if throwing the screen was the right decision.
The Eagles sent Agholor into orbit motion around the formation. Redskin’s cornerback Bashaud Breeland doesn’t follow Agholor across the field, giving the Eagles a three-on-two numbers advantage to the right side and prompting Wentz to quickly turn and throw it. Had Breeland followed Agholor, they would’ve had a numbers advantage running Sproles to the left side.
As Kevin pointed out yesterday, there were obvious execution issues on the play. Agholor was too deep in his path, Wentz threw a bad pass, and Torrey Smith blew his blocking assignment. Here is what Pederson had to say about the execution on the play:
“On film, Nelson was a little deeper than he should have been obviously, because it was a lateral. In practice during the week, that was never the case. We have to clean those things up.”
Lastly, this isn’t the first time the Eagles have run this play. They ran variations of this several times in 2016. Believe it or not, this can actually be a successful play if the players execute their assignments. Here’s an example.
The main criticism of the second play, on third and nine, was that it gave the Eagles no chance to pick up a first down. There is a valid argument to be made here. A wide receiver quick screen is probably less likely to gain nine yards than a downfield pass. But, when you consider the context of the situation, there is also a reasonable case to be made for being conservative.
The Eagles had just taken back momentum from the Redskins with Jalen Mills’ interception and held a two-point lead with seven minutes remaining. With the ball at the 50-yard line, they had a good chance to pin Washington deep in their own zone, which, considering how well the defense had played to that point, wasn’t a bad fall back plan for not picking up the first down on a low percentage play. The only thing the Eagles absolutely could not afford to do was throw an interception. Facing a third and long, it was likely that Washington would either blitz or drop heavy in coverage.
Either way, asking Wentz to throw into that is a risky proposition.
Instead, Pederson opted for the low-risk, high-reward play. As it turns out, this was actually a great play call and the Eagles should have converted. At the snap, the Redskins playside safety drops deep into coverage, which gives the Eagles a three-on-two advantage to the screen side. Lane Johnson also releases out into space looking for the safety.
If Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery didn’t fail miserably executing their blocks, Agholor had a pretty clear path to a first down.
While it didn’t turn out to the best locker room strategy, and it wasn’t what fans wanted to hear after a loss, Chip Kelly was just being honest when he blamed failed plays on execution. These screen plays may not have worked in the moment they were called, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t sound reasoning behind calling them.
The players need to execute.