Three Simple Screen Passes in the Spread Offense

Effective screen passes in the spread offense might be one of the most undervalued and underused aspect to a passing attack. It simply doesn’t get talked about enough. When used at the right time and with great execution, screen plays can lead to huge chunk yards for the offense.

The key to successful screen passes is having good timing with all the moving parts involved. Offensive linemen must have good timing between pass setting and releasing on their blocks in order to influence the defensive line to get up field in their pass rush. Offensive linemen must also be great in space to take the proper angle toward their landmarks and to not over run their blocks. Backs and WR’s must have great timing in their blocks and the routes on a screen pass to allow the OL to get out in front and cover up the defenders.

If these moving parts are not in sync and working together then it can be tough to successfully execute a screen pass. However, if the offense executes with great timing then a screen pass might be the toughest concept to defend and can lead to explosive plays.

Three Simple Screen Passes

Here are three screen passes that you can implement into your offense

Tunnel Screen

The tunnel screen is perfect for stretching the defense horizontally while getting your athletes in space. Tunnel screen can be thrown to the field or to the boundary, depending on how the defense aligns to the formation and where you can get a numbers advantage on offense.

Below is a standard way of executing Tunnel Screen

Tunnel Screen
X/AExecute bubble. X will stalk block the corner and A will run bubble. This can either be eye candy or a pre-snap read for the QB to throw Bubble if he has open access to it
LTPass set inside to force the rush to come from the outside.
LGPass set inside and force the rush to come from outside if against 3 tech. If covered shade or 2i, pass set inside and block man
CKick Step for a 1 count and release upfield as the peel back block. Eyes need to be looking inside out and block first color that shows up either LB or Safety
RGKick step for a 1 count and release outside and upfield to block Safety or LB filling the alley. Just inside hash when ball is middle of the field
RTKick step for 1 count and get flat down the LOS to kick out the first defender to the outside of the box.
QBPunch the ball out front with a quick mesh with the RB and then flip hips to throw the tunnel to the right. WR will be showing you numbers as he’s running down the LOS. Hit him square in the numbers
YCB off pre snap then push the OLB before breaking out for the CB. If the CB is pressed then immediately get flat and to the CB.
ZThree hard steps off the LOS to quickly threaten the CB vertically. Banana back on the path and aim to catch the ball where the slot WR lined up pre snap (replace the #2 WR)

The description above is just a standard way to install Tunnel Screen. There are several different ways that you can use your OL in the blocking for Tunnel. A perfect example of that is shown in my previous post how USC uses GT Counter in their screen game.

Below is a clip of Tennessee in 2021 throwing Tunnel Screen to the field out of a bunch formation

Tennessee uses their numbers in bunch to block CB and Safety, and leave the OLB for the kick out block with the Left Tackle. The other blocking responsibilities apply as LG will block the alley and the Center will be the peel block if there is anyone coming from the backside. Tennessee swings the back to the boundary in hopes of holding off any backside defenders.

Here’s another look of them throwing a slot tunnel screen out of a 3×1 stack formation

The slot tunnel is a great option because it’s a quick hitter for the QB and WR, and the tackle releasing for the kick out block has less ground to cover. This allows for the WR to quickly catch the football, get inside the PST’s kick out block and run to open grass. The LB’s and safeties sometimes have a tougher time with slot tunnels and tunnel screens to the boundary because they have less room to avoid blocks.

Oregon runs a similar tunnel screen in 2019 against Washington. In the video below Oregon formations their numbers to the field before motioning a WR back to the boundary. The huskies confirm they are in man defense with the motion. Oregon needs blocks on the CB and Safety into the boundary for this to hit for a touchdown

The WR to the boundary does a great job occupying his man before climbing to the outside defender while All-American LT Penei Sewell releases flat into the boundary for a crucial block that leads to a touchdown.

Tunnel screen is a simple and easy screen to implement. It’s a high percentage throw for the QB and you can utilize athletic offensive linemen to get out in front of the receiver.

Middle Screen

Middle screen is a great screen option against defenses that are aggressive in their pass rush and like to blitz their inside linebackers. The reason why this is a great option against defenses that like to bring pressure from the inside is because the middle of the field is left wide open for the taking.

Below is a standard way for executing middle screen.

middle screen pass
XTake 1 hard step off the LOS and then bend back running 1 yard behind the LOS. Aiming point is to catch the ball where the LT is aligned pre-snap. Get eyes on the DL as you start to run down the LOS to avoid the trash
ABlock man in front of you. Adjust to man defense and pick off CB if pressed so he doesn’t follow X and disrupt route
LT/RTPass set inside and force rush outside. If DL takes an inside rush then stay on their hip and
LGPass set for 2 count and release with eyes outside looking for the first color that shows up from the alley
CPass set for 2 count and release with eyes down the middle looking for first color that shows up
RGPass set for 2 count and release with eyes outside looking for the first color that shows up from the alley
Y/ZBlock man in front, or run off if facing man coverage
QFlip hips to the RB on the swing route, then crossover before squaring chest to LOS and pedaling back. The release must be high and over the top of the DL to X running down the LOS.

Here is Kent State in 2020 beating pressure with middle screen from the boundary

Kent State does a great job of avoiding the twist with their center and left guard. It appears the RG got caught up in the twist. The tackles did a great job adjusting to the stunt by attaching to the hip of their defender and riding them upfield

The QB did a fantastic job of selling the swing and flipping his hips back to the boundary with his eyes on the WR running down the LOS. QB’s that have a good feel for their body are able to jump or hop while releasing the ball to ensure they get it over the rushing DL, which is shown in the clip above. If your QB struggles with this, then I’d advise them to get on their tip toes as they get depth.

It’s also important to note that the QB did a good job of influencing the rush by not bailing in his drop right away. QB’s often get too much depth right away which alerts the DL that a screen pass is coming. QB’s must be the carrot dangling in front of the DL’s face. They have to stay just in reach of the DL in order to influence them to continue on their rush.

Fortunately, the defense was in cover 0 and the RB did a great job bringing the Mike LB with him to open up the middle of the field for the screen pass.

Below is another variation of Western Kentucky running their middle screen in 2021. They pair their middle screen with a slot tunnel screen to the field. They also use their RB on a swing route to help open the middle of the field.

Whether the slot tunnel screen or RB swing were actual options, or just eye candy for the defense, WKU was able to put horizontal stress on the defense which opened up the middle of the field.

Without knowing for sure, I would assume the slot tunnel screen to the field is a pre-snap read for the QB. If the defense does not walk a backer out and keeps numbers in the box, then I would assume the QB would pump the swing route before throwing the slot tunnel.

However, the defense walks a backer out which makes for less space to attack with the slot tunnel screen. Because there is more space to attack from the boundary, the QB now pumps the swing and looks to throw the middle screen from the single WR.

Middle screen can be a bit of a challenge to execute, but if done properly it can be extremely difficult for a defense to stop.

Shallow Screen

The first time I’ve seen the shallow screen concept was in 2017, but it’s still getting a lot of attention today as more and more teams are running this concept. This screen pass is effective because it can beat a blitzing defense or it can beat a defense that plays off and drops in coverage.

Below is a typical way that you can run shallow screen

shallow screen
OLExecute your regular pass blocking rules
X/AAttack defenders with a vertical threat to get them into their drops. Stalk block at the top end. Slot WR leave the OLB for the RB and block the safety over the top
TRelease out with eyes on OLB. Pick up the most dangerous player in relationship to the shallow cross
QDepending on the design, take your regular drop and throw the shallow cross after the WR crosses the center
YRun a shallow cross at the line of scrimmage. Cannot get downfield because WR’s / RB may already be engaged in their blocking
ZRun off your defender

Below is Oklahoma running shallow screen in 2017 out of a 2×2 formation. They help the shallow crosser by starting him off the LOS to ensure that there is no collision off the LOS.

Initially the RB is looking to block the OLB, but he peels back and blocks the inside line backer. I believe if he would have stayed with the initial block on the OLB, this play would have gone for more yards as the crosser would have out ran the ILB after catching the football.

The next clip is from 2022 Fiesta Bowl where TCU scored twice on shallow screen against Michigan. Both times they caught Michigan in cover 0 and made the wolverines pay for it.

The WR’s for TCU do a great job blocking for their teammate as the slot WR to the field initially blocks his man before picking off the crosser’s defender. The outside WR is the reason why this goes for a touchdown because he puts the CB on his back 20 yards down field.

Here’s another look at shallow screen from Western Kentucky in 2021. WKU’s screen game has been one of the best in college football in recent years. They execute with great timing and block exceptionally well in space. This time is no different.

The slot WR to the field for WKU does a great job of identifying man defense as he initially blocks his own defender before blocking the LB trailing the crosser. This is similar to how TCU used their slot WR in the Fiesta Bowl as shown above.

Finally, Oregon runs their version of shallow screen in 2020. They align in a 3×1 formation and also send the RB to the field to help in the blocking, which gives Oregon four players blocking at the point of attack.

The only difference in how Oregon runs their shallow screen compared to the other teams is that the shallow crosser runs his route 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Fortunately, it works out for Oregon as the WR’s don’t engage in their blocks until the crosser catches the football. However, this could end up being a penalty if the blocking didn’t time up perfectly.

Screen Passes in the Spread Offense

Implementing these screen passes is a good start to developing your screen game. Tunnel, middle, and shallow screen each put horizontal stress on the defense. The screens are also designed to get your best athletes the football in space with blockers in front of them leading the way.

These screen passes can also open the door for some creativity in how you design them. As you continue to get comfortable in developing your screen game you can include run-screen options, pre-snap access throws, or even double screens to attack both sides of the field.

If you want to get the most out of your screen game, you must commit to practicing them on a weekly basis throughout summer and into the fall season. A weekly screen session is needed in order for all 11 players to get comfortable with the timing of each play. It may be best for the offense to first get reps against air so everyone can understand their landmarks in the blocking scheme before progressing to full team session with a live defense.

Having these simple screen passes in your offense can give you the explosive play that you need in order to score quickly and change the momentum of the game in your favor.

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