Swing game: Short passes & speedy players are changing the NFL

Jed Jacobsohn

With more and more space players like Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, and Golden Tate in the NFL, the swing pass and screen game is becoming a critical ingredient to offensive success. Danny Kelly takes us to the film room to break it down.

The zone read and the read option get most of the fanfare when it comes to the increased prevalence of the "college game" in present day NFL. However, another less hyped schematic theme that has seen some proliferation in the pros is the swing pass and screen game.

Screens and swing passes are essentially extensions of any given team's run game. You're not handing the ball off from quarterback to running back or receiver. Instead, what you have are quick, short, very high-probability passes that rely a great deal on run-after-the-catch ability and blocking at the point of attack.

"Getting the ball into the hands of your playmakers" is a Key to the Game cliche you'll hear commentators spout weekly, but actually, the screen/swing-pass concept is centered around this basic idea. So the cliche works here.

At the core of this family of plays is the desire to keep the opposing defense honest. Belie your own tendencies. Exploit your opponents' proclivities.

Is the opposing defense stacking the box with eight players and crowding the line of scrimmage? Swing a quick pass out to your receiver and let him win one-on-one against the corner and quickly get downfield.

Is the opposing defense blitzing or playing too aggressively in their pass rush? Run a well-timed screen play to the running back. As the pass rush gets into the backfield, letting the oncoming rushers think they're beating the offensive linemen, throw a little dump-off over their heads, send the linemen forward to block, and hopefully catch an opponent with their pants down.

Are an opponents' defensive backs poor tacklers? Do they rely on man coverage on an island? Do their linebackers bite hard on play fakes and/or do their pass rushers haphazardly move upfield? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, a team might want to incorporate some of these ideas into its offense.

A coach can even spice up the time-tested concepts of the swing pass and the screen pass by combining the two. Hybrid screen/swing passes like the tunnel screen and bubble screen have seen an increase in popularity in the NFL, and some of the league's best athletes are benefitting.

Versatile "5-tool players" are the primary targets. Running backs like Philly's LeSean McCoy, San Diego's Danny Woodhead, Chicago's Matt Forte, and New Orleans' Pierre Thomas, just to name a few, benefit from their ability to catch screen passes and make defenders miss in space. Kansas City's Jamaal Charles, New Orleans' Darren Sproles, Arizona's Andre Ellington and Detroit's Reggie Bush can even line up outside as receivers and run these screen pass routes from different angles. Receivers like Seattle's Golden Tate and Minnesota's Cordarrelle Patterson can take advantage of their open-field running ability to pick up yards after the catch on swing passes and bubble screens.

The idea is to find new ways outside the core offensive structure to get the best players the ball while keeping defenses guessing. Make them tackle. Widen the field of play, take them further toward the sidelines, and then pound it up inside in the core run game. Again, keep the defense honest.

Let's take a look at a few examples from the past couple of weeks.

Now, in total honesty, I had decided it would be interesting to break down the screen/swing pass game in the NFL before I had watched the Kansas City - Oakland tape. Holy crap did Jamaal Charles provide me with some excellent material. Charles took basic Andy Reid screen play fundamentals and housed it three times, each for touchdowns. All in the first half. I didn't even have to watch the second half. That's how easy Jamaal Charles makes my life.

Classic screen

*Inner monologue* Ah, let's see here ... flip on the tape ... kickoff ... boring ... ok, OH, FIRST PLAY OF THE GAME, THIS ESCALATED QUICKLY:

1-10-OAK 49 (14:50 1st Quarter) (Shotgun) A.Smith pass short left to J.Charles for 49 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

I mean ... this wasn't even about defeating tendencies or keeping the defense on their toes. This was the first damn play of the game. Note the technique: Charles floats in front of Alex Smith like he's pass protecting. The offensive line does their normal pass protection thing, but just for a second or two.

After goading the Raiders' defense into believing a pass is coming - likely to one of the crossing receivers in the middle of the field - select members of the offensive line, in perfect unison, do their best bullfighter "OLE!" impression, whip the oncoming defenders aside, and move downfield to block.

Here's the key to a successful screen pass - the pass rushers need to get upfield. The most marvelously hilarious (or infuriating, if you like the Raiders) part of all this is that for the briefest of brief moments - there is a glimmer - nay, flicker - of hope, true hope in the hearts of all four of those defensive linemen that they're about to get the sack and all the glory and get to do a dance and be on SportsCenter.

Instead, they've fallen victim to one of the classic blunders, getting involved in a land war in Asia not seeing a screen pass until it's too late.

Post script to this play: Jamaal Charles' set-up move to the inside before breaking outside is a thing of beauty. I wish I could do that.

*Inner monologue* hmmm, I wonder if Charles had any other cool screen passes during this game. ARE YOU SERIOUS? THIS IS STILL THE FIRST QUARTER.

3-19-OAK 39 (7:38 Yes, still the 1st Quarter) (Shotgun) A.Smith pass short left to J.Charles for 39 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

On third-and-19, where Andy Reid really likes to use screen passes, Andy Reid dials up a screen pass. And the Raiders blitz with six from the offensive right side. Considering the play is going to the left, it's not terribly surprising that it's another touchdown. Perfect play-call against this particular aggressive defensive scheme.

*Inner monologue* Man, I'm glad I chose to break down screens this week, these are sweet examples WAIT HE HAD ANOTHER ONE?! YOU GOTTA BE SH***ING ME.

1-10-OAK 16 (5:48, not even to half time yet) A.Smith pass short left to J.Charles for 16 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

On the surface, it doesn't even look like Oakland picked a terrible defense to defend this with - they conservatively rush four and have seven in the defensive backfield to work with. However, after Charles gets the ball cleanly, thanks to three great blocks by the Chiefs in the box, he cuts the ball back inside with a nice trio of huge men to block for him.

I just like freeze-framing this when all three of the Raiders' defensive linemen are on the ground at the same time. It's funny, because it's like someone kicked all three of them in the shins at the same time, but it's also impressive and efficient offensive line play.

Of course, we couldn't talk about screen-plays without talking about LeSean McCoy. Much to the help of my screen-play narrative this week, McCoy had no less than three really neat screen-plays against Minnesota!

1-10-MIN 44 (4:31 1st Quarter) (No Huddle, Shotgun) N.Foles pass short right to L.McCoy to MIN 20 for 24 yards (M.Sherels).

Chip Kelly is all about screwing with opposing defensive coordinators' and players' heads. Probably better than anyone in the NFL. Kelly and his offense widen the field with a combination of quick swing passes outside and frequent placement of speed players running horizontally prior to and at the snap. It creates this effect that a defense is having to defend more territory, and defenses get spread moving outside at the snap in anticipation. Once he's forced them to account for the outside stuff, he runs it up the gut on and gouges them vertically (or throws it over your head). Kelly, what a jerk (I love it).

In the case above, with WR Jason Avant sprinting left prior to the snap and with Nick Foles faking the swing pass in his direction, as a defensive player, you can't help but focus on the action that way.

That's where Shady McCoy comes in.

24 yards. It kinda seemed easy.

1-10-PHI 20 (6:54 4th Quarter) (No Huddle, Shotgun) N.Foles pass short right to L.McCoy ran ob at PHI 34 for 14 yards.

Hey, look! Same play!

The smoke route

As I've pounded into your skull during this article, the screen and swing pass family of plays are meant as changeups to the "normal" offensive schemes. They keep defenses honest. You can use them to exploit defensive tendencies or formations.

The use of the smoke route is one of the more common ways to do this.

2-6-PIT 44 (14:14 1st Quarter) (No Huddle) B.Roethlisberger pass short right to A.Brown pushed ob at CIN 44 for 12 yards (R.Nelson).

Sometimes, and only sometimes, football is kind of simple. Ben Roethlisberger sees that the corner to the right side of the formation is playing off-coverage about 9 yards or so. The Bengals have the box stacked with eight defenders and a single high safety, so Ben checks out of the likely called run play here and casually gives his receiver a signal. My guess? That little tap to the facemask just prior to settling under center.

When the receiver sees this, he knows that the 'smoke route' is on. The idea here for the Steelers is: If a defense is going to play that soft on the receivers, they're going to have to make a very difficult tackle on a very fast human being. Good luck. An easy 12 yards.

The Steelers actually have a pretty interesting offense to watch, schematically. In addition to being one of the most prominent purveyors of bunch and trips formations, they utilize just about every swing pass and screen in the book.

A few examples:

The bubble screen

1-10-PIT 33 (14:31 2nd Quarter) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass short left to E.Sanders to CIN 46 for 21 yards (M.Johnson).

Again, a fairly simple concept. The receiver backs off the line of scrimmage and widens, creating 'bubble' imagery with his blockers in front of him, receives a quick swing pass, and then goes to work making people miss. This is The Golden Tate Special, but Emmanuel Sanders is no slouch either.

The blocking at the point of attack is obviously important, but the key thing with bubble screens is that the quarterback has got to find a guy that can either break tackles or make people miss, preferably both.

The tunnel screen

This is a similar concept, but the main difference is that generally speaking, the receiver is running toward the formation and looking to catch it and run upfield through a tunnel created by blockers.

Example:

1-10-PIT 48 (3:17) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass short right to E.Sanders to CLV 41 for 11 yards (T.Carder).

This particular tunnel screen is actually a great example of how this is a hybrid swing pass and screen play. You'll notice two offensive linemen and the tight end abandon their posts almost immediately. The defense thinks they're going to get a free shot in on Big Ben, but Ben knows he's getting rid of the ball too quickly. The of effect the 'OLE!' move by the offensive linemen and tight end is that they're quickly in place to block downfield. This means it's 5-on-3 on the outside. Those are the numbers you like.

Star-divide

One of the toughest things about evaluating college quarterbacks for their ability to play in the NFL is that the college game heavily features these short, high-probability and relatively easy passes and plays. Of course, while that may be negatively affecting the development of college quarterbacks and make it harder to determine if they are capable of consistently making big-time NFL throws, a parallel result is that college 'space players' are becoming better and better in these schemes. Players like Gio Bernard, Andre Ellington, and even Cordarrelle Patterson have been able to make early impacts at the NFL level because of their experience working in the open field. It will be interesting to see if the prevalence of this type of play continues to increase over the next few years.

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