The screen pass is an essential weapon in any team's playbook. It can be used as an extension of the run game or in place of an ineffective run game (in the Bears case). This year, even with all the offensive problems the Bears seem to have, I've been impressed with their screens.
The Bears will hit defenses with a variety of screen passes. The traditional running back screen down the line of scrimmage, the bubble screen, the slip screen, and the occasional middle screen have all been run with varying degrees of success. I'm sure most of you already understand the concept of the screen, but I'll look at these screens passes a bit more in depth.
When a team struggles with the run game, like our Bears, defenses spend a lot of time defending the pass. In this situation the ineffectiveness of the offensive line actually works to their benefit when running screens. Defenders get so amped up looking to sack Cutler they sell out to get him.
* In the most common screen pass (to a back sneaking out of the backfield and down the line of scrimmage), the play side tackle and guard (and sometimes center) will block for a brief moment (a second or two) then pull to set up blocking for the play. You want to lure the defense up-field with the thoughts of an easy sack. With the Bears pass protection performing as it is all Cutler typically gets is a second or two, so the deceptiveness of the screen play, in theory, is perfect. Most teams run this type of screen to their left side, this is for a few reasons.
1) Most defenses have their best pass rushing defensive end to the offenses left (to attack the passers blind side), so he's usually quicker up-field. Many teams will also blitz from the blind side too. So as an offense you want the aggressive rush, the more defenders rushing up-field the better.
2) Most offenses have their more agile tackle on the left side. So if given a choice on which tackle to pull you want your better athlete out in space blocking.
3) Even in the NFL some QB's tend to get away from proper technique when being rushed. When throwing to the left side a right handed QB is forced to turn the hips, open the shoulders, step and throw. It's nearly impossible to use poor fundamentals when throwing left (for a righty). But when throwing right it's easy to just chuck it to evade the rush. And QB's are always more accurate when they are fundamentally sound.
I'm not saying teams don't run this screen to the right, it's just all about your personnel and field position. The Bears had a lot of success last week hitting Matt Forte on the screen. He's a good receiver and the more you can get him the ball the better. Now if only he had the same burst as last year... but that is for another blog...
* The bubble screen is usually run to a slot wide receiver, with the player in the slot moving away from the QB. The hope is you can get the ball to a playmaker in space. The key block is from the WR or WR's split furthest out. In a 2 WR set the slot receiver will take the pass while the split end tries to seal the CB inside allowing the slot guy to get around him down the sideline. I'd like to see the Bears run this play with their TE's split wide. They trot out that formation quite a bit and teams usually keep a DB on Greg Olsen. Put Devin Hester in the slot with Olsen split wide and throw the bubble to Hester with Olsen providing the stalk block on the corner.
The Bears finally ran a fake off this play last game. Cutler faked the bubble then tried to hit a slanting Johnny Knox. I liked the variation on the play, but I'd prefer to see the split end run a fade or a go route instead of the slant. If you catch the defense cheating the bubble or biting on the fake to the bubble they could still get close enough to disrupt the slant, but if you pump fake the slant then look for the split end down the sideline he should be in a one on one situation.
* On a slip screen teams are looking to create a seam on one side of the field for the split end to run through. Again you are looking for the WR to get in space to make a play, but the QB is throwing to the furthest split out WR as he comes back to the ball then up the seam. The play side offensive line (and sometimes center) will pull and look to seal all the flowing defenders inside, while the slot receiver (or two slot receivers in a trips formation) will look to block out towards the sideline creating a seam for the player to run through.
Hester, Knox, and Earl Bennett are all pretty good at both of these WR screens. The thing we as fans need to remember is these short throws are an extension of the run game. We're accustomed to looking for big plays when ever a QB completes a pass, but a 4 or 5 yard gain is perfectly acceptable. Getting a big gainer from time to time would be nice, but getting those little chunks of positive yardage keeps you in third and manageable situations, and ultimately it's about keeping the chains moving.
* Finally on a middle screen you are looking for your intended receiver to catch the ball behind the offensive line. The idea is to allow all the defensive linemen to rush up-field then dump the ball over their heads to the awaiting receiver. Usually this play is to a running back, but I'd love to see the Bears utilize this play to the tight end. Slipping the back into the flat on the tight end middle screen will cause the linebackers that read screen to flow to the back, thus allowing the TE to slip to the middle for the ball. Greg Olsen is athletic enough to make a play on the ball and get some good yards after catch. Chicago has run this screen to Forte and they've tried to get Garrett Wolfe involved at times. The small stature of Wolfe is ideal for the middle screen as he can get lost among the o-line.
The main objective of screen passes (besides gaining yardage) is to slow down the pass rush, but if you run them too often defenders will read the play and slip over to throw off the timing or worse yet jump the route and intercept the pass. This is why teams don't run screen after screen. Teams want to catch a defense playing aggressively and hit them with a screen pass. Then the next time they get a free lane that defender might slow up just a split second allowing the QB to go to his next progression and make a big play. With the way the Bears are pass blocking any edge they can get the better.