Doug Pederson couldn’t help but chuckle when he was recently asked about the myriad screen plays the Chiefs used last season to torture their next opponent, Oakland.
“That was a screen fest,” said Pederson, the Chiefs offensive coordinator. “When you score on (three) of your screens … that’s what screens should do. We have to get back to that, obviously.”
It’s not like the Chiefs have turned away from the screen this year. Over the Chiefs’ first 10 games, they’ve scored three touchdowns and gained an average of 5.5 yards on 39 screen passes.
But in recent weeks, Chiefs coach Andy Reid admits that they’ve scaled back the use of such plays. In the last four games, they’re averaging two screen passes a game, compared to an average of five in the first six games.
Against the Seahawks on Sunday, the Chiefs ran three for 31 yards.
“Well, we ran a couple (Sunday) that were pretty good, but over the last couple of weeks, we really haven’t called as many as what we had been,” Reid said.
Screen passes have long been a staple of the West Coast offense, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more creative coach than Reid. He’s got the full complement of screen passes in his toolbox — tunnel screens, bubble screens, slow screens, swing screens — and in the past, he hasn’t been afraid to use all of them.
The Raiders, who will play host to the Chiefs on Thursday, learned this the hard way last season. In a 56-31 win last December, the Chiefs got 127 yards and three touchdowns on six screen passes — a play-caller’s delight.
“Screens are a way to slow pass rush, it’s like a draw or a trap, and it’s like the fourth-and-1 play against Buffalo — you have to know when to use them,” Pederson said. “We continue to work them every week. We have six or seven in our game plan every week. It’s just a matter of calling them.”
Some teams have aligned their defensive tackles in a way that discourages offenses from throwing screen passes to running backs. But in general, the Chiefs are seeing the same looks they did last season — man coverage, single-safety middle with blitzes intended to keep the Chiefs’ backs in the backfield to block.
Still, the Chiefs have found ways to get their playmakers the ball on screens, anyway.
For example, the Chiefs have turned to swing screens — which calls for the running back to swing into the flat with a caravan of linemen in front of him — more than they did last year as a means of getting the ball to De’Anthony Thomas and Jamaal Charles in space.
“We’ve called more of the quick-screen type things this year than we had in the past,” Reid said.
Reid has also used the tunnel screen to get the ball quickly to Charles or Thomas on the perimeter.
Then there’s the traditional slip screen, which the Chiefs have called for Knile Davis and Charles, and Charles broke off a 13-yard gain against the Seahawks on Sunday.
Finally, Reid has also leaned on screens attached to packaged plays a healthy amount this year. These plays often begin out of the shotgun, and they call for quarterback Alex Smith to read the defense after the snap and decide whether to hand the ball off to a running back or dump it for a short throw — which is often athletic tight end Travis Kelce on a bubble screen.
Still, the Chiefs aren’t quite satisfied with the way they’ve been executing these plays. While they consistently get yards, Thomas’ 24-yard catch-and-run against San Francisco is the only screen they’ve been able to break for 20-plus yards.
“We haven’t really gotten the screens going this year like we did last year, but we’ve been working on it,” center Rodney Hudson said. “It takes time … sometimes on screens, the D-linemen don’t rush, so you have to have a feel for when to get out.
“It seems like a simple play, but it’s a lot of things that go into it.”
And remember, the continuity of the Chiefs’ offensive line took a hit when last year’s starter at left guard Jeff Allen, suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason, and last year’s starter at right guard — Geoff Schwartz — departed via free agency.
Both Allen (plus-2.0) and Schwartz (plus-2.5) finished with positive Pro Football Focus grades in the screen blocking category last season. Hudson (plus-2.0) did, too.
But while Hudson has continued his solid play on screens (plus-2.0 grade this season), he’s flanked by veteran Mike McGlynn (negative-2.0) and rookie Zach Fulton (plus-0.5), who are a part of a line that is still getting a feel for the timing on such plays.
“Zach has gotten so much better,” Pederson said. “McGlynn had the experience on him, but Zach’s gotten so much better on where his landmarks are and how he’s reading the perimeter. Linemen aren’t used to being out in space. You’re running around, searching for guys to hit, and it’s a little different.”
Fulton agreed, and noted that it’s not easy chasing down defensive backs and linebackers with his 6-foot-5, 324-pound frame.
“It’s hard understanding the whole concept of it at first, but with training camp practices and practices throughout the season, things have gotten a lot better,” Fulton said. “You just try to cut them as best as you can. They’re fast, so you’ve just got to try to get on them quickly.”
Tackles are generally called on to get out and block on screens less than guards do, but Eric Fisher and Ryan Harris both have positive screen blocking grades (plus-1.0) this season. That’s a positive sign, and perhaps a reason to believe that the unit will only get better this season as a whole.
“Obviously Andy is a great screen-game coach, one of the best in the league,” McGlynn said. “But as far as us doing it, we need to make those go because it could be a good weapon for us.”
This would be a great week for it, though the Raiders might be concentrating on stopping the screens after last season.
Regardless, Reid and Pederson insist they will continue to work on this aspect of their offense as a part of an ongoing effort to tighten up the small things during their playoff push.
“Traditionally, this offense has been (for) a good screen team,” Pederson said. “We have to find a way to get back to being a good screen team.”