The screen pass, when executed properly, can be one of the most aesthetically pleasing plays in football. The Eagles, once upon a time, were its maestros.
But no more. They can hardly execute a screen without there being some self-inflicted wound or defender anticipating the pass and blowing it up.
The Eagles have attempted 24 screens this season and have completed only 15 for a total of 55 yards and a 2.3-yard average. Quarterback Carson Wentz was also sacked once. Considering that it’s one of the easier throws to complete, and that the Eagles already average an NFL-worst 4.99 yards per pass, the numbers are dreadful.
“It’s a work in progress,” Eagles running backs coach Duce Staley said. “You go back and [analyze] every part of the screen, from the depth of the back, from the quarterback, from the O-line, we’re looking at everything. ... As far as historically around here, what we’ve been as a screen team, we’ve been pretty good. That’s the truth. We’re definitely trying to get back to that.
“We just haven’t had the success [that] we’re looking for.”
Staley’s comments came last week, but the Eagles again had little success with the screen in Sunday’s 22-17 loss at the Browns. They tried two, and both resulted in incomplete passes – the first broken up by defensive end Olivier Vernon, the second buried into the ground by Wentz when the Browns read the play.
It wasn’t so long ago that the Eagles knew exactly when and where to call a screen. Just late last season, running backs Miles Sanders and Boston Scott had large gains. But Doug Pederson’s offense, with Wentz at the controls, has been mistake-prone. And with so many moving parts that need to be timed right and synced together, the failed screens may be the best indicator that the coach’s scheme is busted.
The screen pass has been a staple of the West coast offense since its birth, and the Eagles have long utilized that system. Even before Andy Reid arrived, they had significant production with the play. But the ex-Eagles coach, primarily with Staley, Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy, diagramed and dialed up screens like it was an art form.
His successor, Chip Kelly, initially had success with screens in a different scheme. But opponents caught on and, like this season, his screens started to look like unmitigated disasters near his end. Defenses have become so skilled at diagnosing plays that it’s imperative for offenses not to give away a play that’s partially based on deception by formation or movement.
“Teams scout you. Teams look at you just like we do ourselves,” Pederson said in October. “I’ve got to be unpredictable when it comes to screens. It can’t be the ideal screen situation as a play caller. But at the same time, we’ve got to make sure that the picture that we’re presenting to ... the opponent kind of matches up with say the run game or a play-action pass or a quarterback movement, something of that nature, and then you screen off of that.”
You don’t want a screen against any defense. They work best against aggressive fronts and man coverage. The Eagles’ lone eight-plus-yard screen came against the New York Giants in Week 7. They faked the end around to Jalen Hurts (No. 2) and got the edge defender to bite. Scott (No. 35) had blockers and space and picked up 15 yards.
In the rematch in Week 10, Pederson surprisingly didn’t call a single screen, even though the Giants played a lot of man defense with deep safeties. Of course, there have been plenty of reasons since the opener at Washington to bag the in-line screens. The Eagles tried four that day, and two led to losses, and one resulted in a sack when Wentz (No. 11) should have just thrown the ball at tight end Dallas Goedert’s (No. 88) feet.
Ryan Kerrigan (No. 91) didn’t bite on play action or even Goedert’s dummy block, but even if Wentz had him open, the Eagles failed to block at the second level. Poor blocking has played a large role in the screen game struggles. Rookie Jack Driscoll (No. 63) didn’t seal his man on this play. Of course, it would have helped if Washington bit on the misdirection.
The Eagles tried to same misdirection against the Browns, with wide receiver Jalen Reagor (No. 18) motioning to the left – same as he did on the previous down. But Cleveland wasn’t fooled, and the play was dead on arrival.
The Eagles had marginal success in Week 2 against the Rams with three screens for 19 yards. Reagor caught two on the wing. But he got hurt in the game, and the Eagles haven’t had much luck with receiver screens since – even bubble screens, which have been excluded from this analysis, have been a struggle – as evidenced by this one to Travis Fulgham (No. 13) against the Giants.
But running backs are typically used most on screens, and Sanders and Scott, especially the former, sometimes haven’t even gotten the ball in their hands. Sanders (No. 26) didn’t get his first opportunity until Week 3 against the Bengals. This attempt was over before it even started.
“If you go back and watch the game ... you will see their defensive end kind of widen and try to hit Miles in the backfield before he got started,” Staley said. “So that tells you right there, coming into that game, they had a plan to try to take Miles away from route running. Well, if they are doing that already, they are keying on him. So certain things, you’ve got to look for, and you’ve got to continue to look for to try to help you understand how they are playing the back and how they will play the screen.”
The Eagles tried screens to Sanders without misdirection in the next two games. They split him wide and had the line sprint out ahead. He gained only two yards against the 49ers but eight yards here.
They went back to the well against the Ravens in Week 6, though. The Eagles got man coverage, but Baltimore blitzed, protection broke down, and Calais Campbell (No. 93) made a great play.
But, overall, screens to skill position players haven’t netted positive results. Some of the blame can be pinned on Wentz. Corey Clement (No. 30) could have caught this pass against the Cowboys, but there’s little reason why a throw that short should be that off target. Clement would have had all kinds of space with blockers in position.
A screen will often require the quarterback to make a throw over an unblocked lineman. Wentz took a shot here, but only after he threw at tight end Zach Ertz’s (No. 86) feet.
“It seems like such a simple aspect of just throwing a screen,” Wentz said in September, “but there is so much timing and precision that goes into those and how they hit just right.”
The Eagles dressed up this screen with an unbalanced line, Wentz split wide and threw a pass back to Hurts. But the play took too long to develop, and Hurts could never utilize his blockers.
Even the plays built off ghost screens haven’t worked. Wentz could have maybe thrown to Reagor streaking across the middle here, but Goedert was his first read, and the Cowboys were ready.
But why would teams over pursue screens when they’ve hardly worked in the first place? And they haven’t worked for myriad reasons: coaching, personnel, play calling, and execution. The same could be said about the Eagles offense overall. It’s been that kind of season.