Shutting Down the Screen Pass to Stop the Spread Offense

The title to this article is a little misleading. It probably implies that I have managed to save my sanity. Let me clarify, what is on paper does not always happen on the field. Screen passes have had me tearing my hair out for years!

Between defending the run, and stopping the pass, from multiple fronts and coverages, it is easy to run out of time to teach defending the screen pass. But you have to! If you can read it, you can stop it, and get back to defending all the things you designed your defense for.Screen to the ReceiverHere we have a pretty basic screen. The Quarterback is faking a Sprint Pass to the right, with the sprint side receivers running typical flood routes. This gets the Linebackers flowing, and the free safety as well. Of course, your Defensive Line is also pinning their ears back to get to the QB out there.

The QB plants his foot, spins back and his the #1 receiver to the left, who’s blocking has been setting up during the sprint action. The slot handles the most dangerous receiver, while the screen side offensive linemen handle the rest of the bodies on the field. And we’re off to the races!

Screen passes are becoming a crucial part of defending opponents. The popular Air Raid Offense utilizes screens and draws as their running game. You have to be able to stop the Screen to stop spread offenses who are trying to slow down your pass rush.

Not so fast, my friend!

Is that copyrighted? I hope not. Anyway, we can defend any screen if we know how to fit it. The keys to screen play are:

  • Recognition and reaction by the Defensive Line
  • Recognition and block destruct by the Linebackers
  • Recognition and fit by the Secondary

And so, the first key is… RECOGNITION!

How to Recognize the Screen

Screen Recognition is crucial to stopping the play. Screens, for all they try to do, have a totally different look from any other play. Unfortunately, your players do not always get same look. If they could stand up in a press box from 50 yards away and realize how fast we can see a screen, they might have some sympathy for us (doubt it). Then again, if we had to stand in the middle of the field and stop it, we might have more sympathy (double doubt it).

Defensive linemen need to realize that they are just, plain, not that good. No one worth their salt is going to block you for a half a second and then just completely release you. Hold you? Yes. Tackle you? Absolutely. Scream “LOOK OUT!”? Maybe. But release you and RUN!? No, that’s a screen. Recognize it.

Linebackers have to see elephants on parade, running into uncharted waters, without trying to drive a defensive lineman in front of them. When Offensive linemen release, the Linebackers have to figure out where they are going and start fitting it up. They may also be tipped by the hard QB shoulder to the flat, for some WR screens. In general:

  • Back side Linebackers fit to the outside of the blockers (or inside, depending on how you look at it)
  • The Middle Linebacker or Linebackers need to fit up in the screen blockers, between two of them.
  • The play side Linebacker needs to fit inside of the outer-most blocker (unless he is the box player!)

Defensive Backs need to recognize the route running, or the tilt of the QB shoulder. The Cornerbacks, as always, fit outside of everything. One thing that can destroy a great screen defense is the corner ducking inside of his blocker, revealing a lane up the sideline that never should have been. The Safety may be the box player, in which case he needs to fit outside. Or he may be a Free Safety running the alley, where he should be able to sift through the other defenders getting blocked and bust through to the play.

A Best Case Scenario

Want the “Best case scenario” against the Screen Pass? Everybody on your defense recognizes it. They run with reckless abandon – the number 1 answer to stopping the screen, tremendous pursuit. They get there, and gang tackle – the number 2 answer to stopping the screen being Open Field Tackling, when the gang is a little late to the party.

The perfect scenario in defending that beautiful looking screen pass we started with, is that more hats arrive to the point than they can stop. Does it always happen? Absolutely not, or no one would run this stuff. But if you put enough focus and clarity on this topic for your kids, you can effectively defend the screen pass.

Looking for the total solution to stopping the Spread Offense? Get The Complete Guide to Defending the Spread Offense video series and view it immediately!

Attacking the Spread Offense with Man Blitzes

The height of aggressive (yet sensible) defense is the 6-Man Blitz, with Cover 0 behind it. If you want to bring more than 6, you will have to use either Blitz-Peel or Blitz-Engage techniques or keep a horse shoe in your pocket.

The beauty of the 6-Man blitz is that despite your Cover 0 coverage, the Quarterback is not going to have a lot of time to beat you down the field.

Coverage Behind 6-Man Pressure

For coverage, we can follow two schools of thought – Press Man or Off Man.

If we want to run Press Man, we are banking on disrupting the route so that the QB cannot get the ball off on any sort of timing route before the pressure gets there.

Should you choose to run Off Man, you are making the decision that short, quick game routes may be catchable, but they will not go for big gains. By giving 7 yards of cushion and the heavy pressure in Off Man Coverage, the receiver does not have time to beat your DB.

Where you do not want to be, is called No Man’s Land. No man’s land is that area between 3 – 5 yards, where you are not disrupting the receiver off the line, but you are aligned tight enough that the receiver has time to beat the DB.

Bringing Big Pressure up the Middle

The first pressure shown here is a 6-man blitz with two Inside Linebackers stacked up over the Center. By aligning the Tackles in 3-Techniques, the Guards have to deal with them.

The Center is going to have to handle the first Linebacker in most protection schemes. We first backer to line up head up, and pick a direction. The two blitzers can communicate their blitz before the snap, with a tap or hand signal. The first blitzer should actually try to pull the Center with him, opening up a clean A Gap for the second blitzer.

This is a very effective Man Blitz, and one of my favorite blitz checks against Empty Formations. It can be run effectively from any front, in some form or another.

Crossing Up the Protection

A second great man blitz for your package involves crossing up the Pass Protection with some line movement and crossing backers. You can cause some trouble for teams who turn the protection at the Center, where the Center and the Running Back will have to decide who is taking who.

For an Even Front defense, we will move the Nose Guard to a 2i (inside shade of the Guard) and stunt him into B Gap. The front side Backer walks up behind him, and crosses face hard to the opposite A Gap.

As in the previous blitz, if the Center attacks him, his goal should be more to take the Center with him than to try to beat the Center.

The back side backer creeps over towards his own A Gap, but deeper than the front side backer, pre-snap. On the snap, he crosses hard off the hip of the first blitzer and comes through the A Gap. If the Center has picked up the first blitzer, and the Guard has taken the Nose, we should have an open lane with only the Running Back to beat. We’ll take that match-up any time!
Of course, we have 1 on 1 match-ups across the board here, and that is the best we can hope for in most cases – someone has to win!

Bringing Double Edge Pressure to Collapse the Pocket

If you want to collapse the pocket, or if an athletic Quarterback is breaking your contain when you bring heavy middle pressures, a Double Edge man blitz can be the answer.

Double Edge pressures bring a hard blitz from the outside. Here we see a Double Edge out of the 3-4 Defense with the Defensive End long-sticking and creating a look similar to America’s Fire Zone on the weak side.

You can simplify the blitz quite a bit, but the options are endless. It also does not matter who you want to bring off the edge. You may wnat to bring the Free Safety off the edge, and leave one of the middle backers on the Running Back. The defense is sound, since all of your gaps are accounted for.

Find more creative ways to shut down the Spread Offense with The Complete Guide to Defending the Spread Offense video package!

Defending the Spread Offense’s Mesh Route

Since the Air Raid passing concepts have become so popular all over, we need to be prepared to defend them. If you are coaching at the High School or College level, you’re probably used to seeing Tony Franklin System teams and other styles of Air Raid.

Regardless of what you do, these teams are going to work to spread the field on you. Some are spreading the field to run, other are spreading the field to pass.If they are a passing team, the Mesh concept is probably in the arsenal. This is a great route concept designed to attack both man and zone coverages.

The first key to defending the Mesh is knowing what to look for by formation. Two receivers must be close enough to run the Mesh. That means the X Receiver is going to reduce is split to about 6 yards so that he can get to the mesh with Y.

It is unlikely that you will play a team that ONLY runs Mesh out of that formation, but if this is their most effective passing play – and for many Air Raid teams it is – then you need to be ready for it.

Defending the Mesh in Cover 3

No matter what defense you choose to run, Cover 3 is a good defense against the Air Raid. It is a good defense against anything. You can also use a Cover 2/Cover 4 zone effectively. The defensive front you are using is irrelevant, since we are talking pass coverage, not run defense.

As always, my defense of choice against the Air Raid is the 4-3 Defense. I like this because of the adaptability to various fronts, the ability to keep 5, 6 or 7 players in the box (and up to 9 if we wanted – but that is not likely against the Air Raid).

The depth of the mesh will be at about 6 yards, with the Y normally responsible for setting the depth of the mesh. If you are playing a team who is extremely effective with the mesh, your players should try to recognize the tighter alignment by X and look to wall the mesh route runners.

If we were running a Cover 3, that would mean the weak side inside Linebacker recognizes the tight X alignment, reads pass on the snap, and immediately swings his eyes to X and looks to reroute him if he is coming inside. As soon as he disrupts the route, he continues to his hook drop.

At the same time, he is communicating “CROSS CROSS CROSS” to the strong Inside Linebacker. That linebacker is doing the exact same thing with his Mesh route from Y.

As long as the Corner stays over top of the Corner route, the QB will not throw it. He is only going to peak at the route to see if the receiver smokes your Corner, leaving the home run ball open.

When the receivers recognize your players setting up in their zones, they will look to settle in the holes. If you have worked drills where your players are reading the shoulder of the QB, and breaking on the ball, they should be able to break and make a play. On a perfectly thrown ball, the Mesh should be good for 6-7 yards. On a less than perfect ball, we have a chance at a turnover.

The ideal is that the QB will not be able to pick out an open receiver and have to hit his check down, one of the backs out of the backfield. Now your pursuit drills come into effect and we run to the football.

Most of the same principles apply if you are running Cover 2, only with different players handling the zones. Cover 2 may even be more beneficial with the extra player underneath defending the mesh routes.

Defending the Mesh in Man Coverage

Unless you have superior athletes, I do not want to run man coverage against a good Air Raid team. The Mesh is too hard to defend and you have a better chance of giving up a long pass play here.

As the X and Y are running into the Mesh, they are looking to recognize Man or Zone. When they see your players chasing the other mesh route, they know it is man. They will not settle into holes, but instead keep running.

Coach Creviston makes a good point in his video on bubbling the route as he passes the other mesh, gaining some depth and giving himself a good shot at a big gain.

The QB should almost always hit one of the two Mesh routes, and most likely the Y’s route, with a shot at a big gain against man coverage.

Using press man coverage you can disrupt the timing of the Mesh. Align inside shade of the X or Y, and jam him down into the line of scrimmage on an inside release, preventing the setting of the Mesh.

Pick Routes from the Mesh Concept

Another issue in the Air Raid are the pick routes that can be so effective. Off of the Mesh concept, a pick can be set up with the X and the H. This is going to cause problems for man coverage, in particular, even if you are physically superior.

This is going to reduce the effectiveness of your Press Man coverage. You will want to level off your man defenders so that one defender can scrape over the pick and avoid trouble.

If the opponent starts to use these routes effectively on you, it is probably time to get into a zone, or start blitzing.

Blitzing the Mesh Concept

When we talk coverage, we talk about a 7 on 7 game that doesn’t include the front four rushing the passer. The best pass defense is a good pass rush.

If you’re bringing them, make sure you are getting there. An Air Raid QB who is allowed to go through all 5 checks is going to tear you apart!

But if you can’t get to him with four, you’ve got to bring five. That means Cover 1 blitzes or Zone Blitzes. And if you can’t get to the QB with five, bring six – man blitzes with Cover 0 behind it.

And if you can’t get to them with six, then drop eight into coverage. If that doesn’t work, then my favorite quote from a football clinic ever – “Call in the dogs and piss on the fire, ’cause the hunt is about over.” (Vic Koenning)

Find out everything you need to know about stopping the spread passing game with The Complete Guide to Defending the Spread Offense!

Adjusting Your Defense to Motions

As much time as you spend looking at how your team will defend any play out of any formation, eventually the little circles are going to turn into people – and start moving around pre-snap on you. The ability for your defense to adjust to motion is going to be crucial to your success.

Some offenses will use formations simply as a diversion, to distract you from what is really going on and force your players to move around. Others have a definite purpose to their motion. Scouting will help you determine which teams are which.

Preparing for Motion

Adjustments to motion should be a central part of your team’s defense. How you will adjust to motion should be installed beginning as soon as possible, preferably during the off-season.

If you do not adjust to motion until it becomes absolutely necessary, your players will view it as a new play – a new scheme. If motion adjustments are installed from the very start, your players will simply see it as a part of the defense.

Adjustments to motion should not be static, hard and fast rules. You need to be able to show different looks to the offense when they motion. If you cannot, the Offensive Coordinator will find a way to use motion to dictate what you want to run.

What we are Adjusting To

There are a few different types of motion we need to be concerned with, and be prepared to adjust to each. They are:

  • Shifting to a different formation. A shift to a different formation involves the offense lining up, then shifting and setting in an entirely different formation. It can be as simple as a back switching sides in the Shot Gun, a Tight End trading sides, or can get much more complex.
  • Motioning across a formation or away from the ball by a player to split out away from the play. Motions where a receiver or back is moving, such as an outside receiving motioning inside to get better position for a crack block. These motion players are not an immediate threat to get the ball.
  • Motions toward the ball, including Jet motion as in the Jet or Fly Sweep, or the 3 Step Motion used by Wing T Teams to get a wingback into position to take a hand-off.

Each style of motion will require different adjustments by your defense.

How to Make Your Adjustments

The actual adjustments you make will depend on your own defensive scheme. But these adjustments to motion should follow some basic rules within each category.

If the motion is a shift, your alignment will change. That means Defensive Linemen, Linebackers and Secondary all shift. This is basically a big reset, the Offense showed one thing, and now shows another. Your team has time to adjust with it.

When the motion is away from the ball, there should only be adjustment by the Defensive Backs and possibly Linebackers. They are adjusting to a new look for potential pass routes, or a new look for edge blocking. Your adjustments only need to be minimal.

When the motion is to the ball, you likely do not have much time to move. The adjustment may involve a roll in coverage, but you do not have time to completely realign your players. They will be moving too much for when the snap happens to be able to tell what is happening.

Keys to Making Great Adjustments

The keys to making great adjustments lie mostly with the players on the field, once the game starts. You are responsible for making sure that the on-field adjustments go smoothly.

Communication is vital to making the right adjustments. If your players do not communicate what they are seeing, then proper adjustments are just not going to happen.

Recognition is the other vital part of adjusting to motion. Your players have to recognize that motion is happening, and understand where it is going.

Teaching Recognition of Formations and Motion

A great way to teach your players formations and motions that the opponent uses is to have them line up in it themselves.

Use a brief formation recognition period in which your 1st Defense gets a defensive call. The 2nd Defense is playing the role of the Offense. They will take on a position that they would be keying were they the defensive player.

The Mike Linebacker may be the Fullback. The Nose Guard will play the Center. The Cornerback will be a Receiver. But they are all going to line up. They will go imitate cadence and motion, as your 1st Defense aligns and adjusts.

After 2 or 3 plays by the 1st Defense, they switch roles. No need to switch huddles, call for another scout team, none of those time wasters. They just become the guy that they were watching before.

If your players learn to line up in the opponent’s offense and run their shifts and motions, they will know how to recognize them.

When our defense is confident in adjusting to motion, we decrease the potential for the error that costs us a big play to happen before the ball is snapped. Great adjustments get us back on a level playing field with the offense.