Understanding Urban: The Bubble Screen
By Ken Pryor
(Editor’s Note: Ken Pryor is an offensive coordinator who works with the wide receivers at North Point High School in Waldorf, Md. He has been a long-time contributor to The-Ozone, and has been asked to help us better understand Ohio State’s new offense since Urban Meyer was hired back in November.)
When Joe Tiller arrived at Purdue University in 1997, he introduced the Big Ten to his version of the spread attack.
A former offensive coordinator at Washington State and Wyoming, Tiller had an emphasis on screen packages that have proven to been especially effective. His offenses featured several different types of screens, including the bubble, jailbreak, slip, crack, and the old-fashioned slow screen.
As is almost always the case with any successful scheme in football, many teams have incorporated elements of his screens into their own systems.
We can now count Ohio State among that number.
New head coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman wasted no time making it abundantly clear they plan to force opposing defenses to defend the entire football field—both vertically and horizontally.
Herman spoke of his philosophy in an article previously written for the-Ozone by our own Tony Gerdeman.
“I think it's an offense based on using the entire width and length of the football field. The field is 120 yards long and 54 yards wide. And in our opinion the defense only has eleven human beings to cover that much grass, and so we're going to use space and numbers to our advantage.”
One surefire way Ohio State’s new “spread-to-run” offense will achieve this will be its use of the bubble screen.
It has been widely written that Don Read created the bubble screen while he was head coach at the University Montana, but Lou Holtz—one of Meyer’s closest mentors—deserves some credit as the coach who brought the play into prominence during his tenure at Notre Dame.
What is a Bubble Screen?
The bubble screen is a pass to the wide receiver where the receiver actually bubbles away from the line of scrimmage while the other wideout picks/blocks the nearest defensive back.
This block gives the receiver a chance to run after the catch. The bubble action itself allows this to time out perfectly with the block. Bubble screens work great against a 3-deep zone or soft man-to-man, if the outside defender is giving a cushion.
It is strongly advised that every good football team have a diversified screen package in its offensive portfolio. Screens are an important element in successful offensive football for several reasons:
1. Screens take advantage of athletic wide receivers and running backs and force less athletic defenders (linebackers and safeties) to tackle in the open field.
2. Screens are good for slowing down defenses that relish attacking and blitzing styles of play as pass rushers and defensive linemen must keep an eye out for various screen plays.
3. Screens attack zone blitz teams that give up an underneath zone in pass coverage.
4. Screens give the offense a chance for big plays against man-to-man blitz schemes.
The main reason screens are so successful in college football is that offenses take advantage of a very important NCAA rule. In college football, offensive players are allowed to block downfield while the ball is in the air so long as the ball is caught behind the line of scrimmage.
(In the NFL, you are not allowed to block downfield while the ball is in the air.)
Ohio State fans give Kirk Herbstreit a ton of grief for parroting contemporary football jargon or catchphrases, but he is absolutely correct on the issue of speed. Meyer and Herman are dead-set on getting the ball into the hands of the fastest playmakers.
They will search for favorable ‘matchups,’ then work the ball to exploit ‘speed in space.’ While the bubble screen is specifically designed for this, it also serves a more specific strategic purpose. The bubble employs the constraint theory of offense.
In football, there is an idea that certain plays are always meant to work on the whiteboard against particular defenses — i.e. that certain run play that works against the 4-3 under without the linebackers cheating inside.
However, constraint plays are designed to work against defenders who cheat. If the outside linebackers cheat inside to stop the run, it’s time to throw the bubble screen, or perhaps even run bootleg passes to the flat to make them pay for being out of position.
Constraint plays make defenses get back to basics formations when they start to cheat. Once they get back to playing honest football, you go back to the whiteboard and beat them with your bread and butter.
Simply put, constraint plays are run in order to ensure defenses remain in the scheme against which you were having so much success.
No team is going to throw a bubble screen 25 times a game, but three or four bubble screens per game can go a long way toward being able to run the ball 25-30 times a game successfully.
In a previous column, we noted that football is a game of mathematics. The 'spread' helps an offense even the mathematical disadvantage by making the defense account for the quarterback as a running threat, thereby allowing teams to run zone from the shotgun effectively.
One way defenses attempt to 'cheat' in response to defending the zone is by sliding an edge defender (a nickel defensive back) off the slot receiver into the ‘gray area.’ In so doing, the defense has now restored its numbers advantage, at least temporarily.
The bubble is used as a constraint upon a backside defender cheating against the zone read, which is itself a constraint upon the basic zone.
This is how the ‘spread-to-run’ offense developed. Teams searched for and found ways they could establish an inside run game. But an offense must account for the backside defender, who is the quarterback's counterpart and thus unblocked.
Coaches realized if the quarterback reads that backside defender, suddenly the defender is constrained from crashing the front side run play, thereby making it easier to run the base run play. If the defender continues to play the run, the quarterback can simply pull and keep the football.
In turn, a defense may respond by cheating their alley linebacker or nickel defender into the box. If that alley player can account for the quarterback, then the defensive end is again free to crash down wrecking the front side zone play.
The bubble screen is a second level check that forces the defense to play straight up, providing the offense better numbers to run the base front side zone play. If the defense fails to do so, the QB simply turns and throws the bubble screen.
Some teams will combine zone-read and bubble screen into a single offensive package. The quarterback can auto-check to the bubble if the slot receiver is uncovered, or he can throw the bubble during the play depending on his read.
If the quarterback keeps the ball, based on the defensive end crashing, he can make a quick run-or-throw read off the alley defender. The defense's job just became even more difficult simply because they cannot 'guess.'
The bubble screen thus serves the purpose of constraining the defense and evening out the numbers, with the added bonus of getting the ball to an athlete in space.
The play will look something like the automated diagram below:
We’ve been reading that Ohio State’s coaching staff has been working almost exclusively with Jordan Hall and Braxton Miller perfecting their timing on certain plays. Don’t doubt for a second that we won’t see Hall, or perhaps Corey Brown, on the receiving end of some bubble screen passes this fall.