What is the definition of screen pass in American football?

The screen pass is an essential play in American football that relies on deception and strategy to outsmart the defense. With various forms and variations, the screen pass opens up various opportunities for the offense to make significant gains on the field. At its core, a screen pass involves a short pass to a receiver, who is protected by a screen of blockers, fooling the defense into thinking a long pass is being thrown when in reality, it is just a short one beyond the defensive linemen.

As an effective offensive tactic, screen plays require precise timing and coordination among players to maximize their potential. Different types of screen plays, such as slow screens and bubble screens, have specific roles and responsibilities assigned to the players involved. The quarterback, receiver, and blockers must all execute their tasks flawlessly for the play to be successful.

Key Takeaways

  • A screen pass is a deceptive play involving a short pass and a screen of blockers
  • Various types of screen plays exist, each with unique roles and responsibilities
  • Precise execution and coordination are essential for the play’s success

Basic Definition of a Screen

In American football, a screen refers to a specific type of offensive play that involves the quarterback deceiving the defense. The play starts with the quarterback faking a handoff or a long pass, only to execute a short pass to a receiver instead. The goal of a screen play is to make the defense think they are defending against a deep pass or a running play, which eventually results in a short pass to exploit any opening in the defense.

The success of a screen play relies on excellent timing, cooperation among the players, and the ability to deceive the opposing defense. One of the essential elements of a screen play is the utilization of blockers. These blockers are usually offensive linemen who clear a path for the receiver, allowing them to gain yards after the catch.

There are several types of screen plays in American football. One of the most common is the running back screen, wherein the quarterback tosses the ball to the running back in the flat, or area near the line of scrimmage. This play targets either the strong or short side of the field and relies on the running back’s ability to read the defense, maneuver around the blockers, and find the open field.

Another popular screen play is the wide receiver screen. It comes in various forms such as the bubble screen, middle screen, slot screen, and slip screen. In these plays, the quarterback targets a wide receiver with a short pass, who then relies on their speed and agility to gain yards after the catch. This type of screen play is particularly useful for wide receivers with quick acceleration and excellent field vision.

In summary, a screen play in American football involves deception, timing, and coordination among the quarterback, receivers, and blockers. The main purpose is to exploit open spaces in the defense by making them believe the play will be a deep pass or handoff, only to execute a short pass targeting either a running back or a wide receiver.

Types of Screen Plays

Bubble Screen

A bubble screen is a type of screen pass that targets a wide receiver. The quarterback quickly throws the ball to the receiver, who is positioned slightly behind the line of scrimmage. The receiver then moves laterally, or “bubbles” out to the side, while other receivers or offensive linemen move downfield to provide blocking. Coaches like Don Read and Lou Holtz popularized the bubble screen, and it remains a standard play in many modern offenses.

Slip Screen

The slip screen involves a running back or a tight end, who appears to be staying back to protect the quarterback before “slipping” out into the open field for a quick pass. The offensive linemen allow the defenders to rush the quarterback, creating separation between them and the targeted player. The blockers then release downfield, forming a convoy for the ball carrier. Slip screen plays can be effective against aggressive pass rushes, as they take advantage of defenders overcommitting to getting to the quarterback.

Tunnel Screen

In a tunnel screen, the wide receiver begins by running a short route toward the middle of the field, simulating the start of a crossing route. At the same time, offensive linemen release from their initial blocks and move downfield. The quarterback then throws the ball to the receiver, who catches it and moves upfield behind the blocks provided by the linemen. The goal of a tunnel screen is to create a “tunnel” of sorts through which the receiver can run, using the blocks to create lanes and avoid defenders. This play can be particularly effective against tight man-to-man coverage or defenses focused on stopping deep passes.

Key Roles and Responsibilities


The quarterback (QB) plays a central role in executing a screen play. A screen is a deception tactic wherein the quarterback appears to be targeting a receiver downfield but instead makes a short pass to a running back or wide receiver. The QB’s responsibility is to sell the deception by drawing defensive players toward the intended target while accurately executing the short pass to the intended receiver.

Offensive Linemen

Offensive linemen play a crucial role in the success of a screen play, as they are responsible for blocking and protecting the quarterback while also creating space for the screen receiver. They accomplish this through effective communication and coordination, timing their blocks to allow the ball carrier to slip past the defensive line. Additionally, they may release from their blocking assignments to provide further downfield blocking for the receiver.

Running Back or Wide Receiver

A running back or wide receiver (sometimes even a tight end) acts as the target for the screen pass. Their responsibility is to act as a decoy, initially positioning themselves in a way that disguises the screen intent. Once the ball is snapped, they must quickly position themselves to receive the short pass and avoid the initial defensive pressure. After securing the catch, they rely on their speed and agility to gain yardage, following the blocks set up by the offensive linemen.

Defensive Players

Defensive players need to recognize and react to the screen play in real-time to minimize its effectiveness. This requires maintaining awareness of the ball’s location and making quick adjustments to their positioning. Depending on the defensive strategy, some players, such as linebackers or defensive backs, may be assigned to cover potential screen targets. These players need to quickly diagnose the screen pass, shed any blocks, and make a decisive tackle to prevent significant gains.

Benefits of a Screen Play

Counter Defensive Pressure

A screen play in American Football is designed to counteract defensive pressure by allowing defensive linemen to penetrate the offensive line, while a set of offensive linemen move to the side of the field to serve as blockers. This strategic play exploits the aggressiveness of the defensive team and allows for increased offensive opportunities. Screen plays are particularly useful when facing hard rushing defensive linemen and fast dropping linebackers.

Exploit Defensive Weaknesses

An effective screen play can exploit defensive weaknesses by creating space for the offensive team. By utilizing different formations, schemes, and plays, a screen play can confuse the defense and target their vulnerable areas. This can lead to potentially explosive plays as blockers can assist the intended receiver and help them gain significant yardage downfield.

Create Mismatches

Screen plays are also beneficial in creating mismatches between offensive and defensive players. Due to the deception and timing involved in executing a screen play, it can force opposing defenders to make quick decisions, granting the offense an advantage. This can result in a mismatch between the intended receiver and their defender, giving the offense a higher probability of a successful pass completion and significant gains.

Challenges and Risks

Timing Issues

A screen play in American football requires precise timing between the quarterback, offensive line, and wide receivers or running backs. If the timing is off, the play can result in an incomplete pass, loss of yards, or an interception. For example, if the quarterback releases the ball too early or too late, the receiver may not be in the right position to catch the pass and utilize the screen of blockers. Furthermore, the offensive linemen need to release their blocks at the perfect moment to create an effective shield for the receiver.

Possible Penalties

Screen plays can be susceptible to penalties if not executed properly. Some common penalties associated with screens include:

  • Holding: Offensive linemen or blockers may be called for holding if they try to prevent defenders from pursuing the ball carrier by grabbing or pulling their jersey.
  • Illegal Block in the Back: If a blocker in the screen pushes an opposing player in the back while attempting to create a shield for the receiver, it will result in an illegal block in the back penalty.
  • Ineligible Receiver Downfield: For slow-developing screen plays, an offensive lineman may accidentally wander downfield before the pass is thrown, which is considered an ineligible receiver downfield penalty.

Defensive Adjustments

Defenses can adjust their game plan to anticipate and counter screen plays. Quick and agile defensive linemen or linebackers can identify a screen play and disrupt the timing between the quarterback and receiver or penetrate the screen of blockers. Moreover, an experienced or well-prepared defensive coordinator may recognize certain formations or situations where the offense is more likely to utilize a screen play and make adjustments accordingly. This can include using zone coverage, emphasizing communication among defenders, or assigning specific players to watch for screen plays.