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A screen pass is a type of play in American football. During a screen pass, a number of things happen concurrently in order to fool the defense into thinking a long pass is being thrown, when in fact the pass is merely a short one, just beyond the defensive linemen. Screens are usually deployed against aggressive defenses that rush the passer. Because screens invite the defense to rush the quarterback, they are designed to leave fewer defenders behind the rushers to stop the play.
A screen pass can be effective, but can also be risky in that it is rather easy for a defensive player, even a lineman, to intercept the pass if a defender gets between the quarterback and the intended receiver. If the pass is intercepted, there are often few offensive players in front of the intercepting player, thus making it much easier for the intercepting team to earn a large return or to score a touchdown.
Screens come in many forms. A screen to a running back to either the strong or short side of the field in the flats is often just called a screen. Screens to wide receivers come in four forms: the bubble screen, middle screen, slot screen, and slip screen.
The bubble screen was essentially created by Don Read when he was head coach of the Montana Grizzlies, and Lou Holtz, head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, brought the play into prominence after calling Read and asking for the play. The bubble screen involves a receiver taking a step forward, then darting toward the quarterback to receive the ball while the offensive linemen release to clear a path for the receiver. The benefit of the bubble screen is that it works against either zone or man-to-man coverage. A downside is that it is dependent on proper timing; a zone blitz or defensive end dropping into coverage can disrupt the timing, and may result in the quarterback being sacked.
The middle screen is similar to the bubble screen, except that the receiver continues his route to the middle of the field. The linemen release up the middle of the field in front of the receiver.
A screen pass is sometimes executed using a shovel pass throwing motion. To throw a shovel pass the quarterback palms the football, and "shovels" the pass directly forward to the receiver, usually with a backhand, underhand or pushing motion. When a designed play calls for the quarterback to use a shovel pass forward to a receiver it is, by definition, also a screen pass.
If run properly, the defensive backs will be run out of the play by the receivers, and the defensive line will penetrate too far to stop the short pass from being thrown. The only defenders left will be linebackers, which will be picked up by the "screen" of offensive linemen in front of the receiver—hence the name "screen pass".
There are different types of screens that can be thrown, such as:
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