Percy Harvin took his place in the slot position, 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage and just off the right tackle. The Minnesota Vikings faced third-and-5 from the Tennessee 10, looking to put the game away late in the third quarter.
The Titans knew exactly what play they needed to be ready for, but Harvin still made it work for his second touchdown of the afternoon to further demoralize a struggling defense.
"They did a good job of trying to take it away, but he's Percy Harvin," Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder said.
The "bubble" screen pass to the elusive, powerful Harvin is a favorite way for the Vikings to use their most versatile player. It also creates other opportunities for the offense, forcing opponents to brace for the "bubble" at the risk of ignoring another player. It's another example, too, of how an effective passing game in today's NFL doesn't necessarily mean a steady stream of long downfield throws to tall, traditional-size wide receivers.
According to research by STATS, Harvin leads the NFL with 329 yards after the catch, more than 80 percent of his receiving total of 407. The next closest player is Denver's Demaryius Thomas with 270. New England's Wes Welker is third with 264. Of Harvin's 38 receptions this season, 22 have been at or behind the line of scrimmage.
New England has been especially good at this, with one of the true stars of the slot in nine-year veteran Welker.
"You get the ball to your guys in space, and you see if they can make guys miss," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said, adding: "You can throw really a low-risk pass for sometimes a significant reward. Those are always good plays in the offense where you're not trying to squeeze it in to four defenders for a 7-yard gain. You throw it to a guy who's open. He makes a guy miss and gains 14."
That's what happened last Sunday, when Ponder pivoted right and threw perfectly parallel to the line so Harvin could catch it with a running start and avoid the risk of a fumble if he was too deep. Harvin ran four yards backward in a half-circle — hence the "bubble" descriptor — before planting and accelerating forward to grab the ball in the air.
He made four Titans miss badly, the first one with a slick stop-start cut at the 12 and the second one with a similar hesitation move at the 10 before banging off a third defender at the 7. The last one who had a chance, cornerback Jason McCourty, whiffed at the 3.
"He runs the ball just as hard as Adrian Peterson. He's not worried about getting tackled. He's running through arm tackles. That makes him very dangerous for the fact that usually you don't see a guy out there at receiver that has that type of power and strength to stay up," McCourty said.
The Vikings sure aren't ambushing anyone when they call the play.
"You hear all the defenders calling out ‘bubble, bubble, bubble!'" Harvin said. "It gets a little nervous, but actually I have full confidence in my blockers."
The widest receiver, in Sunday's case Michael Jenkins, has to clear the man covering him out of the way. Tight end Kyle Rudolph, who lined up outside of Harvin and has the most important job on this play, has to stay square in front of the defender he's trying to block to give Harvin the option of darting to either side. Also, the tackle on the side of the throw has to keep the defensive end from reaching too high so he can bat down the ball. Detroit did that with Cliff Avril the week before. The Lions were all over Harvin, actually, holding him to three catches for 22 yards. One of them went for a 2-yard loss.
"Rudolph, he comes to me repeatedly before the game or during practice, letting me know that I shouldn't have anything to worry about," Harvin said. "Just run my bubble as fast as I can, and he's going to handle it."
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said he only called the "bubble" screen pass once against Tennessee, though the Vikings practice it often. They can run the ball out of the same formation or, if the defense overcommits to take the sideways throw away, use an underneath shovel pass to Harvin instead. The Titans were in a zone coverage for that play on Sunday, a scenario in which Ponder is not supposed to send the ball Harvin's way.
"Rudolph was so confident that he could dominate that block that he wanted Christian to throw it no matter what," Harvin said.
These days, at 4-1, the Vikings are confident in a lot of plays. Especially the ones involving Harvin.
"He makes big plays even when you have the numbers from a defensive standpoint to make the play," coach Leslie Frazier said, adding: "They had the numbers and an individual as talented as he is makes a play out of nothing."
Harvin has been bursting defensive bubbles
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