World’s Best Preview: Screen Success

How do you run a successful screen? Will the Eagles dare to blitz Aaron Rodgers? What will be the Packers' biggest challenge on Sunday? Those answers and more in our signature story of the week, which at 4,400 words crushes the competition with stats, notes and quotes you won't find anywhere else. Guaranteed. (Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY)

During each of the last two games, Green Bay Packers’ running back Eddie Lacy has churned through opposing defenses with perfectly executed screen plays. Against the Saints, he rumbled for 67 yards; against Chicago, he stormed through the defenseless Bears for 56 yards and a touchdown to become the first back in Packers history with 55-yard receptions in consecutive games.

If you’re wondering where the screen had gone, coach Mike McCarthy swears it hasn’t gone anywhere. And if you’re wondering how you run an effective screen, we talked to the team’s quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and offensive line coaches to get the scoop.

It starts with calling it at the right time.

“A good time to call a screen is when that defensive end flies up the field. That helps,” McCarthy said. “It’s a feel. Play-calling’s a feel. There’s down-and-distances and tendencies that you look at, but it’s like a lot of things in play-calling. Philosophically and when you call it and when you don’t, that’s why you play the game. I don’t just stick with one distinct area or when or where I call them.”

The play, of course, starts with the quarterback. It will be the shortest pass Aaron Rodgers will throw all night. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy pass. In the New Orleans game, three defenders were closing in on Rodgers.

“For a quarterback, it’s just a matter of using your eyes to pull guys away from the screen and being able to drift and find a good angle to deliver the ball with free rushers in your face,” quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. “You’ve got to change arm angles, you’ve got to go around guys, over guys, with touch. It’s a different throw every time. With a quarterback, probably the hardest part is just negotiating the throw.”

Then it’s up to Lacy. In the New Orleans game, he made a tremendous play as he had to twist back to catch the ball, then stumbled for a moment before gaining his balance.

After the catch, it’s up to Lacy to show his God-given running skills. There’s no better example of his running style than the play at New Orleans, when he outran speedy linebacker Curtis Lofton and then destroyed safety Rafael Bush with brute force for the final 17 yards before finally being hauled down at the 3-yard line. Patience is a virtue in all facets of life, and especially in the screen game. The Packers feature an athletic offensive line but it’s not as if they’d beat Lacy in a race. Sometimes, Lacy needs to run with patience to allow the linemen to make their blocks. Other times, like the New Orleans game, the timing is impeccable. He had a full head of steam built up by the time guards Lane Taylor and Josh Sitton made their blocks about 15 yards downfield.

“You have to have great linemen in front of you,” running backs coach Sam Gash said. “Those guys, they can run – they run really well in the open field. You just coach your backs to catch the ball. You teach whatever you have to teach in terms of techniques but (you need) good linemen who can get out and run and backs that feel comfortable with the ball in space and know how to read blocks and have landmarks to make a runway to the end zone.”

Nothing happens without downfield blocking. The Packers put on a clinic against Chicago. Sitton, for instance, was engaged with a defender 20 yards downfield and fellow guard T.J. Lang made two blocks.

“Really, for us, when you get out in the screen game, you’ve got to make contact,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “You’re going against someone who’s obviously a better athlete. Let me rephrase that. They’re not a better athlete because we’re big and we’re running. A smaller person with a little more agility, making contact in space and those type of things are important. Sometimes, just getting out there and being in front of it and you don’t even make contact but you’re there, you let the back make it right.”

Like with most plays, the difference between a long gain and a long touchdown is the receivers blocking downfield. Against New Orleans, Nelson delivered an excellent block about 7 yards downfield, which allowed Lacy to get into the clear behind Taylor and Sitton. Against Chicago, Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams are essentially racing Lacy to the end zone. That’s the end of the play, though. The receivers play an important role at the start, too, as salesmen.

“Usually when we’re running a screen, it complements one of our primary concepts,” receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. “I think our guys understand that and do a good job from a route-running perspective, and then doing their part from a blocking standpoint of hustling and getting into position because it’s an opportunity for a big play. At the end of the day, it’s about doing your job and I think they understand that and they buy into that.”

STRENGTH VS. STRENGTH

Eagles’ defensive coordinator Bill Davis is known for his blitzing style. In that light, he fits perfectly with Chip Kelly’s full-speed-ahead coaching style.

Will Davis go on the offensive against Rodgers?

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Davis sends five or more defenders at the quarterback on 34.7 percent of dropbacks. That’s the ninth-highest blitz rate in the league.

Generally, teams scale back their blitz packages against Rodgers. According to STATS, Rodgers owns a league-best 132.6 passer rating against the blitz this season. He’s completed 46-of-67 passes (68.7 percent) for 643 yards, with 11 touchdowns and one interception. Since taking over as the starter in 2008, Rodgers tops the league with a 110.7 rating against the blitz.

“You have to have something to expect every week, but you’ve got to be quick on the reactions and figure out how they’re going to play you,” Rodgers said. “This team seems to roll some calls in. We expect them to play their defense and we’ve got to do what we do best and try to execute better than they can stop us.”

Davis, who worked with Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers in Pittsburgh and Carolina, runs a 3-4 scheme. He likes to send his inside linebackers – Mychal Kendricks has the second-highest blitz rate among 3-4/4-3 inside/middle linebackers, according to ProFootballFocus.com, while DeMeco Ryans, who’s on injured reserve, has the ninth-highest rate.

It’s not just the blitzing. What you see at the line of scrimmage isn’t always what you get, and the same pre-snap look might mean two or three different things once the ball is snapped. The goal is to create confusion through information overload. It’s worked. With a lot of talent and a creative scheme, the Eagles entered the week ranked second in sacks and first in quarterback hurries.

“It’s a lot you’ve got to think about,” Sitton said. “You might spend 20 minutes in a meeting going over one play that they did in one game. That’s why they do that stuff is to make you focus on one stupid play and not focus on the other stuff. That’s why they do it. It takes away time from the stuff you’re going to see the most, it takes away time from the film on the normal stuff. That’s why they do it. That’s the most difficult part is trying to figure out how much time to put into certain things and avoid certain things.”

SPECIAL CHALLENGE

The focal point with Kelly is his up-tempo offense. Special teams tie into Kelly’s approach and have provided a major shot in the arm.

The Eagles have scored five touchdowns on special teams in just nine games. Compare that to the seven touchdowns scored by the Packers’ special teams since Shawn Slocum took over as coordinator in 2009. Philadelphia has returned two blocked punts for touchdowns, Darren Sproles has returned two punts for touchdowns and Chris Polk has returned one kickoff for a touchdown. They’ve also blocked a field goal.

“You always try to flip the field from a position standpoint but when you have the ability to flip it all the way into a touchdown, it’s big,” Kelly said. “It’s been huge for us, whether it’s been the punt blocks or the punt returns or the kickoff return that we have. We’re getting great contributions. We spend a lot of time in our training sessions on special teams. I believe it’s a huge part of the game, especially in this league where every yard is so tough to get and there’s such a swing in yardage from a special teams standpoint. Those guys have been great. We’ve got a great culture in our special teams. We’ve got a lot of guys that really, truly want to play on it. Our kickers have been doing a really good job. It’s been a big part of our success.”

Acquiring Sproles from the Saints for a fifth-round pick has been a coup. The Packers know about his talents all too well. In the 2011 opener against New Orleans, he returned a punt 72 yards for a touchdown, returned a kickoff 57 yards and added seven receptions for 75 yards.

“It looks to me like, No. 1, adding Darren Sproles has given them a dynamic returner,” Slocum said. “With the addition of Chris Maragos and Brad Smith, guys with some experience in special teams probably leading the meeting room, and they’re getting a lot of production out of the whole group. The whole group is playing together on all four core (units) and they’ve been a very opportunistic bunch.”

Sproles leads the league with a 17.0-yard average on punt returns. With a mix-and-match of kickoff returners, the Eagles rank third with a 28.8-yard average. Those numbers have given the Eagles an edge in field position. Based on average starting point, the Eagles enjoy a 2.5-yard advantage over Green Bay on kickoff returns (22.5-20.0) and a 2.7-yard edge over Green Bay on kickoff coverage (20.9-23.6). Based on net averages, the Eagles are plus-2.4 yards on punt returns (36.6-39.0) while Green Bay has 1.8-yard edge in punting with Tim Masthay (40.3-38.5).

Both kickers have been tremendous. Mason Crosby is 13-of-14, with his lone miss a block. Philadelphia’s Cody Parkey is 16-of-17 and has made 13 in a row. Both are 3-for-3 from 50-plus yards.

The other sideline

— When your name is getting mentioned alongside Hall of Famer Reggie White, you know you’re playing good football.

Philadelphia outside linebacker Connor Barwin, a key free-agent pickup from Houston in 2013, leads the NFC with 10.5 sacks this season. Not only has he set a franchise record for single-season sacks by a linebacker, needs 2.5 sacks for 13, which would tie White’s 1990 and 1992 seasons as the 10th-best in team history.

“Connor’s having a really good year,” Kelly said. “It’s his second year in our system. We get to learn more about him as a player; he learns more about our defensive system. He’s really playing at a high level right now.”

Last week, the Eagles used Barwin as a spy at times against Carolina quarterback Cam Newton. That plan certainly worked: Barwin had 3.5 sacks and the Eagles dropped Newton nine times.

"I think I'm a better player than I was last year," Barwin told reporters in Philadelphia on Wednesday. "I think we have to improve every year, but I think my numbers are a bigger result of what we're doing as a group up front."

He’ll line up across from Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga. Bulaga called Barwin a “smart, crafty guy” who excels at finding weaknesses in the opposition’s protection scheme.

— The Eagles survived a stretch without two of their top offensive linemen. Pro Bowl left guard Evan Mathis sustained a knee injury in the season-opener and returned last week. Center Jason Kelce, who signed a seven-year contract extension following last season, missed four games after hernia surgery.

Now that the gang’s together, the Eagles have one of the most formidable front walls in the league. Left tackle Jason Peters, who entered the NFL as an undrafted tight end out of Arkansas, is a six-time Pro Bowler. Right tackle Lane Johnson, who was suspended for the first four games of the season by the league, was the fourth overall pick of the 2013 draft. The line the Eagles will be using on Sunday has started only one game together all season.

“Obviously, whenever your depth gets tested — and everybody in this league has been in that situation where there’s an injury; I know you guys went through it with your center, although (Corey) Linsley’s playing really well,” Kelly said. “It’s just the nature of what the NFL is in this day and age. Whoever really starts the season, you (might not) finish with that same group. For us to get a couple guys back — Evan Mathis was back for the first time after putting him on IR for designation to return, getting Jason Kelce back. The more time those guys get to play together, I think the continuity will help them in terms of our progress as we get moving forward.”

— When the Eagles released big-play receiver DeSean Jackson during the offseason, it raised questions about who would carry the load in the passing game. The Eagles, surprisingly, haven’t had any issues. Jeremy Maclin, who missed all of 2013 with a knee injury, has returned in a big way. He leads the team with 48 receptions for 828 yards and eight touchdowns. Among receivers with at least 30 receptions, only Jackson is averaging more than Maclin’s 17.3 yards per reception. Maclin’s eight touchdowns are tied for fourth and his eight receptions of 25-plus yards are tied for eighth. He’s also one of three receivers in the NFL (30-catch minimum) with no drops, according to ProFootballFocus.com

“They have guys who can get vertical and that’s the way they want to use those guys,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “Maclin is probably No. 1 in the league as far as vertical passing game. He’s been making a lot of big plays. Riley Cooper also, he’s a guy who can get vertical. He has sneaky speed. A lot of guys don’t think he can get over the top but, time after time, you see him get there. You’ve got the rookie (Jordan Matthews) who’s coming along well who they feed the ball a little bit to and he’s made some big plays. They’ve got a good receiving trio.”

— From an individual perspective, it’s been a disappointing season for Eagles running back LeSean McCoy. He’s rushed for 641 yards (3.7 average) and two touchdowns a year after leading the league with 1,607 yards (5.1 average) and nine touchdowns.

However, his presence on the field means a lot because the Eagles rely heavily on play action. According to ProFootballFocus.com, injured Nick Foles used play action on 32.3 percent of his dropbacks. That’s the second-highest rate in the league. In Mark Sanchez’s limited opportunities, he’s gone play action on 44.4 percent of his dropbacks. How effective has it been? On play-action passes, Foles is tied for the league lead with seven touchdown passes and Sanchez has tossed a pair of scoring passes.

History lessons

— The Packers lead the series 25-16. Green Bay won 16 of the first 18 matchups, but one of the two losses was the famous 1960 NFL Championship Game at Franklin Field, which the Eagles won 17-13. That would be the first and last playoff loss for Vince Lombardi’s legends. In more modern times, the Eagles won five in a row, including the famous fourth-and-26 playoff game, before the Packers won in the 2007 and 2010 regular season and the 2010 playoffs.

— The Eagles, of course, won the last matchup, 27-13 at Lambeau Field last season. That game was played a week after Rodgers sustained a broken collarbone. Seneca Wallace started and played one series before being replaced by Scott Tolzien.

— For the 16th time in franchise history, the Packers have won their first four home games of the season. They’ve scored 31, 42, 38 and 55 points in those games, marking the first time they topped 30 in each of their first four home games. The Packers have outscored their opponents 166-65 for a league-best scoring differential of plus-101.

— Green Bay will be wearing its 1929-vintage throwback uniforms this week. Green Bay is 3-0 in those games by a combined score of 89-32. The 1929 squad won the first of the franchise’s 13 championships by finishing 12-0-1. How’s this for dominance: The Packers scored 29 touchdowns but allowed only 22 points. The only blemish was a 0-0 tie at Frankford.

Noteworthy numbers

— Rodgers’ statistics in home games are absurd. In four home games, he’s completed 68.5 percent of his passes for 1,072 yards with 15 touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 140.1. In fact, Rodgers hasn’t thrown an interception at home since Dec. 2, 2012, against Minnesota. That 286-pass stretch includes 26 touchdowns without a pick.

In the first halves of the last three home games, Rodgers has thrown 11 touchdown passes and helped the team take a cumulative 98-3 lead. Those quick starts have meant early exits, which have kept him out of harm’s way but prevented him from putting up even bigger stats. His passer ratings of 154.5 vs. Carolina, 145.8 vs. Chicago and 138.7 vs. Minnesota represent three of the 12 best single-game ratings of his career.

“It’s tough to do that,” Rodgers said. “It’s tough to execute like that against a defense. It takes the entire team to get those kind of leads. We’ve got a great atmosphere at our home games, and it’s a bonus with the crowd with the noise they can create. The opportunity to not have to signal as much on offense and maybe go a little quicker helps, but you still have to execute. It’s tough to do that. It’s the National Football League and those are good opponents. We were just able to get up on them early and put them away.”

— Lacy is so much more than a running back. Not only does he rank second in the NFL in yards after the catch per catch (11.5; behind Sproles’ league-leading 12.4), according to league data, but he’s one of just a handful of regulars in the backfield who haven’t allowed a sack or quarterback pressure, according to ProFootballFocus.com.

“That sounds exactly right,” Gash said. “That’s the No. 1 rule to me as a running back is 100 percent ball security and the next thing is to take care of the quarterback. Everything else will fall into place if you can be in the right spot to take care of the quarterback. Protect the quarterback, then you can play in this league. If you can’t protect the quarterback, then you can’t play in this league.”

Lacy allowed only three pressures (no sacks) last year, according to PFF. It certainly helps that, at 230 pounds, he’s not going to get run over by a hard-charging linebacker. Picking up the blitz, first and foremost, starts before the snap.

“It’s more mental than physical because you’ve got to know who’s coming and what kind of rusher they are, and then once you figure that out, then the rest of it is the physical part of stopping him from getting to the quarterback,” Lacy said. “I wasn’t always a good pass protector, especially in high school, but being at Alabama, they really taught me to pass block really well. I just had to take it to this level and continue to improve.”

— The Packers entered this season hoping to run 75 snaps per game. They haven’t gotten close to that number, though nobody’s complaining because they’ve averaged 37.2 points per game the previous six games.

Green Bay is averaging 59.7 plays per game to score its fifth-ranked 30.8 points per game. It ranks 26th with an average time of possession of 28:17. The Eagles are running 74.4 snaps per game en route to their fourth-ranked 31.0 points per game. It ranks 31st in time of possession at 26:55. That works out to one snap every 28.4 seconds for the Packers vs. one snap every 21.7 seconds for the Eagles.

“They’re the fastest in the league,” Capers said. “(Kelly’s) philosophy is to run as many plays as he can possibly run to stress the defense, to try to get you uneasy and get you off of your rhythm. You don’t huddle and you’ve got to get the call in quick, because there at the line of scrimmage, you want the players to have the call where they’re facing the offense where they aren’t stressed and we’re running late and we’re not getting to the line. You’ve got to keep your poise and composure. Now, we work against our offense, and our offense doesn’t operate as fast as this offense, but it helps because when people are going to be no-huddle and at the line of scrimmage, when you work against that a lot, it helps you in terms of handling it. I didn’t feel that a year ago when we played them here that the fast pace was disruptive to us because we really planned and prepared for it. I’m hoping that’s the case on Sunday.”

— There’s been one dramatic positive for the Eagles since Sanchez replaced Foles, and that’s red-zone efficiency. The Eagles are tied for 25th with a touchdown rate of 50.0 percent. Foles’ touchdown rate was 8-of-23 while Sanchez is a perfect 7-of-7.

Four-point stance

— Why should Clay Matthews continue to be a mainstay at inside linebacker on first and second down?

Just look at this week’s opponent.

Running backs Sproles and McCoy have 21 receptions apiece. Tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek have combined for 45 receptions. That’s a lot of firepower to attack the middle of the field.

“I think it just puts him in more positions to make plays,” Kelly said. “Probably a smart maneuver by those guys. It really caused some problems for Chicago in terms of his ability to disrupt things in the middle.”

Matthews’ athletic ability should help the Packers earn at least some measure of control over the middle of the field, like it did against Chicago’s Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett last week, because he’s a “good dropper” and “he’s just got football instincts,” as Capers put it.

“I think ultimately what the coaches were looking for was something to help out,” Matthews said. “You look at our defense, we’ve had games of excellence, which we’ve shown before last week, and we’ve had games where we’ve just laid an egg. I think we’re looking for some consistency, a little change at that position. So whether that means some athleticism in there, physicality, whatever it is, I think they just need a little spark. And since we have four exceptional pass-rushers and we’re not all on the field at the same time (too often), I think they’re looking for spots to put people that actually makes sense.”

— Philadelphia’s aggressive approach on defense ties into the way it plays on offense and special teams. The Eagles have forced at least one turnover in 22 consecutive games. They lead the NFL with 15 forced fumbles, behind Brandon Graham’s league-leading four and Trent Cole’s three. They’re second with 32 sacks, with Barwin’s 10.5 and Cole and Graham adding 4.5 apiece. They’re also ninth with 16 takeaways, as safety Malcolm Jenkins has three interceptions.

On the other side of the coin, Green Bay has returned to form in terms of giveaways. The Packers are tied for third with eight turnovers this season. From 2007 through 2012, the Packers never finished outside the top 10 in giveaways, including finishing first in 2009, second in 2011 and second in 2012. Rodgers, with three interceptions this season and by far the lowest interception in NFL history, ranks second in the league this season with an interception rate of 1.1 percent. Lacy, who didn’t fumble at all after Week 1 last season, has fumbled twice this season.

“It’s never an issue because we believe in our guys and we believe in the techniques that we coach,” Gash said. “And it’s pride. They can’t put the ball on the ground because they just can’t. It’s not in their makeup to be (lacking in that area). If it was, they wouldn’t be on the team. Philly, great defense. They’re playing lights-out this year. They have guys that fly around, athletic, they’re not on the ground very much. It’s going to be a challenge but ball security is something that you always expect to be perfect.”

— Whether you’re watching the game on a cold metal bleacher or a nice, cushy sofa, don’t be late. The Packers have scored a league-high 90 points in the first quarter while Philadelphia is second with 71 points in the opening period.

Green Bay has scored a touchdown on its opening possession in five of the last six games. For some perspective, the Packers scored three touchdowns on their opening drives in 2013 and three in 2012. During their high-flying 2011 season, when they scored what was the second-most points in NFL history, they scored eight opening-drive touchdowns. The Eagles, however, have allowed only one first-drive touchdown this season. Moreover, the Eagles have blocked two first-drive punts and recovered them for touchdowns, giving them a 14-7 edge on their opponents’ first drives.

— Why do both teams prefer an up-tempo approach? Because running more plays means the opportunity to produce more big plays. The Eagles are tied with the Redskins with a league-high eight plays of 50-plus yards, while the Packers are third with seven plays of 50-plus. All of those big plays have come through the air. Rodgers leads the league with 11 completions and seven touchdowns on completions of at least 40 yards.

QUOTEWORTHY

Cornerback Tramon Williams, on Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez getting a second chance after being released by the Jets: “It’s good to see a guy get a second chance in a system that’s probably going to be more friendly to him, to his skill-set. You’ve got to ask yourself in New York, did he really have a chance to be successful? I don’t think he had half the weapons that he has over there in Philly. I think he’s going to be good. He’s got the talent to do it. He was a first-round guy; he’s got first-round talent. He’s definitely a guy we’ve got to account for.”

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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