Under head coach Andy Reid, the Kansas City Chiefs run one of the most expansive screen games in the NFL. They do so, in most part, thanks to the abilities of second-year center Mitch Morse.
Screens are designed as a man-beater concept, a play design used to attack man coverage.
Their goal is simple; get the ball to one of the team’s best playmakers, in space, and block the defensive player whose assignment it is to stop that playmaker 1-on-1, in the hopes of generating a big play.
Like everything in football, screens have evolved.
Traditional screen passes often look like this: A series of offensive linemen moving in space and doing what their coaches ask – “get a hat on a defender.”
But as Reid told Chiefs.com, “it’s one thing to be down the field, but knowing where to go is important.”
Most coaches, Reid included, teach those traditional screens in a very detailed way.
They ask their offensive linemen to “form a corridor” between the numbers and the hash marks for the playmaker receiving the ball to run through. They do this by splitting one half of the field into thirds; the “sidewalk,” “alley” and “centerfield.”
The play-side tackle kicks out toward the numbers and drives any defensive player toward the sideline. The play-side guard or the center (depending on the play design) marauds along the hash marks and clears out the nearest defensive player, angling him toward the goalposts. As each lineman drives a defensive player in opposite directions, it forms an alley of open field between the two blocks.
At the foot of the alley, the center (or play-side guard) mops up anyone who could make a play on the ball carrier. In most traditional screen concepts, the backside guard will then run through the alley before the receiver and clear out any defensive player he finds.
While these traditional screen designs can be incredibly effective, they also have drawbacks. First, you need athletic linemen who can get down the field and make plays. Secondly, those linemen must have good field awareness and a high football IQ. There’s no use in sending the play-side guard down the field if he drives a defensive player toward the alley rather than getting his hips turned around and driving toward the goalposts. Third, some playmakers lack patience and take off down the field before their blocks have fully developed. Lastly, perhaps most crucially, as a concept, they take a long time to develop. That gives the defense time to recognize the call, adjust, and make a play.
Given that, many teams have taken to using screen designs lifted from spread offenses; bubble screens, jailbreak/tunnel screens and swing screens. You know the kind; two wide receivers block the edge and the ball is swung out to a running back in space. Some of those concepts take away a lot of the detail; there’s no alley formed or specific leverage needed, it’s just “block ’em up and go make a play.”
Those concepts are quicker to develop, but the offense ends up with inferior blockers (receivers, not linemen) taking on defensive players at the point of attack.
Reid has been one of the best in the league at fusing old-school concepts with new spread elements. He is a classic West Coast coach; everything is based on rhythm, timing and accuracy. But when he worked with quarterback Michael Vick in Philadelphia he was forced to develop more off-beat plays and simpler play designs.
That transition to Vick led to more spread elements and designed quarterback runs making their way into Reid’s playbook. They’ve carried over to today with Alex Smith now at the helm of Reid’s offense.
Those new concepts involve a lot of second-level offensive line movement, moving linemen in space and new screen packages. Much of it is made possible by the play of Morse.
Morse, a former college tackle, transitioned to center during his rookie season due to his short arms and lack of length. He isn’t a powerful player at the point of attack, but he has a great understanding of angles and leverage. It’s not common for a tackle to kick in all the way to center. Usually, a guard will transition there. Morse moved inside immediately and the transition was as seamless as any recent offensive lineman coming from college to the NFL.
What sets Morse apart is his athleticism. Think Eagles center Jason Kelce; a player who can kick to the perimeter on outside runs, move quickly to the second level on inside plays and get out in space whenever needed. “Coach Reid is known for getting linemen down the field and zoning off and I feel like that helps a ton with me because I like movement,” Morse told Chiefs.com. “I feel like I’m not the biggest guy on the field, but I like to move around a little bit, and Coach Reid’s offense gives me an opportunity to do that.”
That kind of athletic ability has allowed Reid and his staff to build in new “single-man” screen concepts. They borrow the simplicity and deception of spread screen packages, but get a lineman out to block rather than a wide receiver.
These one-man screens, like any others, are intended to attack man coverage and get open field for the Chiefs’ best playmaker in space (often All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles). The difference here is that the only lineman that gets out and blocks is Morse; he snaps the ball, drives out into space and isolates the defensive player assigned to stop Charles or whomever is in man coverage. The play design often looks like a regular drop back pass, as every other member of the offensive line sets up to pass protect.
See below: The Chiefs swing out Charles across the formation into space. Morse snaps the ball, fakes like he’s blocking, then gets out to the perimeter to block a defensive back down the field.
The movement of Charles does two things:
- It confirms to Smith that it’s man-to-man coverage.
- It gives Morse enough time to fake the block and kick out into space in order to throw a block.
The beauty of this play design is that it does what all great screens do; eliminates the defensive line from the play. The rest of the offensive line pass-sets and the defensive line looks as though it just overwhelmed the offensive line on a regular pass play. Those pass rushers are all taken out of the play once the ball is swung outside.
Morse is the kicker, though. This design gets him out – unblocked – to the second-level and gets a mismatch on a defensive back.
Here’s another example:
It’s a beautifully designed single-man screen with a fake-screen built in. The Chiefs once again send a man in motion. That reveals the coverage to the quarterback and gets the Texans’ linebackers to flow to one side of the field, biting on the fake bubble-screen.
Meanwhile, Charles (again) comes across the formation into a field of space. Morse snaps the ball, drives to the second level and gets a great block on a linebacker in order to spring Charles for some extra yards.
An extra bit of detail to this design is the influence of spread concepts and their impact on Reid’s development as a coach. The spread is all about getting your best playmakers in space – he does with Charles. It creates easy throws for the quarterback – Smith gets a big passing gain on a screen pass. And it forces the defense to defend the entire width of the field.
Look how the Chiefs eliminate four Houston defenders from the play through a simple play design. Not only are they completely removed from being able to make a play on the ball, the misdirection has caused them to defend a different play, and they’ve committed more defenders than are necessary.
The play design is outstanding, but it’s all made possible by the athletic ability and intelligence of Morse. “[Morse] has got that feel on where to be at the right time, so that part’s unique,” Reid told Chiefs.com.
Schemes are only as good as the players’ ability to execute them. In Morse, the Chiefs have a special athlete and a special player at an undervalued position in the game.
It’s not often that the center is responsible for generating explosive plays. With their single-man screen game the Chiefs have devised a way to get the best out of two of the team’s best players – Charles and Morse – with a specific package.
As he heads into his second year, he has quickly become one of the most valuable interior players in the league.
Without him, the Chiefs would be unable to run many key elements of Reid’s hybrid offense. One that finished 3rd in FootballOutsiders.com’s weighted DVOA in 2015, and projects to be one of the best in the league in 2016.