In the past week across the NFL, teams utilized or attempted to utilize the wide receiver mid screen, a heretofore seldom used play, no less than eight times. Whether or not this was a statistical aberration, a mere coincidence in play calling or by design given the success of the team that attempted it twice in a nationally televised game on Thursday night, remains to be seen.
The team that thrust the play into semi-prominence this week was the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs, and head coach Andy Reid, have surprised most around the NFL, opening the season with three straight wins.
They have not been flawless wins, however, as Kansas City has struggled to create a vertical passing game. That lack of downfield threat has allowed defenses to bring the safeties down closer to the line of scrimmage and pass rushers to pin their ears back when rushing the quarterback.
Enter the wide receiver mid screen.
The mid screen takes advantage of an over aggressive pass rush, the same way any other screen does, but removes the ability to be shut down by having a defender delay a leak into a zone.
The play was popularized by Don Read in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he was the head coach at Montana. Read used a lot of bubble and mid screens to supplement his lack of a vertical attack.
On the particular play we're dissecting, the Chiefs were facing a 3rd-and-15 from their own 15-yard line. The Chiefs lined up in the shotgun, and sent what looked like everyone out into a pass pattern, but it was really just a one-route screen play.
As you can see in the diagram of the play below, the play develops, from a defensive perspective, as a four-verticals attack, out of a compressed Shotgun formation with a drag route underneath.
There's a simple rub on the drag route designed to give the receiver, in this case Kansas City wide receiver Donnie Avery—a small, legal "pick" to help create separation. This separation is vital, as it is the only route in play for the Chiefs on the play. If the receiver was unable to separate, quarterback Alex Smith would have been forced to throw the ball away.
As it happened, the Philadelphia Eagles dropped eight men back into coverage, rushing only three, giving the blockers time to set up, Donnie Avery time to break free and Smith time to get him the ball. Avery followed his lead blocking, racking up a 56-yard total gain.
The Chiefs came back and ran the exact same play later in the game on 3rd-and-19 for a similar result. Impressive, and vital for a team that had only one pass travel 10 or more air yards in the entire game, per Pro Football Focus.
The advantages of developing a mid-screen game for a team that is unable to throw vertically for whatever reason (quarterback arm limitations, receivers unable to create separation vertically, etc.) are pretty clear. It allows teams to get speedy players in space and create after the catch. Again, the play is exquisitely simple in design, simply created to take advantage of an over-aggressive defense in obvious passing situations.
The disadvantages are that it limits the offense to one, maybe two, actual functional routes on a play, and that it can be shut down with a tight, non-aggressive mid-zone scheme, or a lineman leaking back into zone. In order to properly execute the play, you also need an explosive receiver who can create separation with his speed, and quickly, lest the defense pin their ears back and get to the quarterback before he can get the pass out.
For a team like the Minnesota Vikings, with Christian Ponder's struggles driving the ball, and the speed and run after the catch ability the Vikings have in receivers like Cordarelle Patterson and Jarius Wright, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them working the concept into their offense sometime soon as well.