In just over 1 1/3 years of watching Coach Butch Jones’ offense, it’s become clear that he runs a much different variation of the spread than Brian Kelly. Jones opts for more of a West Coast-type offense where short passes like curls, screens, and stags are used to set up deep plays downfield whereas Kelly’s receivers were constantly attacking DBs in vertical-type routes to keep them on their heels. There is nothing wrong with either mindset. They are just different and I’m perfectly content with the strategy to draw the defense in close then hit them deep. That kind of cat and mouse game is what makes modern offenses so dangerous. But one playset that I’ve watched over this time that has me scratching my head (or throwing blunt objects across the room) has been the Bearcats’ variation of the ‘bubble screen’.
The bubble screen is a pass to a wide receiver near the sidelines where his other wide receiver(s) block for him. This works best in two ways. 1.) When the defense is in Cover-3 with the cornerback on that side of the field vacating the short route off the snap to cover deep and 2.) when there are three receivers on one side of the field (be they bunched or lined up), with one catching the ball and the other two blocking:
Cincinnati appears to run a different variation of the bubble screen from its ideal form. Instead of three wide receivers on one side, the Bearcats elect to go with two. From what I’ve seen this season, the players catching the ball are usually Kenbrell Thompkins, D.J. Woods, or Anthony McClung with one of the other two blocking. The receiver is generally the player closer the quarterback and lines up off the line of scrimmage, where his blocker lines up along the LOS. Here’s an example of it from the NC State game:
One of the problems with Cincinnati’s execution of the bubble screen is that it takes so darn long for it to develop. Check it out:
It takes 3 full seconds from exactly when the football is snapped to when the receiver catches the ball and turns upfield. College linebackers and defensive backs can run sub 4.7 40s, meaning that they can cover 40 yards in 4.7 seconds. They can easily read, react to, and make a play on the bubble screen that takes 3 seconds to develop. Even from the point when Zach turns to throw the ball to the receiver, the linebackers and secondary are already moving towards the side of the field the ball will go and as you can see from the snapshot above, they are on top of both receivers immediately.
Another problem is that the Bearcats are getting next to nothing out of each of the bubble screens. Against NC State, the Bearcats ran this play 5 times for five. total. yards*. For you non-math majors that’s 1 yard per catch. At this rate, the bubble screen acts like a wasted play. Thinking of it in baseball terms, when a pitcher is ahead in the count 0 – 2 he might throw a pitch that’s clearly a ball way off the plate inside or outside to change the eye line of the batter. These are ingeniously labelled ‘waste pitches’ and he uses it to set up a close pitch on the corner to get an easy strikeout. Back to football, if Coach Jones is going to draw up a set up play (instead of a wasted play), he should make sure it goes for more than 1 yard a clip.
*I tracked the stats myself when I rewatched the game for this entry’s purpose.
In response the defense isn’t shifting the linebackers/secondary to stop it. Even though this is one of Butch Jones’ ‘set-up’ playsets to get wide receivers open deep on subsequent plays, the bubble screen isn’t doing its job. Therefore as it’s currently being ran the play is useless and has no business in this offense. Instead, the Bearcats need to do make the following changes in substitution of the bubble screen:
- Run the ball. Mr. Dependable Isaiah Pead is rushing for 7.85 yards a clip. He forces defensive coordinators to stack the box with 7 or even 8 players in hopes of stopping him. It’s not working and DCs are racking their brains trying to figure out ways to stop him. The only logical move is to keep feeding him the rock.
- Get Adrien Robinson involved. The 6’5″ 265 lbs tight end is a mammoth of a human being for defenders to cover. He only has three catches but two of those went for touchdowns over the middle. Frankly the big man just needs a bigger role in this offense and as of most recently he’s the #1 tight end on the roster so the coaches obviously see him as a threat.
- In general, throw across the middle. For whatever reason the Bearcats just don’t throw between the hashes like they used to. They don’t even have to target the tight end who usually makes his money in this area. Send the receivers on crossing routes, ins, or stags. I could care less as long as the defense starts to press.
All three of these options are a million times better at setting up the deep passes to UC’s talented wide receivers than the bubble screens which do nothing to draw opposing defenses closer to the line of scrimmage. Defensive coordinators are confident enough in stopping the bubble screen with their basic formation that they aren’t bringing more guys to help stop the play, thus leaving Thompkins, Woods, etc. well covered when they run deep. If the Bearcats want to get back to being efficient and explosive on offense, they have to outright remove the bubble screen from their playbook.