Greg Cosell’s Super Bowl Preview: Breaking down Denver’s screen pass to Demaryius Thomas

Greg Cosell
January 29, 2014

This week we’re going to look at a staple play from each of the Super Bowl offenses, and we’ll start with the Broncos and one of their most important plays, the wide receiver screen to Demaryius Thomas.

The Broncos will run the screen to Thomas against the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. It's like a run play for the Broncos. They throw a high-percentage pass behind the line to Thomas and try to get blockers out in front of him, hoping it turns into a big play. On Sunday, the Broncos might change how they get to the screen by using a new formation or motion before the snap. The bottom line is they run the receiver screen in many different ways, which is why it works. You add wrinkles to staple plays. Let's look at an example of a wrinkle they used earlier in the year.

Against the Redskins in Week 8, Thomas was lined up wide. Eric Decker and Wes Welker were lined up in a minus split (close to the formation – and I’ll explain why that’s important in a moment). The back was in a pistol look behind Peyton Manning. The slot corner blitzed. The Broncos’ linemen, Decker and Welker got out in front of Thomas and he went for a 35-yard touchdown.

The Broncos’ next game was against the Chargers, and they knew San Diego saw this play. But it’s one the Broncos want to run. So Denver presented it differently.

Thomas started in the backfield on his screen against San Diego. Everything else was the same. The back lined up in the same spot and Welker and Decker had the same minus splits. And believe it or not, the slot cornerback blitzed on this play, too.

When Thomas starts in the backfield, the defense says, “Wow, Demaryius Thomas isn’t where he usually is.” They then have to go through mental adjustments in a very short period of time. You’re playing Manning and he could snap it at any time.

All it takes in the NFL is half a beat of hesitation, and you can lose. The Broncos are trying to create that moment of hesitation. No NFL team reinvents the wheel. They have run these plays since OTAs. They just made a small adjustment. It makes the picture a little different to the defense, which can’t react as quickly.

It’s not an accident Decker and Welker are minus splits in a bunch look on Denver's screen plays, because that backs the defense off. You can’t have two cornerbacks at the same level; they can’t both be in press position. By the initial look they get the defense backed off. They’re immediately creating space. Then they put Thomas in motion.

Again they got Welker and Decker and three offensive linemen out front as the play developed (and on the play against the Chargers, left tackle Chris Clark performed a nifty spin move off the line). The Broncos do a great job getting linemen in front of Thomas. So you’re getting five blockers out in front with a backed-off defense.

The beauty of the Broncos' receiver screen is its simplicity.

What can the defense do? If the defender across from Welker goes immediately in the passing lane and they fake the screen to Thomas, you’ve lost a defender and they’re going to throw a touchdown over the top. So nobody is going to do that. Screens can be stopped when the defense can press, but because of the bunch alignment of Decker and Welker, that option is eliminated. For the defense it’s all about rallying to the football once the catch is made. You’re not preventing the completion. You’re trying to make this a 6-yard play instead of a touchdown.

And Thomas is a perfect player to run this play. He’s a big, fast athletic mover. He’s a strider with some lateral quickness. If you watch him run with the ball, he’s fluid. He moves like a smaller guy. He doesn’t run like a 6-3 230-pound guy. Against the Chargers, he broke the screen for a 34-yard touchdown.

It’s not a coincidence that these plays came from roughly the same spot on the field. That tells you this is a spot they look to do this. That’s a tendency. If you’re Seattle preparing for the Super Bowl, you’re telling your players, “When they get in this area, this is an alert. We have to be aware of this play.”

The Broncos will run this play. And they’ll run it with the other two receivers in those tight splits. It’s a staple of what they do.

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NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Throughout the season, Cosell will join Shutdown Corner to share his observations on the teams, schemes and personnel from around the league.