FOXBORO -- During the second quarter of a one-score game Sunday. Tom Brady has the Patriots line up in twins left but motions Philip Dorsett back toward the wide side, breaking twins and leaving Brandin Cooks isolated one-on-one with the corner. At the snap, Cooks takes two steps up the field before sharply driving back to his original starting point. Left tackle Nate Solder bluffs as if he’s going to block inside before peeling back to get in front of a wide receiver screen the Pats have run hundreds of times over the years. Only this time Brady’s throw is low and off the mark, forcing Cooks to go down and get it. At the same time, Solder and Joe Thuney, who’s also out in space, both whiff on their blocks. Cooks can’t even get to the line of scrimmage. It goes down as a loss of two.
The Pats would go back to the screen game in the third quarter. This time Brady operates out of shotgun, with Rex Burkhead as the single back. Burkhead is the target, but he gets hung up with defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, which is to say Phillips got away with a quick but effective hold. Meanwhile, the action of the play fools no one in the Dolphins’ front 7. Thuney is unable to maneuver past Phillips and never ahead of the play. Center Ted Karras takes a shot at Kiko Alonso but fails to get even the smallest piece of the linebacker. Burkhead gains just two yards.
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Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would go to the well one more time, dialing up a double screen late in that same quarter. It came out of a trips right formation, with Brady initially pumping toward one of those three receivers, Dorsett. He then wheeled back to his left to hit Dion Lewis. Karras once again took his best shot and missed - this time it was Lawrence Timmons - ending up flat on his face. Lewis still managed to gain 4 yards, however, there was one of those pesky yellow flags on the field. Cooks was nailed for offensive pass interference as he tried to block before the pass was in the air. That negated what few positive yards there were.
Welcome to the 2017 Patriots screen game, which is providing little to no value - at least in Bill Belichick’s eyes.
“Our screen game hasn't been as productive as we need it to be,” he said during Tuesday’s conference call. “We need to, obviously, coach it better and execute it better. We're not getting enough out of it. It's disappointing.”
But, I reasoned on the call with him, couldn’t these plays still have a positive influence on the overall game, slowing down a quarterback thirsty defense like the one the Pats just faced in Miami and will again this weekend in Buffalo?
“I don't know. Based on what we're gaining on them, they should be happy every time we run one,” he deadpanned.
So why go there if the execution continues to be poor? McDaniels sees more benefit in the calls than his boss.
"Obviously you're trying to counter teams' aggressiveness,” said McDaniels. “You know, there's a lot of good defensive linemen in this league, a lot of good pass rushers, so if you can create a couple big plays on some screens, it's not going to stop them from rushing, but it may make them think about rushing a little bit more under control at times. They know you have the play, they know you have the scheme, and they have to defend against that. I think there is some value – there's a lot of value in a lot of things you do, even though maybe necessarily each play isn't a huge play itself. The other team has to spend time on it.”
But after the Raiders held the Pats to 7 yards on 3 screens, and the Fins put Brady and company in the loss category, it would seem to be more of a wasted play than McDaniels would admit. What’s odd about it is the amount of time to Pats spend working on this discipline. They also have the personnel to do it quite well. But sometimes what’s on paper doesn’t translate on the field for one reason or another, which leads me back to Belichick.
“We've run a lot of different types of screens – receivers, backs, tight ends, quick screens, slower screens,” he said. “We're just not doing a good job. I've got to do a better job of coaching them and we've got to do a better job of executing them. It's as simple as that.”