Wide receiver screens are generally a bad idea. This is true of most passes that get thrown behind the line of scrimmage, but wide receiver screens need a lot of moving pieces to work together and that happens less often than you’d expect. In 2019, wide receiver screens averaged -0.05 EPA per play with a 43.2% positive play rate (percentage of plays with positive EPA), per Sports Info Solutions. In 2020, the EPA per play was up to the plus side, 0.04, but the positive play rate was nearly identical at 43.9%.
This was not the case for the two teams set to square off in the Super Bowl. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs had the two highest positive play rates on wide receiver screens. Those two teams were first (Chiefs) and second (Buccaneers) and two of three teams, along with the Green Bay Packers, to be over 60%.
The Packers worked to create that positive play rate by putting themselves in a position to guess correctly — 84.8% of their wide receiver screens came as the pass option in an RPO, per SIS. That rate was 43% for the Buccaneers and 47.8% for the Chiefs.
Overall, wide receiver screens were a much bigger part of the Tampa Bay offense since the Buccaneers (orange) ranked fourth in attempts while the Chiefs (yellow) ranked just 20th.
It should also be no surprise that the Chiefs and Buccaneers were first and second in EPA per play on these screens. Among all wide receiver screens, the Chiefs and Buccaneers accounted for 8% of the league-wide attempts and 65.4% of the EPA.
Wide Receiver Screens, 2020
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Throughout the season, the Buccaneers have used wide receiver screens on the outside on RPO’s when they feel like a slot blitz could be coming. Tampa Bay’s first defense against this is alignment. For these screens, the Buccaneers often stack two receivers to the outside. Against a slot blitz, that pushes the rushing defensive back further away from the middle of the field.
Against the Carolina Panthers, the Buccaneers ran this on a third-and-1 near midfield. Chris Godwin and Mike Evans were stacked to the left of the formation. The Panthers sent a defensive back blitz from that side and it left a 2-on-2 matchup against the outside corner and a charging safety. Godwin was the target as Evans blocked the safety and Godwin was able to run through an attempted arm tackle to free space for a gain of 31 yards.
There was similar anticipation against the Los Angeles Rams on a first-and-10 in Week 11. This time, Godwin and Antonio Brown were stacked to the left. With a slot blitz and the two other defenders at least eight yards beyond the line of scrimmage, there was a ton of space for Brown once he caught the ball and Godwin had time to block the outside corner for a gain of 10.
Tampa Bay has also been able to use its vertical threat to set up space on these screens. On a second-and-1 against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 15, the Buccaneers used another stacked alignment out to the left with Evans and Brown. The Falcons countered with one defensive back up to press Evans and the other deep on that side. Tom Brady will see that pre-snap and take the free yards every time. Evans was able to easily block his defender and Brown had room for a 13-yard gain.
The Bucs have also used a few variations on tunnel screens out wide that have evolved into the playoffs. This screen from the same Falcons game featured a motion into empty and another throw into a slot blitz. In the opposite strategy of the first screen in this article, Tampa Bay motioned Brown closer to the formation to invite that defender and create more room on the outside. That blitz helped Brown pick off the cornerback across from Godwin with Rob Gronkowski sent out as another blocker as the screen went for 13 yards on a second-and-9.
In the NFC Championship Game, the Buccaneers took that screen a step further. Godwin and Tyler Johnson were stacked tight to the right. Instead of a short motion that only put Godwin behind Johnson, the receiver came all the way into the formation, which allowed for a wall of Johnson, Gronkwoksi, and multiple offensive linemen to get out in front of the play. The screen gained 14 yards on a third-and-13.
What makes this interesting for the upcoming Super Bowl matchup is that the Chiefs had the 10th-lowest positive play rate allowed as a defense on wide receiver screens during the season at just 35%. But Kansas City is also one of the most aggressive blitzing teams in the league, especially with defensive backs, so the Buccaneers could take advantage of a well-timed call.
While the Chiefs didn’t use wide receiver screens all that often, the Buccaneers’ defense ranked 31st in positive play rate allowed at 59%. Kansas City was the only team to score multiple touchdowns on wide receiver screens during the regular season, but those came from two and six yards out. The Chiefs also had a screen against the Bills go for a touchdown in the AFC Championship Game, the 3-yard pass to Mecole Hardman.
Both of these teams struggled with running back screens in 2020. The Chiefs favored screens to backs over receivers 27-23, but Kansas City averaged -0.1 EPA per play with a 40.7% positive play rate, which ranked 19th, on running back screens, per SIS. The Buccaneers were one of the league’s worst running back screen teams, -0.59 EPA per play with a 19.2% positive play rate on 26 attempts.
This, though, is where the Chiefs struggled on defense. Kansas City ranked 28th in positive play rate allowed on running back screens (59%). On the other side, the Buccaneers were one of the league’s best defenses in containing those plays with the fourth-lowest positive play rate allowed (29%).
Both of these teams can win vertically and those big plays have carried the offenses. But the screen game has also been an effective part of these offenses and that could make an impact in Super Bowl LV.