Picture Pages: Bubble Screen Professor

Submitted by Brian on November 14th, 2008 at 11:31 AM

The bubble screen is a staple of the spread 'n' shred. It's tough to defend without committing a player that would otherwise be in the box to the slot receiver, and if you've got the right zippy dwarf running it it can break big.

Theoretically, it should be an easy throw, but it requires precise timing and location. If you're off by a couple feet on a longer ball you might take the receiver off his feet but you've still picked up eight, ten, fifteen yards. If you're errant on the bubble screen you'll slow the receiver and wreck the play. Or you could, like, throw it backwards and provide a free turnover to an opponent.

Since that last horrible example has actually occurred this year, this will be no surprise: Michigan's quarterbacks have been pretty iffy on them all year. However, Nick Sheridan had a couple beauties against Minnesota. Here's the purtiest:


Minnesota lines up in a 3-4 with a linebacker or safety sort lined up over Clemons. The outside coverage is offering eight-yard cushions; this is a pre-snap setup that looks perfect for the bubble. (It's markedly different than Illinois' approach.) Especially when…


…the guy covering the slot blitzes. Michigan gives the dive fake, then Sheridan pulls up for the bubble. Note the position of Clemons at the moment. He's four yards behind the line of scrimmage. He will give another yards as he searches for depth, then run forward to a designated spot.


Here Clemons has acquired the ball. You can see the setup downfield, with the outside receivers blocking the two defenders and a safety attempting to close it down from the outside. The key here is the timing of the pass and its location: Clemons catches this in stride, facing downfield.  There is no delay between the catch and run. This has not frequently been the case this year.


Excellent blocks from the two receivers and a not-quite-quick-enough reaction from the safety provide…


…a first down. Clemons will use his momentum to get ten more.

Here's the video:

Here's a similar play against a defense that's basically the same except the opposition defensive backs are offering less cushion:

In UFR I said this one "isn't as upfield as it should be," and you see Odoms has to turn his body upfield a bit to catch a ball slightly behind him. I think I overstated my criticism a little bit on review (review-review, actually); this one also sees Odoms catch the ball basically in stride.

A couple notes:

  • I can't find where I read this, but IIRC when you see Michigan give a handoff fake before the bubble screen, that's a read. When it's a presnap call they just throw it.
  • I'm not sure if different defensive alignments call for different sorts of throws and may be partly responsible for the QBs not throwing these "right" much of the year. But I kind of doubt it; even this well-timed bubble is caught four yards behind the LOS.
  • This is the kind of thing I thought we would be surprised we missed without Henne. (We all knew we'd miss, say, laser post passes to Adrian Arrington.)



November 14th, 2008 at 11:38 AM ^

I noticed that our QB is 6+ yards behind the LOS in shotgun. Most teams tend to be 4-5. Is this because most RB depths are at 6-7 and since we threaten with the QB run, the QB starts that deep as well? I don't recall if Pat White lined up this deep, but just curious if anyone else knows why.


November 14th, 2008 at 12:06 PM ^

6-7 yards is standard. I was watching Nevada play the a couple weeks ago and they pointed out how the Nevada coach uses a different shotgun formation by having the QB line up 4 yards off the ball instead of the typical 7.

Enjoy Life

November 14th, 2008 at 12:08 PM ^

Yup, most pass plays allow the receiver to adjust (making the QB look better than he really is). And, if the receiver has to adjust and catch the ball diving or twisting backwards, this is disastrous to the bubble. On other passes these adjustments don't negate the entire play.

This is also why the "west coast" offense can look brilliant or pathetic. It also depends on perfect timing to change a 2-3 yard pass into a 40 yard TD.


November 14th, 2008 at 11:54 AM ^

It's hard because he's running away from the QB and towards the sideline which means the QB has to face the side rather than up field, also it has to be out in front so that momentum isn't stopped. It isn't extremely hard in the sense that laser 20 yd outs are hard. It's hard because it takes so much timing and precision. Throw it too hard and it will rocket to the sideline, to soft and a DB reacts and blows someone up. I'm not saying this to be mean, but grab a buddy and try to throw it at full speed, it is harder than you think.

Enjoy Life

November 14th, 2008 at 12:03 PM ^

Wow, I've noticed most defenses against the spread have the safety sprinting toward the bubble screen almost immediately (long before the pass is thrown). This leaves single coverage on the WR. Fake the bubble and throw it deep!

The only adjustment is that the linemen would have to know this is going to be a pass downfield so they can NOT go downfield (as they often do with the bubble screen).

Even if the deep throw does not work, this should keep the safety "frozen" long enough (on future bubble screens) to break some big ones.


December 4th, 2010 at 8:22 PM ^

So I was googling 'Bubble Screen' to learn more for the purpose of coaching, and came across this thread...

+1 to you for suggesting that you fake the bubble and throw deep. This is exactly the adjustment UM has made with Denard this year. Amazing what happens when you have the right guys in there with a good amount of experience.

Clarence Beeks

November 14th, 2008 at 12:09 PM ^

This is another area that goes along with my previous post about the comparison between RR at West Virginia and at Michigan. The bubble screen requires receivers that are very good blockers. This is something that Michigan's receivers clearly have not done well in the past and continue to not do well this year (although they are getting better). WVU had a stable of receivers that had adequate speed and hands but could block like it was their job (because it was). As Michigan's receivers become better blockers (and the quarterbacks become more accurate) these plays will become even more effective.


November 14th, 2008 at 1:50 PM ^

I have to disagree about UM's receivers blocking in the past. Before the switch to zone blocking, our WRs were excellent blockers. Remember, w/ the exception of Mario, the only way freshmen WRs saw the field was to block on running plays. I am not familiar w/ RR's track record of this, so the jury is out on how quickly our WRs will become good blockers. I know I would feel better this year if Matthews was blocking on these bubbles more than Stonum.


November 14th, 2008 at 12:48 PM ^

"Here Clemons has acquired the ball."

Such computery/engineery geekery! Most people would say the ball was "caught", "recieved", or maybe simply Clemons "has the ball". Only in a computer jargony context does "acquired" make any kind of grammatical sense.

Also, the rules of football are very arcane but are these sets of the much vilified "covered" slot reciever variety that "wastes" the slot? Just wondering.


November 14th, 2008 at 12:53 PM ^

The two inside slot receivers are off the line of scrimmage. Therefore, they are eligible receivers and not wasted.

If one of those two were to take a step or two forward such that they are on the line of scrimmage, they would be wasted and Brian would get cranky (because it would have been a run instead).


November 14th, 2008 at 2:42 PM ^

You'd be 6-4 this year with quasi-competent play at QB. Instead, you've got a guy that couldn't hack it at GT (the guy he backed up is now second team at Louisiana Tech) and a walk-on.

That's famine and locust / Biblical level obstacles to success.


November 14th, 2008 at 3:25 PM ^

If they go man and the coaches still stick with the call, I think the dive hand-off is given. Sheridan could keep it too, that is assuming that the LB/S on Clemons doesn't blitz. If they still run the bubble with out the dive option, the QB needs to burn one into the turf in front of the receiver.