When John Priestap watches the Patriots play, he sees a part of the New England passing game that makes him nostalgic.
Priestap was a college teammate of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels at John Carroll University. He and McDaniels played wide receiver for the Division 3 school just outside of Cleveland in 1997 and '98. A favorite ploy of John Carroll, whose quarterback at the time was Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio, was to get the ball in the hands of McDaniels or Priestap with screen passes.
"Their wide receiver screen game is very similar in its most simple form to what we had at John Carroll," said Priestap, who now coaches high school football in Michigan.
It makes sense that McDaniels as a former college receiver would turn to the wide receiver screen - a play that gets the ball into the hands of a receiver quickly with blockers in front - as a play-caller. In this Tom Brady-less season, the play has become a staple of the Patriots' attack, initially serving as a quick, easy read for Matt Cassel, but evolving into a call the team has come to count on and opposing defenses have to account for.
When the Patriots rallied for a season-saving win in Seattle two weeks ago with Sammy Morris scoring the winning touchdown on fourth and goal from the 1 with 2:44 remaining, it was a 25-yard wide receiver screen to Wes Welker that gave New England a first down at the 6.
"We've ran so many of them this year," said left guard Logan Mankins. "I never thought we would run that many wide receiver screens, ever. It's been a big play for us all year. When we've needed plays, it's worked. It's been a really good, productive play."
The team's yards after catch (or YAC) numbers speak to the play's success. Entering today's game against the Cardinals, the Patriots have 3,369 yards passing, not including yards lost to sacks. According to Stats Inc., 1,845 have come after the catch. That percentage of YAC yardage (54.8) is the highest in the NFL. The Titans are next at 51.6 percent.
Welker, the most oft-targeted player on the wide receiver screen, leads the NFL in YAC with 689 yards, 94 more than Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin, who is second.
"Wes seems to get more of them than some of the other guys, but Randy [Moss has] run them, Sam Aiken has run them, [Jabar] Gaffney has run them, Kevin [Faulk] ran one [against Seattle]," said McDaniels, one of the league's most coveted and creative coaches. "We do use a lot of different people in that role, and we try to get the ball out there to the guys that we feel like can run."
McDaniels may have been influenced by his time at John Carroll, but he said the wide receiver screens the Patriots run, while similar in concept, are not the same ones he ran in college. The Patriots have several variations of the play and might not run the same wide receiver screen twice in the same game.
"In general, it's a good way to get the ball to your skill players with blockers in front of them and try to give them some space to run," said McDaniels. "The passing game is built around beating man coverage, getting open, reading the difference between zone and man, and pass protection in general. So, whenever you call a screen, I don't want to say you're taking pressure off in those areas, but in some ways you are.
"You don't have to pass block them as long. You don't have to run routes against man coverage and get open as much. There is just a little bit of a changeup for the defense."
While the play may look simple, it is really a harmony of precision between the offensive line, quarterback, and receiver.
The quarterback has to release the ball accurately and on time. If the ball is thrown late, the linemen will be penalized for being downfield too early or the defense might have time to catch up to the receiver. If the offensive linemen release to block downfield too quickly, they can tip off the defense. If the receiver can't read and set up his blocks, the play is doomed.
"It's not as easy as it may seem," said McDaniels. "Sometimes it works, and it looks really pretty because the ball is out quick; he's got it in his hands; you get a really good kick-out block or what have you; and now he's up inside. Now, it looks like a little guy with a bunch of big guys running in space, which is really kind of what we hope for. But there are a lot of little things that go into that."
Further complicating the screen game at the NFL level is that the rules are different from college football, where the play is easier to execute. In college, if the pass is not going beyond the line of scrimmage the linemen can block downfield before the ball is released. In the NFL, linemen can't block downfield before the ball leaves the passer's hand.
To try to avoid a 5-yard penalty for having an ineligible man downfield, the Patriots are adamant about their lineman coming laterally down the line of scrimmage at the start of a wide receiver screen.
"It's definitely a little change," said Welker, who ran the wide receiver screen in college at Texas Tech under coach Mike Leach. "You have to push the envelope and get them as close to the line without crossing and then you come off the blocks and try to make a play."
McDaniels said timing is a huge issue, which is why the team invests a great deal of time working on it in practice, dating to spring camps and training camp.
What happens if the timing is off?
"You lose yards," said Mankins, who said that if left tackle Matt Light can't get out in front before the cornerback shows up, the play usually doesn't work.
The success of the play is really a credit to the agility of the Patriots' offensive line. Players such as Light and Mankins on the left side and guard Stephen Neal and tackle Nick Kaczur on the right side are athletic enough to get out in space and make blocks.
The first block usually falls to the tackle.
"They're really a huge part of the screen game because if they don't get out there in time to make the first block, then all the rest of them don't really matter," said McDaniels. "They do a good job of getting out there."
McDaniels acknowledged that the wide receiver screen has been a bigger part of the Patriots' attack this season than he had planned in the absence of Brady.
"There are probably things like that every year," said McDaniels. "Maybe you didn't assume that you'd run as much empty [backfield]; maybe you didn't assume that you'd run as many draws.
"I don't even know the exact number [of wide receiver screens] that we've run, but we've been a big screen team in the past. I think maybe we're doing it a little bit more to the outside . . . It's definitely something that has been effective, and I think the more that you do something and it works for you, the more you want to do it in the future."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.