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GREEN BAY - As first impressions go, the initial attempts by the Green Bay Packers to execute screen passes landed somewhere between disjointed and disastrous during an exhibition game last week. They ran two of them on consecutive plays in the second quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles, and the net results were a sack, an injury and a pass batted down at the line of scrimmage.
It was an unsightly start for a team that has weaponized the screen pass in recent years, especially when former Packers tailback James Starks spelled Eddie Lacy in the backfield. Starks, who was released in February after a car accident left him with a severe concussion, caught 43 passes for 392 yards and three touchdowns in 2015, the best season of his career.
“I think he was just so elusive, you know?” left guard Lane Taylor said. “You would think he would be an easy guy to tackle, but he was so slippery and able to bend and cut and make people miss. If you weren’t able to get a guy (blocked), he was able to move and make that guy miss.”
On paper, the Packers have three running backs with the requisite skills and experience to do damage on screen passes. Starter Ty Montgomery is a converted wide receiver known for his ability in the open field, and rookie draft picks Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones each caught more than 50 passes in their collegiate careers.
The challenge, then, is more choreographic than anything else: Young running backs learning to mesh with new offensive linemen and quarterbacks.
“It definitely takes a lot of reps for the running backs to finally get it,” Taylor said. “They can rep it all they want, but I feel like they don’t really get it until you get in that game, mess it up a couple times and then you’ll really have a feel for it.
“Because it’s not the same every time for a running back. There could be a blitz or it could be a stunt at the line, so you have to get out different. So if you have to get out a different way and it takes longer, you’ve got to speed it up or slow it down. They’ll eventually get it.”
Against the Eagles, coach Mike McCarthy waited until late in the second quarter to call his first screen passes of the 2017 season. He had Brett Hundley at quarterback and Jones, the fifth-round pick from UTEP, at running back. Up front, the second-string offensive line consisted of Jason Spriggs (LT), Lucas Patrick (LG), Don Barclay (C), Justin McCray (RG) and Kyle Murphy (RT).
On first and 10 from his own 35-yard line, Hundley dropped back and looked for Jones moving right to left across the field. Instead, Hundley saw three rushers in his face and nowhere to go with the football. Murphy and Spriggs had both been beaten, and poor timing along the interior of the line allowed a third rusher to break free early.
Hundley tried to escape and wound up tripping over Spriggs’ foot, settling for a 12-yard loss. Up ahead, Barclay suffered an ankle injury that ended his night and left him in a boot.
McCarthy dialed up another screen on the very next play, flipping the call to the opposite side of the field. This time — with Patrick sliding to center and rookie Kofi Amichia filling in at guard — Hundley’s pass toward Jones was batted down at the line of scrimmage after defensive end Steven Means turned the corner on Murphy to disrupt the play.
“I think it comes with experience,” Hundley said. “I think you sort of get a gist and a feel for how things time up. Because on screens, timing is a huge part of it. For the young guys, when they’re not used to sort of the timing that we have, I think for them it’s a big opportunity to sort of get in there during practice and sort of get a couple reps at it.”
Said Jones: “You have to have a two-count clock in your head, because the quarterback is going to be pressured. … You have to play it smart: If the linebacker has you in man (coverage), it’s kind of like hmm, what do I do? But usually you sit there and wait until the first offensive lineman gets out, so if (the linebacker) does have you in man coverage, (a lineman) is there to block him. You catch it, you turn it up and then get behind the other offensive linemen.”
Of course, there is something to be said for calling screens with the second-string offensive line rather than Taylor and the starters. Barclay, the elder statesman, had rookies and second-year players flanking him on either side, whereas the first-team line consists of veterans whose chemistry is a product of years rather than months or weeks.
The exception is right guard Jahri Evans, who joined the Packers as an undrafted free agent during the offseason to replace the departed T.J. Lang. As with any newcomer, Evans has spent the early portion of training camp learning the idiosyncrasies of his fellow linemen and quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“There’s always adjustment with every new person,” Taylor said, “just because I think everyone kind of runs them a little different. I don’t think it’s a standard deal from team to team. Just have to fill them in on it, how we run them.”
Ironically, the Packers have been lethal with some of their screen passes in practice, especially behind the first-string line. Montgomery and Williams, who have taken the majority of reps with the starters, have gobbled up yards in chunks to the point where McCarthy hurled epithets at the defense earlier in camp.
“I feel like we’ve hit a bunch of good screens in practice,” center Corey Linsley said. “I can think of one or two that maybe there was a little bit of miscommunication on, but honestly in terms of things we have to work on, I really don’t feel like that’s been an area that we’ve had to focus on.”
The next step is carrying that production into games.
“When we get to the Rams game (on Aug. 31), I guarantee we’ll throw some screens and you’ll be like, ‘Oh, that looks like how it should,’” Taylor said. “It’s really a feel thing. You really have to mess it up a few times to really figure out how to do it.”