Lions taking time to perfect their screens

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- In Reggie Bush's first career game with the Detroit Lions, one play stands out more than most. It’s a play he often seems to excel in: The screen.

Bush in the opening game last season took a sliver of an opening created by Detroit’s offensive line on a screen 77 yards for a touchdown, signifying Detroit’s screen game might be a bit improved with its new running back.

It stayed that way the entire season.

“Let me tell you what makes a good screen game. The guys carrying the ball. Let’s be real, now,” offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn said. “We became a better screen game a couple years ago when Reggie Bush and Joique Bell started touching the ball and now Theo Riddick and Mikel Leshoure and now the receivers that we have.

“That’s really what makes you have a good screen game.”

According to Pro Football Focus, no Lions player graded negatively on screen blocking last season. Five players -- center Dominic Raiola, left guard Rob Sims, right guard Larry Warford and wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Kris Durham – had season grades at plus-1 or higher, including a plus-4 rating for Raiola.

The Lions ran screens 67 times last season according to ESPN Stats & Information, completing 52 of those passes. While the 77.6 completion percentage isn’t great, Detroit gained 525 yards on screens last season, good enough for third in the NFL.

The Lions averaged 7.84 yards per screen and scored three touchdowns using them last season. The yards per screen, total yards, attempts, passer rating and touchdowns were all Top 5 in the league last season.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford's screen numbers would have been higher, too, except the Lions led the league with five dropped screens and were the only team to fumble twice on screen passes, losing one.

Last season’s overall success, though, is part of the reason why the Lions appear unconcerned about the team’s screens this preseason. While the Lions had a perfectly set up screen go for 36 yards with Riddick against Oakland, there have been other screens that have been blown up pretty easily.

Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said he didn’t have enough data to dissect Detroit’s screens yet or any concern about them yet -- it is the preseason -- but he was trying to run some different screens than what the Lions and Saints did last season. He is happy with the backs Detroit has running the screens and the linemen he has up front as well.

The screen is a boom-or-bust play and takes timing among the linemen, backs and quarterback, so perfecting the screen takes more time than most other offensive plays.

“It’s nothing we’re pulling our hair out about or having a crisis about,” right tackle Corey Hilliard said. “But we are working on it.”

There are simply a lot of moving linemen up the field and players syncing up, so it takes time. The offensive linemen have to figure out how to release on the defensive linemen and learn their aiming points to set up the blocks and the hole on each screen. Then there is timing it with the pass and the running back’s cut.

Instead of merely pass protection or opening a rushing lane for the back, there is precision from all 11 players. The Lions calling them at all in the preseason has been a help.

“The way we coach it, it’s like an odd-man rush in hockey,” Washburn said. “It’s not going to look the same any time and it’s one man knowing what the next man’s job is and it’s also knowing what the concept of the screen is and also what the concept of the defense is.

“Yeah, screens take reps. You just have to rep them. It’s awesome that we’ve been calling screens in preseason. Whether they’ve been pretty or not, there are coaching points on each one that we can use once we get to the season.”

Once Detroit reaches the season-opener against the New York Giants, it figures to have its screen game worked out much like the Lions did in last season’s opener.

While the coordinator has changed, Washburn remains. He is coaching screens to the linemen the same as last season. Once they have all the steps and alignments down, then it goes to what linemen like to do best -- hit and block.

“We just have to outhustle them,” Raiola said. “For screens, once you get it started, then it turns into a match of wills and hustle and finishing the play.”