Coaches Box: Blowing Up the Bubble


In this weekly piece, we will look at some of the decision making, scheming and execution of note from the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL contests.

Week 1 of the 2016 season was an opportunity for Jacksonville to show that they are not the same mediocre squad that has failed to develop under Head Coach Gus Bradley in recent years. With a huge off-season and what presents a greatly improved roster, between the lines every Sunday is where the Jaguars could prove this, starting with Green Bay at home in Week 1.

In this instalment, we consider ‘that’ play call.

4th & 1. Final chance to keep the go ahead drive alive. After 4 previous 4th down conversions, there remains confidence. The ball is snapped, Bortles opens and delivers the quick bubble screen to Allen Hurns, who is quickly met by an aggressive Packers defense. Hurns is unable to break the tackles and is wrapped up short of the line to gain. Game Over.

Within seconds of this, the Jaguars fan-base and media were quick to jump on Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson’s play call, ridiculing the decision to call the Bubble Screen. It is that classic case of if he makes it, nobody questions the play call. Something that Russell Wilson, Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks know well (albeit in a higher stakes game).

There was no play call blame coming from the Jaguars camp, Allen Hurns noting “I just have to find a way. When it comes down to it, they executed well and I have to try harder to get the first down…Fourth and one, I have to finish it. Fourth and one, you have to find a way.”

From a coach’s perspective, I can see exactly what the Jaguars saw in looking at the high percentage option to gain a couple of yards. I certainly favour this as an option to the low percentage jump ball that many teams adopt just shy of the goal line (yes, even with #15 on the team).

So what went wrong and what other options were there?

"…a simple wrinkle adjustment to this very Bubble Screen look could have delivered not only a first down, but the game-winning touchdown. L"

See Image 1 here. The pre-snap look. The play call is predicated on Robinson blocking the most dangerous man. This could be the outside or inside defender, but in this case, on alignment, it is the #2 defender, the nickel corner (Hyde) here who is his responsibility. This then aims for Hurns to make the catch and either get to the sticks at contact, or make the defender miss.

You will see at Image 2 that Robinson has taken his angle to the nickel and Hurns has opened his hips on his bubble route. The cornerback (Randall) reads this and begins to attack. At this point you are hoping Hurns can catch and maintain momentum to get the line to gain at contact, or that the aggressive downhill defender will overpursue and not break down to complete the tackle. What happens next is that Bortles pass is not ideally positioned, Hurns having to pause to catch rather than keep on his track. This time is crucial in determining how he can approach the corner who has approached, Hurns having him in his face by the time he assumes position.

In Image 3 You can see that Robinson has not handled his nickel corner as is needed, meaning that Hurns’ space is further compromised. With no room to work, the green jerseys quickly swarm.

Image 4 here shows the pre-snap defensive setup. It is clear that this is a Cover Zero, with man on man on the outside and the safeties attacking inside the box to fill against the run and ensure 8 defenders on the front. What it also reflects is the space that warranted attacking, the very space that these rushing safeties abandoned in reading downhill for the run and flowing to the screen.

How to attack this space?  At the time and upon film review to follow, with the #1 and #2 defenders aligned as they were and the safety alignment, it was clear that a simple wrinkle adjustment to this very Bubble Screen look could have delivered not only a first down, but the game-winning touchdown. Let me introduce you to the Bubble Slant.

With almost an identical approach, the Bubble Slant (Image 5) would have Hurns complete the same Bubble action. This route and some shoulder and eye influence from Bortles would likely see the cornerback drive up as he did on the play and the #2 defender in the nickel open his hips and shoulders to pursue the Bubble. The difference in the play of course, that Robinson, after an initial couple of steps to mimic the crack screen block, instead releases on his slant past the nickel defender into the vacant hook to curl area and with an unimpeded path to the endzone.

Revisionist play calling it might be, but then again so is criticizing a play call because it didn’t succeed. At least through this deconstruction, we have the chance to review how it played out and look at what and how, the offensive coaching staff may look to break down, critique and review the play in the days that followed.