Aaron Rodgers, Mike McCarthy, and the Philosophy of the Bubble Screen

On Friday we broke down a bubble screen play from Seattle, and the thinking that went into calling the play, but when I was going through a couple of Aaron Rodger’s games against Seattle and couldn’t help but notice the interesting way that the Packers receivers were running the bubble route from the slot.

The coaching points on this route vary wildly across the football world, with some teams preferring to eschew the bubble route all together and instead either throw a short seam route that gets the receiver vertical right away, or simply have the receiver turn and face the passer, presenting a large stationary target for an easier throw.

Even Chip Kelly has several different ways to run the bubble screen, one of which we covered in-depth recently.

As you study the different philosophies, you begin to understand that people who ask what the “best” way to do something is are missing the point. There are lots of effective ways to move the football down the field, and when trying to determine what’s best for your team, it’s very possible there could be more than a single “correct” answer.

As it stands, Mike McCarthy has his own way to get the football to the uncovered receiver, and it happens to fit in well with their no-huddle philosophy, especially when the offense is running at a high-tempo.

The Bubble

Different coaches teach different techniques when running the bubble, and some choose to eschew the route altogether in favor of a seam route or a quick hitch or “smoke” route.

Take this first example. It’s the typical bubble route, widening out to about the original alignment of the outside receiver. Once the slot man catches the ball, he’s going to try to get the edge on the defense to cut up the sideline. This route times up better when the quarterback is carrying out some kind of fake in the backfield, or at least the backfield motion when a run play is called.

Here’s the Packers’ preferred method of the bubble route. It’s a lot shorter, and the ball comes out a lot quicker. Like a lot of other things in this offense, the exact width and technique is based off of timing, and when Rodgers sees an open man, like the play we’re going to talk about in a moment, he gets the football to his man as quickly as possible.

The differences in opinion usually come down to a mixture of personal preference, familiarity with a specific technique, or some coaches may change it from year to year depending on what their players are more comfortable with.

Some teams like to run the bubble path very wide, to the point where the receiver should catch the football once he gets near the bottom of the numbers (if he starts from the slot position). Others prefer to cut down the path of the receiver for the purposes of timing up the pass, since (in Green Bay’s case for example) the quarterback excels in getting the football out in a hurry.

The are advantages and disadvantages to both, and the play below is a great example of that.

The Mike McCarthy Technique

In this scenario the Packers are lining up in a hurry, and they have a zone run called from the gun, with a bubble route attached onto the backside of the play. It’s 2nd & 2 after a good pickup on 1st down, and Green Bay is hoping to parlay that into a quick 1st down conversion and keep the drive moving along smoothly.

As Rodgers surveys the look of the defense before the snap, the lack of a defender anywhere near the slot receiver sets off all kinds of alarms in his head, so when he takes the snap, the decision is already made for him.

The ball is snapped to Rodgers and he gets rid of it in less than a second. This is a big reason why the route is so short, since in order to be ready for the football, the receiver can’t spend too much time widening out on his route and having his head turned away from the quarterback.

Notice the recognition by Kam Chancellor, the near safety to the slot side. The ball hasn’t even been caught yet, and already he’s heading on an angle to take away the outside catch-and-run by the receiver.

Once the slot receiver #86 Greg Jennings catches the football and looks to turn upfield, he’s already got Chancellor bearing down on him, and he forces him to shuffle, losing any momentum he had built up running the route, and giving time for the rest of the defense to sprint to the ball and hold him to almost no gain.

This was a great play by a very smart and skilled defender. Lining up in the secondary and recognizing that the slot receiver was uncovered, one of his first thoughts was to watch for any kind of quick throw to the slot receiver, bubble or otherwise. Once his suspicions were confirmed, he wasted no time in getting to the football.

As for Jennings, this play illustrates both the pros and cons of running the bubble route in this way.

The good thing is that by cutting down the length of the route, Rodgers is able to get the football out in a hurry on the edge, which is a good thing for Green Bay. The drawback for Green Bay is that when you’re not expanding vertically as far as other teams do on the bubble route, you make it that much easier for a skilled defender like Chancellor to get an angle on the route and force the receiver back to the inside once he catches the football.

Even the best-designed plays have weaknesses that can be exploited with the right mix of talent and preparation, and the best lesson you can learn as a coach is that even when you have a really good reason for doing something, and even if you execute it to near perfection, it can still fail. That’s when plan B comes in, and you find out just how good of a coach you are.

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