Veteran James White’s ability to help the Patriots profit from boom-or-bust screen plays may very well prove invaluable over the next two weeks.
By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub
This Sunday should Josh McDaniels peek at his sideline menu and, seeking to slow down one of the NFL’s fiercest pass rushes, pick one of the assortment of screens listed on his laminated call sheet, he’ll understand that the play about to unfold offers no middle ground.
“Screens, I think, have always been and will always be kind of hit or miss,” McDaniels, the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, summarized last November.
Or, as running back James White puts it: “A screen can be either really good, or it can be really bad.”
At best, the worst result is an incompletion. With the Patriots, that often involves Tom Brady intentionally and disgustedly turfing the ball at the feet of a back or lineman, simply to avoid a loss.
But when they ‘hit’ on one, it often looks like the late first-half score in their second game of the preseason. And as in that case, it figures to feature Brady passing to White as part of a well-disguised and perfectly-timed sequence.
The two of them were among the New England starters still on offense in the final minute of the Aug. 16 encounter with the Eagles. Minutes earlier, on their previous possession, the Pats enjoyed a ‘really good’ gain of 23 yards on a Brady-to-Cordarrelle Patterson screen. Initially appearing as a run right, it evolved into a throwback left to set up an eventual field goal.
Now in search of more — six, not three — and situated at Philadelphia’s 20-yard line, McDaniels opted for another screen, calling White’s number.
Lined up left of Brady, White reacted off the snap by stepping up as if to help block Eagles right end Steven Means, as Patriots tackles Trent Brown and LaAdrian Waddle dropped back into deep pass sets. Meanwhile, the interior trio of guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason and center David Andrews uniformly paused a beat …before hustling downfield.
Impeccably on cue, White pivoted to open himself up to his quarterback and caught the ball, quickly flicked from Brady to his spot on the 24-yard line. As he slightly stutter-stepped forward, White saw Andrews dive to cut a defender at the 16-yard line while Mason walled off another at the 13. Pursued from behind by three more Eagles, White accelerated as he veered across the hash marks and past the 10, 5 and goal line.
Not just a hit, but a home run. Touchdown, Patriots.
Afterwards, having cleaned up and changed clothes, Brady singled out that play as he showered White with praise from the podium at his postgame press conference.
“I don’t think you could ask any more of a teammate than what James provides us and the trust that everyone has in him. I mean, I feel like he never makes a mistake, and it’s pretty amazing to have that,” Brady gushed. “What an incredible play he made on the screen play, amongst many other great plays, and I love playing with him.”
White wasn’t alone in making it work so well.
“The screen is a team play, so there’s a lot of people involved with the screen,” head coach Bill Belichick said several days later. “Obviously, it’s a deceptive play. There’s some acting in it, trying to make it look like one thing when it’s really something else. That’s the quarterback, it’s the line, it’s the receivers, it’s the screen back.
“You want to try to, again, make the defense think it’s one thing when it’s something else. No one guy can do that. If one guy doesn’t do it then a lot of times a defender will read that and even though the other ten guys could be doing it well, if one guy doesn’t then you’ve got a bad play.”
Some screens are conceived to counter a defense eager to get upfield and slow down the type of explosive pass rushers the Patriots face from Houston and Jacksonville the first two weeks of this season. Successful ones like the White score vs. Philly start with the sell. Getting opponents to buy requires everyone on offense to partake in the pitch.
“We work really hard on that because there’s really no telling how a screen play is going to unfold,” said Andrews. “You don’t know. You plan for it but at the end of the day there’s no way to know how (defenders) will react.”
“Being on the same page and not making it look like a screen,” says White. “I think that’s the most important thing.”
Receivers must carry out their routes to clear space underneath, yet not begin to block too soon so as to tip off what’s coming. Nor can Brady turn his eyes toward his back until the right time, when everyone — defenders included — is in the right place.
Once the runner-receiver has the ball, he too must exercise patience.
“You’ve got to make it look it’s a normal pass and help set [your blockers] up, let them get out and get their hands on those defenders,” White explains. “Offensive linemen are not going to be able to move as fast the runner is, so you’ve got to help set them up, especially when they’re blocking smaller [defensive backs] because it’s easy for those guys to make offensive linemen miss in space.”
Andrews and Mason will tell you that all the Pats’ backs are adept at this art.
Certainly, we saw Rex Burkhead be effective on screens at times in 2017. In the famed “On To Cincinnati” game in Week 5 of 2014, his once-and-again teammate Jeremy Hill covered 38 yards of Gillette Stadium turf off a screen from Jason Campbell. And when healthy, as he showed in college at Georgia, newcomer Sony Michel should be a threat to turn those short throws into long gains.
But as good as the others are and can be, none has done it as well or as often in New England than White. He apprenticed behind Shane Vereen as a rookie five seasons ago. White has since shined carrying the ball and baton as passed on from Vereen and such predecessors as Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead.
“James does a great job, makes us look a lot better than we are,” said Andrews.
“James is a special runner,” adds Mason. “We know what our job is on the screen, but a lot of the time he makes us right.”
You can hear Bob Socci on the call of the game on every game day for the New England Patriots, right here on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can also hear him on his own The Gridiron And Beyond podcast at 985TheSportsHub.com.