One of FSU’s most frequently used RPOs (“run pass option” where the play stays the same but a pre or post-snap read dictates whether it is a run or pass) involves the bubble screen. A bubble screen is a throw to a pass catcher lined up as a wide receiver behind the line of scrimmage. Other players lined up wide block as the pass catcher attempts to run. The goal of this play is to both give playmakers the ball in space but also to keep the defense from loading up against the run. So far, FSU has had limited success and a lot of misses off of bubble screens. This does not mean they should go away.
Run right, the RPO bubble screen works
Typically, FSU runs this play with the QB having the option to 1) throw to the wide receiver in the flat while the other two block, 2) hand off to the running back moving across the formation, or 3) keep the ball himself. Here the Va. Tech defenders lined up over option one are giving a lot of space to the wide receivers. The numbers aren’t great for the screen (3 defenders on three offensive players) but the cushion VT is giving makes this the right call. The play works too as Tre McKitty secures his block and the VT defenders in the middle of the field crash down to take away option “2” Cam Akers.
Options, Options, Options
The bubble screen is not always the bubble screen. During the often asinine in-game commentary, and even in the post-game emotions of a near disastrous loss, a failed bubble screen that loses a yard often gets heavily criticized. This fails to consider the times the play worked, not just as a screen but also the other big plays the screen game sets up and the fact that it will get even better as the offense gets better at making the right read out of the base formation.
The touchdown run by Francois against Samford was not a bubble screen but a slip route by the tight end. It still illustrates conceptually how option game with behind the line routes can open up the run. Here the three options are 1) slip route to the tight end, 2) hand off to the running back across the formation, or 3) keep for the QB. A lot of analysts have speculated this was a design keep for Francois, but again, it shows how the run + designed pass game opens up options and the offense.
Regardless of whether “1” and “2” were real options or just designed deceptions to throw off the defense, the play worked perfectly. Francois keeps the ball and runs for a touchdown. As the play develops you can clearly see how the play design pulls the defense to either side of the field leaving the middle wide open. This same play concept should open up options on bubble screen RPOs as Francois becomes more comfortable keeping the ball.
On Tamorrion Terry’s first quarter touchdown against, FSU lines up in its typical bubble screen formation. In this play, however, they do something completely different. Terry feigns like he is going to block before releasing down the sideline. Because Samford saw the normal version of this play so often against Virginia Tech, they bite hard on the screen and leave Terry open for a touchdown.
The entire run-pass-option game, of which the bubble screen RPO is a large part right now for FSU, is designed force the defense into bad decisions while giving the quarterback enough reads to find the option which will gain yards. It also opens up downfield options run out of the same formation. Clearly, when it works, the bubble screen RPO can set up huge plays. This decision isn’t always easy and the intricacies of blocking and reads will get better with more time in the system, emphasis by the coaches, and practice from the players.