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Golden Tate, bubble screens, and the 'constraint theory' of offense

Joe Nicholson-US PRESSWIRE

I was going back and reading through the archives of Chris Brown's Smart Football blog this week and ran across an article called Why Every Team Should Apply the Constraint Theory of Offense. As I read through it, it kind of struck me how much the Seahawks take the 'constraint theory' and apply it to their offense, particularly, it seems, over the past few games.

Essentially, constraint plays are those that exist on your playsheet outside of your base, core group of plays. The Seahawks' base offense is, at its core, a wide-zone/tight-zone run game with rather basic shot pass plays and a few essential intermediate WCO-style route concepts meant to move the chains. I read Greg Cosell's weekly film notes over at, and I don't think a week goes by without Cosell noting that the Seahawks pass game 'remains very limited regarding concepts and route combinations.'

Without complexity to hang your hat on, that's where the 'constraint plays' come into play. As Chris Brown explains:

"Constraint plays ... work on defenders who cheat. For example, the safety might get tired of watching you break big runs up the middle, so he begins to cheat up. Now you call play-action and make him pay for his impatience. The outside linebackers cheat in for the same reason; to stop the run. Now you throw the bubble screen, run the bootleg passes to the flat, and make them pay for their impatience. Now the defensive ends begin rushing hard upfield; you trap, draw, and screen them to make them pay for getting out of position. If that defensive end played honest your tackle could block him; if he flies upfield he cannot. Constraint plays make them get back to basics. Once they get back to playing honest football, you go back to the whiteboard and beat them with your bread and butter."

The read option, the lead draw, the bubble screen, the bootleg, the screen. These are all 'gimmicks' the Seahawks have been using in a ratcheted-up frequency of late as the playbook opens for Russell WIlson and as the offense begins to execute better, and in my opinion, seem to function as their constraint plays once teams gear up to stop Lynch or pressure Russell Wilson.

More from Brown:

"In a given game your offense might look like it is all "constraint" plays: all gimmicks, screens, traps, draws, fakes and the like. Maybe so, if that's what the defense deserves. But you can't lose sight of the structure of your offense. Just because the bubbles, the flares, the fakes, and other gimmicks are your best offense for a couple of weeks doesn't mean that it will be there. Indeed, the best defense against that kind of stuff is simply a sound one. Thus great offenses must be structure around sound, time tested core ideas, but have the flexibility to go to the "constraint plays" whenever the opportunity exists. Too often, the constraint plays are alternatively given too much and not enough weight. But they nevertheless are what make an offense go."

The Seahawks' offense has begun to become much more effective and efficient and the motor that drives that effectiveness is Marshawn Lynch. The 'sound, time-tested, core idea' is that running the ball is the main part of the Seahawks' offensive identity. Most of the Seahawks' constraint plays are designed to run off of the threat of Marshawn Lynch, so without that core identity, teams wouldn't load up the box, bite on play-action, fly downhill to stop the run, and find themselves susceptible to shot plays, bubbles, bootlegs, draws, etc. What's nice for Seattle is that the offense is beginning to put things all together - the core group of runs and the constraint plays to keep defenses on their heels.

"...A good offense must", per Brown: "(a) find those one or two things on which it will hang its hat on to beat any "honest" defense - think of core pass plays, options, and so on, but also (b) get good at all those little "constraint" plays which keep the defense playing honest. You won't win any championships simply throwing the bubble screen, but the bubble will help keep you from losing games when the defense wants to crush your run game. Same goes for draws and screens if you're a passing team. You find ways to do what you want and put your players in position to win and score."

The bubble screen, along with the read-option - two 'college' style plays - have begun to be what I see as the Seahawks two 'go-to' constraint plays over the last few games (though, as co-writer Thomas Beekers points out, it would take a lot more in-depth research into defensive tendencies and specific looks to really get into the nuts and bolts of the real 'constraint theory' of offense. Ie, what looks is Darrell Bevell seeing that leads him to make this call? What tendencies are opposing teams exhibiting? That's for a future post, I think). However, basically, the reason these plays - the bubble and the read-option - have become more prevalent? Well, because Seattle is getting much better at executing them. They're joined by their friends, Flea Flicker and Double Pass (also known as Fake End-Around Pass), but the read-option, which Kenny explained here, and the bubble screen, seem to be more integral.

The Seahawks used the bubble with great success against Minnesota -- two consecutive plays early in the 3rd quarter, seen below.

Anthony McCoy and Sidney Rice become lead blockers in space for Golden Tate, and Tate just has to do his thing.


At the snap, Tate flares out and back, and Wilson quickly gets him the football. From there, Tate can do what he does best - run with the football in his hands. Amazing that it's taken this long to get him involved like this, really. But again, much is owed to the success of Marshawn Lynch, because 'gimmicky' stuff like bubble screens don't just work consistently on their own merit.


Of course, it helps that Golden Tate is dynamic with the football in his hands, and he accelerates here through/past five defenders (Tate is hidden behind #50 below).


Somehow, he comes out unscathed.


The very next play - why not?


Tate beats one would-be tackler, with the help of Sidney Rice, then puts his running-back cap on and powers forward for a few more yards.


He picks up 8 yards total on first down, after picking up 13 the play prior. Interestingly enough, the very next play would be a read-option keeper by Wilson. The Seahawks would go on to score a touchdown on the drive, but did so as they went back to their bread and butter - Marshawn Lynch, wide zone. Lynch picked up 23 on a wide zone run out of a two-back set, and carried rookie Harrison Smith about 13 of those yards downfield. He scored three plays later, as the Vikings feared and overplayed an anticipated Russell Wilson bootleg that wouldn't come (remember that?). Constraint plays.

Fast forward to last week's matchup with the Jets. The Seahawks led 21-7 early in the fourth quarter, and after recovering a Mark Sanchez fumble (courtesy of Richard Sherman), Seattle looked to put the game away, for good.

Two Marshawn Lynch runs (core plays) later, and it's 3rd and 5 from the Jets' 44-yard line. The Seahawks throw their trusty bubble to Golden Tate, which he turns into 13 yards and a first down.

Via BigTrain21(!!)

You can see Wilson get it to Tate quickly, but Zach Miller isn't quick enough to cut off the downhill-running nickel corner, Ellis Lankster. The 6'5, 255 Miller quickly changes his mindset from being a downfield blocker to being a fullback, and barrels into the 5'9, sub-200 CB. This lead-block knocks Lankster down, Tate hurdles him, and then breaks a David Harris tackle before sneaking downfield for a first down. His set-up spin move out of bounds is nearly as impressive if not for the fact it took him out of bounds.

Which leads me to another of my main points.

Golden Tate is integral to this whole theory of 'constraint plays' because he's a dynamite runner with the ball in his hands. This play above was dead to rights at the line of scrimmage but Tate fought through two on-coming tacklers (three, even) and somehow moved downfield. The same could be said about the plays above. Not any player could have the same type of success on these plays as Tate, and well, we've seen the Seahawks try it with Sidney Rice from time to time (to my everlasting chagrin) and the results are considerably more tepid.

Tate's running back instincts and dynamic change of direction ability make a big difference.

Going back again, to Tate's touchdown against Minnesota, for example. Just a basic bubble screen, with Doug Baldwin and Sidney Rice flanking Tate to the outside. The arrows drawn below indicate the defensive response.


With a nickelback blitz coming from Tate's defender, the Vikings depend on middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, and safeties Jamarca Sanford and Harrison Smith to crash on Tate and make the tackle.


Nice downfield blocking, as seen below, by Sidney Rice, and you can see Sanford crash hard downfield to make the tackle on Tate. Tate jukes past him easily.


That leaves Brinkley and Smith to beat, and Tate puts his inside foot in the ground in one of the most impressive athletic plays I've seen this year, and sneaks past two hard-charging defenders.


As an aside -- this move takes me back to training camp over the past two years and one of the main things that I had noticed, watching practice live and in person, was Tate's athleticism. Now, you can talk about how 'all NFL players are good athletes', but with Tate, his quickness, foot-speed, and balance always stood out in the crowd, and that's saying something when he's in a crowd with a bunch of 'the elite of the elite' (when you really think about how many other great athletes these players had to beat out just to make it to the League). I dug up some of my comments from the past two years at training camp, as a little historical look at what we all had hoped Tate would develop into.

From 2011's training camp:

"Tate is visibly quicker than any of the other receivers. I'm not necessarily saying he'll outrun them in a straight line footrace, but the dude is shifty. I was watching him run his routes, and (because I used to be a basketball guy, I'll use this analogy) he seems to be a pupil of the Michael Jordan school of offense. Jordan used to say that "you don't go around your defender, you go through him." He didn't mean you literally run him over and fall down into a heap of limbs, but basically you just will yourself past a defender with good footwork and a quick first step (going at him with such speed and force that the defender just can't cope with the first-step). You see receivers trying to step around corners and get shoved out of bounds. You see them try to break up the jam with their arms and get tangled up and slowed down or run out of bounds. What I saw from Tate was quick feet, an explosive cut upfield, and a smooth, natural ease at getting off the jam. That's about as well as I can explain it.

I truly think Tate has otherworldly balance. I just want him to put it all together. And I think he will. The other play that I noticed involving Tate was a sideline comeback route that was hit with good timing. Tate caught the ball near the sideline but instead of running out of bounds he shifted direction ridiculously quickly like a jump stop, back toward the center of the field and beat the corner upfield. It drew some raucous applause."

From 2012:

"As for ... Golden Tate, I would say that it would have to be a toss up between he and Doug Baldwin as to who had the most steady and impressive weekend performance of the receiver group. Tate looks like a man possessed, and grabbed impressive downfield throws several times on deep corner routes against the 2-man coverage soft spot - over the top of the corner and out of the range of the safety. He's shifty at the line and beats press seemingly with ease. He has the Butler 'drives like it's on rails' change-of-direction but is much more physical as a runner and in fighting for the football in the air. I've been reminded that Golden Tate has looked this way in training camp before and that's true, but combined with his strong finish last season, what I'm seeing looks like the probable answer at X-receiver."

Now, with the stills providing a set-up look at the play's nuts and bolts, and my anecdotal impression of Tate's athleticism, watch Tate put his left foot in the ground, take four quick steps and dive into the endzone for a TD. Really quite impressive, and again, integral to this type of play working.

****** Via BigTrain21(!!) ******


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