- Associated Press - Friday, December 4, 2015

ASHBURN, Va. (AP) - Look closely at running back Matt Jones’ 78-yard touchdown on a screen play for the Washington Redskins against the New Orleans Saints in Week 10. You’ll notice Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams rumbling nearly 30 yards beyond the line of scrimmage to block a cornerback, helping clear Jones’ path.

“I always ask Coach, ‘Can I enter into the screen? Can I enter into the screen?’ He always tells me, ‘No. Just take care of your assignment.’ And so, that time, I kind of felt like a kid just sneaking out of the house. I had a blast,” Williams said. “I ended up making the one block that helped spring the touchdown. So it all worked out.”

It’s all working out with increasing frequency for NFL teams, which are throwing more and more screen passes - to running backs, yes, but also to wide receivers or tight ends - in an effort to get easy gains and, occasionally, break long ones. There are, on average, 6.23 screens completed per game so far this season, a slight rise from last season’s 6.02 and about 1 1/2 more than there were just three years ago, according to STATS. This season’s rate is the highest for any season since at least 2009, which is as far back as the STATS data goes.

On a typical screen, various players, including linemen and receivers, move to one side of the field to set up a wall of blockers that escorts the player who catches a pass.

“It involves a lot of people on the move, so it’s as close to a special teams play as you’re going to get,” said Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid, whose team completes a league-high 5.36 screens per game, followed by the Chicago Bears at 5.27. “So you’ve got to get it all synchronized and everybody has to be dancing the same dance.”

When choreographed properly, screens can take advantage of the league-wide trend of defenders having trouble tackling. They also are a way to keep opposing defenses “honest” by making them wary of getting caught on a blitz.

“It slows them down a little bit. And we have some linemen that are very athletic and can get out in space,” said Redskins coach Jay Gruden, whose team is averaging an NFL-best 10.24 yards per attempted screen, according to STATS.

“If you have a young quarterback or an offensive line that might be struggling a little bit, those are great ways to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hand. Easy completions,” Gruden said. “Even when they don’t work, they’re usually incomplete - a throw in the dirt is fine - or even gain 1 or 2 yards.”

Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, who connected with Jones on a 45-yard screen during last week’s victory over the New York Giants, said: “It’s very easy to execute and, unless a defense can sniff it out and detect it, it becomes very hard to defend. Teams are all about running plays that are low-risk, high-reward, and screens fall into that category.”

Through last week’s games, quarterbacks were completing 84.2 percent of their screen passes and getting intercepted on 0.5 percent of them, STATS said. Compare that to all other throws: 60.6 percent completion rate, 2.7 percent interception rate.

Some teams, such as the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, essentially use screens in place of running plays.

Others, such as the Chiefs and Bears, consider screens “a big part of the game plan, each and every week,” Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler said.

“It is a way to help the quarterback out. It avoids the hits. You get the ball in a playmaker’s hands and let them do their thing,” Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. “Instead of standing back there, holding onto the ball and trying to take shots down the field, sometimes you can throw it short and hit home runs.”

And screens are definitely not just for halfbacks anymore.

Cutler’s teammate Eddie Royal is one of five wideouts who rank among the top 10 players in screen catches this season.

No. 1 is St. Louis Rams receiver Tavon Austin with 20, and he was surprised to learn he leads the way in that category.

“It’s one of the things I can do well. It’s about trusting your blockers,” Austin said, “and then you’ve just got to hit it when you get it.”

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AP Sports Writers R.B. Fallstrom in St. Louis, Andrew Seligman in Lake Forest, Illinois, Dave Skretta in Kansas City, Missouri, and Bernie Wilson in San Diego contributed to this report.

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Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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Online:

Video on www.NFL.com of Trent Williams blocking on Matt Jones’ 78-yard screen TD: http://bit.ly/1YII1eU

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and AP NFL Twitter feed: www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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