New Grantland: S-A-C-K: Why Pass Protection Might Be the Jets’ Biggest Problem

It’s now up over at Grantland:

Saturday night was an example of the preseason problem of hodgepodge lineups that haven’t spent much time together. As the game wore on, the Jets routinely failed to pick up very simple blitzes, and the result was sacks, hurries, and, according to some reports,an extremely frustrated Tim Tebow.

Pass protection is extremely difficult. Individually, it’s a brutal ballet, requiring the larger, less athletic human to step backward while a superior specimen (like Jason Pierre-Paul) sprints, swims, rips, spins, or hurdles his way to the quarterback. Collectively, it’s all thatand some kind of diabolical logic game.

Read the whole thing.

“A very wise coach once told me, ‘If you really want play-action, you better pull a guard'” — Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III agree

The title is a quote from former Stanford and current San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, from the video clip below. And it’s absolutely true. While much is rightfully made about whether a quarterback does an effective job of selling a run fake on play-action, the reality is that the offensive line plays just as big of a role in convincing a defense that a play is a run. Indeed, the play-action pass is probably the best weapon offenses have, one far too often underutilized by modern spread offenses. As Bill Walsh once explained:

Let's go deep

The Play-Pass is the one fundamentally sound football play that does everything possible to contradict the basic principles of defense. I truly believe it is the single best tool available to take advantage of a disciplined defense. By using the play-pass as an integral pant of your offense you are trying to take advantage of a defensive team that is very anxious very intense and very fired-up to play football. The play-pass is one of the best ways to cool all of that emotion and intensity down because the object of the play-pass is to get the defensive team to commit to a fake run and then throw behind them. Once you get the defensive team distracted and disoriented, they begin to think about options and, therefore, are susceptible to the running game.

It is no surprise then that maybe the two best play-action teams in college football season were Stanford and Baylor, two teams that just so happened to produce the two best quarterbacks in college football, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. In reviewing the game film of both players, I couldn’t help but marvel at how many of their touchdown passes were well designed, well executed “shot plays” that, while impressive, pretty much just required both quarterbacks to throw the ball to wide open receivers. And a huge part of that was because both of their offenses involved heavy doses of play-action with pulling linemen.

Just think about what kind of effect that has on the defense. While both players were impressive in their play-action fakes — and someone like Peyton Manning is even more impressive — if you’re a linebacker or safety and you see a pulling guard, you basically can’t help but tell yourself: “It’s a run.” Especially since run plays that involve a pulling guard means one thing: “power,” in the lowercase sense of lots of bodies will be at the point of attack so the defense needs to match numbers as well. And in the case of both Stanford and Baylor it also means “power” in another sense: the “Power-O” play where the linemen block down and a backside guard pulls to lead. Stanford, being a more of a pro-style offense, runs the traditional Power-O numerous times every game. Baylor, being a spread team, typically used the vaunted “inverted veer” play, which is the spread offense’s read-based adaptation of the old Power-O. Regardless, for opponents of both, a pulling guard meant trouble for Stanford’s and Baylor’s opponents run defenses, which, through the use of play-action, in turn meant trouble for their pass defense. That Bill Walsh guy just might have been onto something.

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What are the basic principles of dropback pass protection?

Pass protection is a deep and varied subject, but at least a little can be said to understand the very high-level basics of how the pass rush/pass protection chess match plays out on a given play. Essentially, there are two types of protection schemes: (1) area or zone schemes, and (2) man schemes. Some protections blend these two approaches, either explicitly or implicitly.

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(1) Area Schemes: An area scheme is where a group of blockers set up in a given area and then sort and pick-up whatever “trash” comes through. For example, if the center, guard, and tackle are responsible for one side of the protection, and the defense crosses and twists a couple defensive linemen and a linebacker, the blockers will take the one that enters their area. This is probably the soundest “protect-first” approach, and good teamwork will allow the line to deal with defensive creativity with a simple sound approach.

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Problems with area schemes arise when you introduce runningbacks, tight ends, or H-backs into the equation. The problem is twofold:

(a) An area scheme could leave you with a terrible match-up, such as a runningback on a defensive end (or Lawrence Taylor).

(b) An area-assigned protector who is also a skill player (like a tight end, H-back, or runningback) has a difficult time releasing into the route if the defense does not blitz. So any of those skill players who you have assigned to an area scheme likely will not get out into the route, and you might only have three receivers trying to get open against seven pass defenders. For example, see the diagram below, where the tight-end and runningback (both skill players and potential receivers) end up in the pass route while the center and right-tackle end up blocking no one at all.

More specifically, the guard, tackle, and Y (TE) are playing an area scheme, making them responsible for the defensive tackle, the defensive end, and the stronside linebacker (Sam or “S”). Although we could handle a stunt or twist, with the middle and strongside linebackers dropping into coverage the tight-end and potentially the runningback have to protect, while interior linemen block no one. Indeed, the tight-end ends up blocking the defensive end, a potential mismatch. There are ways around this problem, but it is a definitely concern.

The most common “area” protection is slide or “gap” protection, where the line all slides to a gap. More on this in a moment.

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On Florida’s offensive struggles, especially in pass protection

Read all about it over at Yahoo!’s Dr Saturday. Thanks as always to the Doc for the digital space.

Aaron Rodgers: “For better pass protection, we need fewer blockers.”

aaronrodgersSpread offense aficionados rejoice — who needs blockers? From the Green Bay Press-Gazette:

With a couple of days to think about what went wrong in Sunday’s 31-24 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals — a game in which Rodgers was sacked six times and hit 10 times despite a game plan that relied heavily on six- and seven-man protections — Rodgers on Wednesday said the best thing might be for coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin to let the front five on the offensive line fend for themselves.

“I think one of the things that happened last week was because of struggles (in protection) in Week 1, we’ve kept more guys in (to block),” Rodgers said. “Our backs were staying in a little bit longer, and so our stuff was all down the field because we didn’t have any of our check downs out.

“The push, hopefully, this is week is, ‘Hey you guys got to hold up up front.’ We need more options underneath the coverage. When they’re dropping off so far, you need some check downs.”

It might seem counterintuitive that the guy who’s been getting killed — 10 sacks and 19 hits in two games — wants less protection, but the logic is that by keeping in running backs and tight ends less often, Rodgers will have more options to get the ball out quicker if he’s facing pressure. Against the Bengals, many of his throws were deep because there were so few short options.

Rodgers’ theory might not be so far-fetched. McCarthy and Philbin have admitted in the days following the Bengals’ game that they may have given the line too much help.

Note too that you can have different types of pass protection — i.e. “slide” (also known as “gap”) protection or man (also known as “BOB,” big on big, back on backer). Slide protection is a little sturdier — the line, tight-ends, and/or runningbacks are each responsible for a gap, and just step that direction and zone or “area block” all stunts and twists, but man-protection, when done correctly, allows the line to just block the obvious rushers while the runningback can “check-release” a linebacker or safety and release into the pattern if no one rushes. Defenses have countermoves too, but in that way you can both max-protect and get five into the route if the defense only rushes four.

Finally, there are pass protections that use both schemes; many teams’ six-man protection scheme “man blocks” one side while “zones” the other:

passpro

It’s not clear what kind of pass protection schemes the Packers were using, but expect more variety this week.