Okey dokey. So the other day I was talking about the Colts O-line and how they seem to have become dependent on Peyton Manning to set protections for them. But what the hell does that actually mean? "Setting Protections" or "Adjusting Protections"? It's a good question (why thank you) and one I intend to answer now.
So the long and short of it is that when a pass play gets sent in to the quarterback, part of the play call will tell the linemen and backs how the offense is supposed to account for pass rushers. Sometimes the backs stay in, some times the tight end stays in, sometimes it's just the five guys up front on their own. Now that's all fine and dandy, what with the protection being organised in such way as to compliment the pass being called, but what happens when the defense comes out and gives you a front you don't like the look of?
Say for example you have no running backs staying in to protect, but your looking at the left side and you can see three guys waiting to rush, plus a safety walking down who could potentially be a fourth rusher. That's not good. So what are you going to do? Just roll with it and hope everything turns out ok? I wouldn't recommend that.
It's at this point that a guy like Peyton Manning steps in and changes the protection, directing the offensive line towards the danger, or telling the running back to check a certain player before releasing, or telling the tight end to stay in and help out. Something which Manning has plenty of experience with and Curtis Painter doesn't!
At this point going to the drawing board could prove useful I think. The first diagram we'll look at it is a very basic pass protection set, known as "BOB" or "Big On Big", just to get a feel for the kind of protection a team might start with;
As you can see we have our offensive guards and offensive tackles matched up against the four defensive linemen, hence the "big on big" name. In this case the center takes the Mike linebacker, the running back takes the Will backer, and if needs be the tight end could block the Sam linebacker. Now while this seems on the surface like a very sound protection, very rarely are teams actually gifted with such a perfectly even and tidy defensive front.
This is something the Dolphins found out in their game against the Giants the other week as demonstrated here. One blitz in particular that I diagrammed could come in useful for this discussion, as it has all the features that we need in order to take a good look at changing protections. So here's the blitz as it happened in the game;
What we have here is a blitz that is designed to occupy the middle of the offensive line, setting up the blitzing linebacker to go one on one with the running back. The Mike linebacker actually steps up to show blitz initially before dropping out, and the two defensive tackles attack the inside shoulders of the guards, making sure that all three of the interior offensive linemen get bunched up in the middle, with the B backer hitting the gap that's created between the left guard and left tackle. The right tackle is the only guy without someone to block, but has no realistic chance of getting across to pick up the B backer, meaning the running back has to take him.
Now obviously this is a mismatch in favour of the defense, but what other choice did the offense really have? We've already seen that the interior linemen couldn't ignore the danger posed by the defensive tackles and the Mike linebacker. We know that as athletic as the right tackle might be, he isn't going to cut across the back of the line in time to stop the blitz. So the only possible solution is for the backer to take him... right?
There is one thing that the offense can do in this situation, albeit an option that requires some good coordination between the offensive linemen. When presented with a front like the one above the quarterback - having got a good look at the defense (one of the reasons the shotgun is so popular with pass heavy teams) - can check the protection to a slide or "turnback" protection.
Basically what's going to happen is that the quarterback is going to take advantage of that right tackle who has nothing to do by asking the offensive line not to take the man immediately over them, but instead to take the next defender to the left. This is where the terms "slide" and "turnback" protection come from, because the offensive line is "sliding" across one man, usually executed by taking a step straight backwards off the line and then "turning back" to the left (in this case) with their next step. Let's take a look at the new assignments with another diagram;
As you can now see the right tackle now turns inside and takes the defensive tackle. Knowing that the defensive tackle is now accounted for, the right guard is free to turn inside and take the Mike linebacker if he blitzes. Knowing that the Mike linebacker is now accounted for, the Center is free to turn his attention left to the next defensive tackle. Finally, knowing that the defensive tackle over him is now accounted for, the left guard can turn to the left and take on the blitzing B backer.
With the left side of the defense covered all that remains now is for the running back to go right and fill the gap between the right tackle and tight end. In this case we'd like to keep the tight end in to block the defensive end, but if needs be you could release the tight end and simply have the running back cut down the defensive end, though that's not ideal.
Mainly the running back serves to fill that gap that will open up on the right side, keeping his eyes out for potential delayed blitzes from the safety, or the possibility of the Mike linebacker hooking around over the top. If the defensive end to the right is a major threat and you're not sure how the tight end will cope, you can have the back chip him with his shoulder on the way out into his pass pattern. You can even have the tight end shoot out immediately and strike the defensive end to delay him, before the tight end releases and the back picks up the pieces.
The uses of slide protections are numerous, as you can see. You don't even have to go to the extreme shown above with four players all turning back to the left. If needs be an offense can just slide two players across, for example when the team comes up against a 3-4 defense that puts a defensive end over the offensive tackle and then has an outside backer (especially one known for his pass rushing abilities) outside of him. In this case the offense can slide the tackle and guard on that side, so the guard now takes the defensive end and the tackle takes the outside backer, as demonstrated below;
On the left you can see the back is responsible for the outside backer. If that Will backer is DeMarcus Ware and the running back is Chris Johnson then suffice to say we have a mismatch. A better option is to slide the protection so that your left tackle (who should be your best pass blocker) ends up on Ware, the left guard handles that end and then the back is responsible for picking up the Mike linebacker if he blitzes (an even better option is just not to waste/trust Chris Johnson in pass protection).
Before we wrap this up I just quickly want to give you a flavour for the footwork, just so I don't leave people thinking that the offensive linemen are pulling flat across the line of scrimmage to get to their man;
The key is trying to balance the need to get across and block the man, while also understanding that you need to get some depth, otherwise you end up delivering a glancing blow to the mans side as he flies right past you on his way into the backfield.
Lastly the quarterback needs needs to be aware of two things when his offensive line is sliding; 1) that if only part of the line is sliding then it often results in a gaping hole developing between the sliding men and the rest of the line - don't unquestioningly rely on the running back to protect this hole! 2) The offensive linemen don't always get great initial blocks and so he must be prepared for the risk of rapid of penetration coming from the sliding side and needs to be ready to step laterally and/or up in the pocket away from that pressure;
As you can see the pass rush gets pushed to the left so the quarterback must slide to the right and step up, helping to keep his blockers between him and the pass rush.
Using slide protection is just one of the many great ways for quarterbacks to adjust to what the defense is doing. It allows the quarterback to account for potential overload blitz's to one side or for a defense that's trying to manipulate the numbers game in order to get a favourable match up on the running back. One of the things that separates the best from the rest at the quarterback position is the ability to read the defense, identify the main thrust of the pass rush and then adjust the line to neutralise that threat. It's one of the reasons that Peyton Manning is so valuable to the Colts, and helps us to partially explain why the Colts O-line has struggled so much this season without Manning's experienced eyes and his in-depth, almost automatic knowledge of the playbook.
So keep an eye out next time you see a quarterback calling an audible in the face of an unbalanced looking defense. He might just be switching to a slide protection.
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