Protecting the QB: How and how many

Pass blocking is not just the job of the big guys

Protecting the QB: How and how many

Pass blocking is not just the job of the big guys

Part of an occasional series

When pass blocking is done well, most fans don’t notice. An effective pass block doesn’t often result in a defender embarrassingly knocked on his butt. The goal, rather, is to provide the quarterback with ample space and time to do what he wants.

What we’re going to accomplish here is provide a way to observe basic pass protection tactics by looking at how many players are blocking and what they’re doing as a group. (Blockers must communicate and make myriad adjustments that we can’t know unless we’re in their team meetings.)

Could you explain this in three sentences or less?

Offenses protect the quarterback on pass plays with either just the five linemen or with some help from running backs and/or tight ends. There are three schools of thought when we talk about drop-back passing game protection: man, slide, and combo.

Wait, there are three different ways to pass-block?

Yes, it’s not just all the blockers getting in the way of the rushers without a plan.

For purposes of this exercise, we’re going to use six-man protections, which are probably the most common at all three levels of football. That allows offenses to pick up most of what defenses throw at them and still have four available pass-catchers.

The first method, man, is best explained with the acronym BOB: Big On Big/Back On [Line]Backer. Every offensive lineman is responsible for a defensive lineman, with the center responsible for the middle linebacker if he comes on a blitz.

The running back then scans the remaining linebackers and has a few options:

  • If neither outside linebacker rushes the quarterback, the running back could move into a route to become a check-down receiver, or he could help assist a teammate in dealing with a particularly dangerous rusher.
  • If one outside linebacker rushes, he blocks him.
  • If both linebackers rush, he blocks one, and the quarterback is responsible for getting rid of the ball before the other linebacker gets to him.

The second method is slide protection. If man blocking is BOB, full slide protection often is referred to as “zone” or “area” blocking. It just means all offensive linemen slide to one direction and block whomever enters that gap (lineman, linebacker, safety — doesn’t matter) to that direction. The running back fills in the gap that the backside tackle is leaving unaccounted for.

You can see what the Titans do here. The offensive line slides to the right, and the H-back inserts on the left. This works particularly well for quick passing concepts and can help neuter hard-slanting defensive lines, or as shown here, in conjunction with play-action.

But asking a running back to block a defensive end all by himself often isn’t a high-percentage play. That’s why the third basic way to protect the passer is to combine slide and man, with two linemen man blocking to one side and three sliding to the other. Think of it as the best of both worlds.

To understand how that works, I asked an offensive line coach, Colorado State’s Louie Addazio.

“If I’m the running back and I’m walking to the line of scrimmage, the center’s gonna give a four-down and a three-down call. And then he’s gonna point to the ID. The ID is who the offensive line is working toward. So as the running back, I’m back here and I’m saying, ‘Okay, great, 32’s the point, I’m responsible for 1-2 past the point.’ So if they point the Will, I’m responsible for the Mike to the Sam.”

Uh, can you translate that?

Okay, here goes: When Addazio refers to the center giving a “four-down call,” that means there are four defensive linemen, and the “ID” is the additional player whom part of the offensive line is sliding toward -- in Addazio’s example, the “Will,” or weakside linebacker -- whom they’re responsible for if he blitzes.

In this scenario, the slide side is to the left, so left tackle, left guard and center are sliding that way. The Right guard and right tackle just block the defensive linemen in front of them. The running back then is responsible for the “Mike” or the “Sam” -- the middle or strongside linebacker -- if either blitz. (If both do, then one is unaccounted for and the quarterback has to get rid of the ball in a hurry.) This ensures the running back is tasked with a linebacker instead of the Jadeveon Clowneys of the world.

I also know what you might be thinking: that the Will and the Sam aren’t technically on the strong and weak side of the formation we’re showing above. Remember that this is simply the offense’s ID system to get on the same page. As long as all seven of those offensive players know who is who and agree on it, they can effectively run the play and pick up what’s coming.

What’s the specific benefit of the combo scheme?

College football’s wide hash marks (compared to the NFL) means the ball is rarely snapped close to the middle of the field. So speedy defenders can line up on the side with more open grass, referred to as the “field side” as opposed to the “boundary side,” and then wreak havoc with blitzes. For that reason, some offenses have the slide on more often than not.

“A lot of other [offenses] slide to the field because a lot of teams are bringing a lot of field pressure on first and second down,” Addazio said “You set the slide to the field, and then that way, you’re sliding into the pressure.”

Let’s say the defense is walking up a cornerback to blitz on the field side. If he’s blitzing in the C gap, that means a defensive lineman likely is coming into the B gap despite starting the play in the C. The slide helps the offense counter this scenario because the sliding offensive linemen are moving toward areas, not specific people.

So what happens when the defenders don’t line up as perfectly as they did in that diagram?

You’ll remember Addazio mentioned field pressures in terms of first and second down. Defense tend to get funky with blitzes on third downs, and that requires specialized protection plans.

Defenses aren’t stupid. They’re not just going to line up in the same way to block every single time. They move players around to mess with protection plans or even render them moot. Even a normal 3-4 defense can change blockers’ responsibilities.

Why did you spend all this time explaining six-man protections when my team could just block for the quarterback with eight guys and not have to worry about it?

Great idea, with one problem: Who’s he going to throw to? Eight blockers leave just two receivers against four or five defensive backs. There’s a balance to strike here between effectively protecting the quarterback and giving him enough receiving options to stress the defense. Six-man protection is capable of handling most things defenses will attempt, particularly on first and second down.

With just two or three guys in routes with a bunch of people protecting, an offense is probably throwing the ball pretty deep or in a specific situation such as this one. Or perhaps it’s a passing concept that needs a lot of time to develop such as this one. This isn’t really something an offense will run very often.

Okay, so why not roll with five blockers? That way, you’ve got five receivers out!

LSU got away with this, and won a national championship doing so, in 2019. The Tigers had the luxury of five bona fide receiving threats to tax defenses, and future No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow at quarterback.

If an offense has that kind of talent, defenses will be hard-pressed to leave their defensive backs one-on-one against the wide receivers, so they’ll drop more people into coverage and thus be less likely to blitz. At that point, protection’s sort of easy. The quarterback will have time to make sandwiches in the pocket before slinging touchdowns all over the place.

But most teams don’t have LSU’s talent or 2019 Joe Burrow, so defenses see five-man protections as invitations to blitz the opponent into submission.

What else do I need to know?

What I hope you’ll take away from this is an understanding of how your team is protecting the passer by noticing:

  • How many blockers are doing it
  • How they’re moving to do it

This really just scratches the surface. We didn’t even get near screen passes, bootlegs, or RPOs or … other protection tactics.

So what’s next?

We’ve done enough in the trenches for now. Next, it’s time for the skinny guys.

Richard Johnson is a freelance writer, podcaster and video host. Based in Brooklyn, the Gainesville, Fla., native is a college football lifer who recently fell back in love with the Jacksonville Jaguars and regrets it every day. Illustrations and Design by José Luis Soto.

Read more from the “Watching Football Smarter” series:

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