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X's & O's: Pass Protection

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X's & O's: Pass Protection

Frequent Cheesehead TV commenter "Paul Ott Carruth", a former player and coach, breaks down different aspects of the Packers and their opponents from an X's and O's standpoint. Today he breaks down the many different facets of pass protection.

“It all starts in the trenches” is a common cliché used in football.  While it may be often used it is so very true.  A team that can pass protect can throw the ball.  End of story. Coaches that draw up elaborate routes using 4 and 5 receivers are a dime a dozen.  The great ones begin by addressing protection.  You might be saying to yourself “thank you Captain Obvious.  Tell us something we didn’t’ know.”  Well, hopefully this X and O segment will do just that.  From a “sizzle” perspective,  “X-ing” and “O-ing” isn’t all that fun to the casual observer of the game but it sure is the “steak” in this meal.  Now that I’ve wet your appetite let’s dig in.

Before we look at the diagrams  I need to clarify a few things about the passing game at the professional level.  Quarterbacks rarely survey the entire field.  No, I’m not kidding.  This isn’t a Madden game where you wing the ball at will wherever and whenever.  What I’m saying here is that based on pre-snap alignments the QB is working a route concept to one half of the field, called a half-field read.  If you don’t believe me, I would ask you to consult the writings of coach Bill Walsh.  In fact, Norm Chow, the former BYU offensive coordinator has publicly said as much.  Now, keep in mind that there are situations where a full field read will come in to play but most often than not your QB is initially looking to one side of the formation.  This is his primary read.  His secondary read will most likely be on the same side.  However, the 3rd and 4th options may come from the opposite side of the formation.   So when you hear an analyst say “he looked all over the field to find his receiver” he’s only telling a partial truth.  Essentially, that QB looked from right to left or left to right in his progression and found his 3rd or 4th option late.  There is just too much happening for any QB to see the entire field consistently especially when you factor in the exotic blitz schemes prevalent in today’s game.  In the diagrams you will see pink arrows indicating the direction the QB is reading.

Diagram 1: This is a 6 man protection using big-on-big (BOB).  Essentially this means the 5 Offensive Linemen will be responsible for blocking the 4 Defensive Linemen plus the Mike Linebacker.  If you’ve ever listened to a QB on NFL films, one of the first things you’ll hear him say is “number 50 is the Mike.”  Obviously, the Mike backer isn’t necessarily wearing #50….he could be wearing 52, 53, etc.  The point is that the QB and OL have to identify the Mike backer.  Why?  Well, if the man that they identify as the Mike were to blitz, the Center and designated Guard (in this case the LG) would be responsible for picking him up.  If the defense were to just rush the front 4 the Center and Guard would maintain a double on the DT.  In this case the front 4 are the only men in the rush so it becomes a 5 on 4.  The RB is eyeing up the Will (W) backer.  The RB is the 6th man in the protection scheme (hence 6 man protection).  If that Will were to blitz, the RB would be responsible for picking him up.  The QB is reading the right side of the formation initially.  If he were to read the left side, that RB would then eye up the Sam (S) backer.  Why?  Well, this falls in to the category of Football 101.  You always want to keep the QB’s backside protected.   So, if the QB were to be looking at the side of the Will the RB would slide over in the event of a Sam blitz.  But what if the Will would blitz and not the Sam?  Well, that’s okay because the QB would see that.  If that Will came free the QB and his receivers would be responsible for either doing a sight adjustment or the QB would need to buy some time.  Believe it or not but the QB figures in to the protection scheme, however, he doesn’t throw a block….for obvious reasons.  Rather, the QB is responsible for the unblocked defender in his line of sight.  Move, evade, sight adjust, throw hot, etc.    Either way, logically it’s better to see that locomotive coming at you than to not even know it was coming at all.  To finish this diagram up we see the LT taking the DE on the offense’s left, the RG taking the DT on the right and the RT taking the DE on the right.  As you can see, it is a man protection scheme.  Because it is a 6 man protection we know 4 receivers will have a “free release” which means they immediately release in to their patterns.

Diagram 1a: Again, a 6 man protection but I’ve shown how this would look against a 3-4.  Here we have the QB reading to the left of the formation.   The Mike has been declared via the triangle, showing the C and RG responsible for the T over the Center and the Mike at depth over the RG.  The RT blocks the DE on the right.  The RB picks up the W should he rush.  The LT picks up the DE on the left side of the formation.  This leaves the LG responsible for pick up of either the Buck linebacker  or the Nickel (N) defensive back.  The LG is reading from inside to out, from the Buck to the Nickel.

Diagram 1b: To continue from Diagram 1a, the LG would take the Buck linebacker should both the B and the N blitz.  The idea is to block the most dangerous defender.  Dangerous is defined as the closest defender to the QB.  The Buck has a shorter distance to travel by alignment.  This would  mean the Nickel comes unblocked, making the QB responsible for adjusting to him.  This becomes a sight adjustment or “hot” situation.  Now, you might be asking why would this protection leave a defender unblocked.  Because the Mike was declared opposite the Nickel, the RG will stay in protection on that side of the formation, even if the Mike doesn’t blitz.    Could he fan out to the left side to pick of the Nickel in that case?  Well, in theory and on paper that might work out but from a pragmatic standpoint……no chance.  A 300lb RG is no match against the skill set of a Charles Woodson type athlete in space.  Besides, doing that opens up a whole host of other problems schematically.  This is a perfect example of how a defense can rush 6 defenders vs. a 6 man protection and still get an unblocked defender.

Diagram 1c: This is the same diagram as 1b.  However, now we have the Nickel blitzing and the Buck dropping in coverage.   Seeing this, the LG will “sink” and pick up the Nickel.  There is no longer an unblocked defender for the QB to throw off of so he goes through his normal progression.  The type of action employed by the LG was popularized by coach Bill Walsh to address the skills of Lawrence Taylor in the early 80’s  The technique was called a “Molly” block, often referred to as “sink to swivel.”

Diagram 2: Now we’ll go back to a 4-3 look.  Again, this is 6 man pass pro.  The Mike has been declared but now the Sam blitzes.  The Mike replaces the Sam in coverage.  We have a 5 on 5 situation but the RB is eyeing up the Will and the Center and LG are doubling on the DT.  So it appears the Sam has come free.  No worries though as the QB is reading that side and simply throws hot or sight adjusts to the TE breaking away from the Mike.  Is it possible for the Center to  slide off the double team and work to the blitzing Sam?  Yes it is and we’ll see that in another slide but it once the Mike is declared and if that Sam would blitz, “hot” routes would be built in despite the fact that there wouldn’t be an unblocked defender should the Center slide off to the Sam.

Diagram 3: In this diagram we see the Will and Sam blitzing with the Mike replacing the Sam in coverage.  The QB is reading left and the back is aligned left.  Going back to the idea of “line of sight” would force the RB to slide over to pick up the Sam and the QB to throw hot off of the Will who is now the unblocked defender in the QB’s line of sight.  As an adjustment to the Mike not being in the rush, the LG could slide off to pick up the Will and leave the Center with the DT.

Diagram 4: Here we see that adjustment from diagram 3 in which the Center slides off to pick up the Sam.

Diagram 5: What if both the Mike and the Sam were to blitz?  Remember, the Mike has been declared and pick-up of him comes from the C and LG who work an initial double team on the DT.  The Center would slide off to pick up the Mike in this case.  But what about the Sam?  Who has him?  Since the QB is reading that side and the RB is eyeing the Will, the QB throws hot off of the Sam.  Here we have the TE running to the vacated middle.

Diagram 6: The same look as in diagram 5 but now we show the Will dropping to low middle to jump the anticipated hot throw by the QB.  If this were to happen, technically, the RB could slide over to pick up the Sam as he has no blitz threat by the Will.

Diagram 7: Same diagram as diagram 5 only now I’ve inserted the Will in to the rush.  This makes it a 7 man pressure vs. a 6 man protection.  By rule, the RB takes the Will, the LG an C take the DT and Mike and this leaves the Sam unblocked so the QB is responsible for him.

Diagram 8: This is our first look at a 7 man protection that can turn in to a 5 man protection.  The same rules apply for the OL.  They are responsible for the 4 defensive linemen plus the Mike.  No changes there.  Now we’ve inserted an additional back in to the pass protection scheme.  As you can see, the HB is eyeing the Will and the FB is eyeing the Sam.  The QB now has some comfort knowing that all men are accounted for in the event the front 7 should all rush (7 on 7).  He now has the ability to do a full field read, but again, he will work a concept to only half the field initially.  There are 3 men who have a free release.  The backs actually are incorporated as check downs  or flares pending the linebacker they are responsible for on the rush don’t blitz.  This is called check-release.

Diagram 9: In this example the Sam blitzes so the FB stays in to block him.  The Mike is picked up via the triangle (C and LG).  The HB has the opportunity to release in to a route or as a check down because his man, the Will, drops in to coverage.

Diagram 10: This is a look at an 8 man protection.  This is the least used of all the protections at the professional level today.  It gives a free release to 2 receivers while the HB, FB and TE may or may not have check release responsibilities.  The protection rules for the OL and backs stay the same.  However, the TE adds a new wrinkle.  If that DE or OLB has been abusing your  left or right tackle the TE will be used to double or chip.  I say this is the least used protection because, frankly, if you need to run this quite a bit in the course of a game you won’t be using the next game simply because if your GM is worth any salt he’ll be looking for a new offensive tackle.  The only other reason to run this protection is in obvious blitz situations.  Anytime you hear an analyst says “they went with max protection” this is what they are referring to.  It offers excellent security for your QB but if you don’t have quality at your receiver position those 2 man route concepts don’t offer much in terms of moving the chains.

Diagram 11: Slide protection is used as remedy to protect the QB’s blindside without utilizing a back to do it.  Just as an offense tries to isolate a receiver on a linebacker, the defense tries to isolate their best rushers on the offenses weakest blocker.  Who would you rather have blocking a great pass rushing linebacker?  The offensive lineman trained in block or the RB who sometimes blocks?  It’s all about creating mismatches at the professional level.  Here we’ve got the QB reading the right side.  As you can see this is a 6 man protection but even though the Mike will be initially declared as he is, slide protection shifts that responsibility to the DT and Will.  In this case we are saying that Will backer has been abusing the FB.  So, we simply have the Center and LG “slide” their protection toward the Will instead of the Mike and change the RB’s blocking rule to the front side as he eyes the Mike and the Sam.  The LT blocks the DE on the left, the RT blocks the DE on the right and the RG blocks the DT on the right.  If the DT is aligned heavy on the LG the Center could  pop out to the Will should he try to rush between the DT and DE on the left.    Going back to the right side, the QB would have to throw hot off of the Sam should both the Sam and Mike blitz as the FB will pick up the Mike only.

Diagram 12: Same diagram as diagram 11 but showing how the Center would now anchor on the DT as he is shaded over him and the LG would eye the potentially blitzing Will.

Diagram 13: This is a look at what is called “Scat Protection.”  There are no backs or TE in the protection scheme.  This is man to man blocking by the 5 offensive linemen.   If the QB hesitates in the pocket or doesn’t have good escapability, this protection is not advisable.  I’ve used an empty formation since the Packers run quite a bit of empty.  It is possible to use this protection with backs in the back field, trips, etc.  On the left side of the formation the LT picks up the DE.  The LG is eyeing up the Mike or the Nickel (think Molly block or sink to swivel vs. 3-4), blocking the most dangerous rusher if both come.  The Center has the DT, the RG has the other DT and the RT has the right side DE.  Here I’ve blitzed the Sam so the QB would have to throw hot to that side.

Diagram 14: Again, this is scat protection Showing how it might look if both the Nickel and the Mike blitzed.  The LG would pick up the most dangerous rusher and throw hot off of the Nickel .  If you recall there were quite a few times in which we saw a wide open Donald Driver or Greg Jennings running the quick slant due to a coverage error by the defense.  Here I have a 7 man pressure but using simple math it puts the defense at a disadvantage because they only have 4 left to cover 5 receivers.  Do defenses take these risks hoping to get to the QB before he can make the pass?  They sure do but it doesn’t happen consciously often.  It is most likely a result of miscommunication.

Diagram 15: Same diagram as diagram 14 but showing a possible blocking adjustment by the LG and LT to account for a DE and Mike backer twist.

Diagram 16: This is an example of trying to use slide protection with scat.  It is possible to handle this but remember what was shown with slide protection?  The slide occurred away from the side the QB was reading.  This slide is an example of what not to do.  If the QB is reading to the right, he will account for the unblocked Sam.  Sliding to the Sam leaves an unblocked defender backside which is a big “no-no.”

I hope this X and O session was of some use.   Throwing the football is much more than pitch and catch.  It requires precision and communication in the trenches and on the edges of the line.  Even the best QBs become average without solid protection. Next time I will touch on the various ways defenses attack the protections schemes to create a numbers advantage or mismatch.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (12) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Zub's picture

I am brain dead, holy crap batman

Jay's picture


PackersRS's picture

Me too.
I have one question, though, POC.

You often refer to blitzers shooting free and, in some instances, the line not adapting to pick up said blitzer, due to built-in hot route adjustements by the receivers.

But I've heard that in some systems, like in Andy Reid's offense, there aren't hot routes. That due to the constant use only 5 man protection schemes, the RB or TE are always the "hot routes" in case there's a blitz.

Is it true? How does it work, if the RB is motioning to the other side of the primary read? Does the line has to adjust every time?

Paul Ott Carruth's picture


What I’ve presented is simply the basics of protection. There is much more to it. For instance, the Center is responsible for making modifications to the basic protection based on defensive alignment via a call. It can get quite extensive.

“Hot” simply means throwing off of an unblocked defender that isn’t accounted for by a blocker, whether it be a RB, TE, or O-Lineman. When throwing “hot”, the QB must get rid of the ball quickly. It means that the QB most likely will not have sufficient time to go throw his normal drop from center or go through his normal progression. In some cases, teams will “sight adjust.” This means the receiver will break off the route to the vacated area from which the blitzer came or break away from a dropping defender replacing the blitzer in coverage (i.e. Firezone).

I don’t have intimate knowledge of coach Reid’s offense but I would suspect that he has the hot principle in his system since he comes from the Walsh/Holmgren tree and they use it. Practically all teams use hot because there is no other way to address an unblocked defender in the rush. Anytime a 5 man protection scheme the potential for throwing hot is present. It comes down to simple math. If there are 5 in the protection that means there are 5 receivers in the route. At minimum, the defense will cover with 5 meaning that 6 would be in the rush creating a hot situation for the QB. The receivers need to win their one on one matchups. Now, if the defense rushes 5 instead of 6 there would be no hot situation for the QB as there wouldn’t be an unblocked defender. However, even this isn’t always true because defenses have gotten very good at freeing up rushers when the numbers are even in protection and rush (i.e. Firezones). It’s even possible to get an unblocked rusher in a 4 man rush and play 7 man coverage on the backend. Defenses are using “exotic” or “designer” blitz schemes these days. The O-Line does a fair amount of adjusting to try to pick up defenders, forcing any unblocked defender to come from the farthest distance from the QB but sometimes the defense brings more men than you have to block (6 vs. 5) and no amount of adjusting to trump simple mathematics.

Great questions. I really could go in to more depth about pass protection. It can get very complex. That’s why O-Linemen have to be some of your smartest guys on the field because they need to adjust in an instant and on the fly to protect the million dollar behind them.

Speedegg's picture

Sweet! That was awesome. I thought GB also uses some zone plays and cut blocking that simplified some of the pass protections, but eliminated the check-release responsibilities of the TE/FB/HB. I take it they don't use it anymore?

Paul Ott Carruth's picture


The Packers do use zone blocking but that is run blocking and different from pass protection in the dropback pass game. The only time zone blocking takes place in a pass is in playaction.

Lynn Dickey 12's picture


When will you pull off the mask and reveal your secret identity?

FITZCORE1252's picture

Until he does, I will continue to believe he is the super-computer "Watson" from Jeopardy. Kinda cool... Nagler moonlights as The Food Channels' very own Ted Allen, and now Watson... This site is getting sweeter with each passing day.

Paul Ott Carruth's picture

Lynn Dickey 12

Perhaps some day I will. Right now I'm not comfortable doing so. I prefer anonymity.

FITZCORE1252's picture

Pfft... That's all learned in the first couple years of playing Madden. Really though OC, that's some good (though heavy) shit. I enjoyed it.


Paul Ott Carruth's picture


Thank you. I'm glad you liked it and got something from it. I try to make it interesting for the reader but sometimes this stuff can be so darn dry. I hope I'm not boring people.

jay's picture

I have a question less about scheme and more about the desirable attributes of OG. I know with tackles you want long arms, quick kick step, good ability to mirror in a balanced way. What are the equivalent physical attributes for a guard?

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