Last week was the first time I crawled back to the deep dark trench of my brain and pulled out my old offensive line knowledge. I knew what I wanted to write about, but not what to analyze. I knew the goal, but not the steps to reaching it. The goal being--teach everyone the beautiful mayhem that is offensive line play. The process and what to review was foggy.
Then when I was watching the game tape from the Texans-Titans game last Sunday, EUREKA! It happened. Like the apple falling on Newton's head, exchanging a welt on the noggin for knowledge into how the universe works, I too had a magical idea and figured out how to go about this post and how to make your time well spent. The plan is now to discuss different tenets of offensive line play and to build upon it each week. I'll cover one topic in depth a week, then go over a play to discuss the application, and finally I'll show some stills about an important part of the game that doesn't involve the fat men scrounging around the line of scrimmage. One week we'll go over what makes a perfect double team, the next we'll talk about why Chris Myers may be the best player on the offensive line, and another will be about how pass protection differs between a guard and a tackle. Whatever is examined will be a theme from last week's game to make it all come full circle.
This summer, when I was watching preseason football halfheartedly, I was struck by how well Houston was running the empty back offense, especially in the red zone. They were able to stretch the field and put the defense at a disadvantage by using matchups in their favor. Having numerous skill players who can catch the ball (except for you, Keshawn Martin) allows the Texans to do things like put Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham out wide against a smaller corner, line Arian Foster up as a WR in a trips formation to catch a screen, or any other number of possibilities. I was even more surprised to see Houston keep it rolling by using the empty backfield often in the first couple games of the 2013 season. Kubiak, the master of doing the same thing continuously, has mysteriously changed the offense up some this season.
Last Sunday, the Texans continued to run the empty backfield successfully until the Titans beat it by bringing pressure. They're two problems with this formation: You only have five offensive linemen to block whatever the defense throws at you, and the defense knows the offense is going to throw. There's no mystery with this formation; there's only the opportunity to exploit matchups, unless the offense runs a quarterback draw like Houston did in game-winning fashion against Miami in 2008. That being said, Houston has been successful in this formation and it seems to be here to stay in 2013. Let's analyze how blocking schemes work in the empty back set.
Pass Protection Schemes in the Empty Back Set
From the high school level to the professional level, pass protections are nearly the same. The basic principle here is there will be a "lucky" or "ringo" call; lucky shifts the center, left guard, and left tackle one gap over and the right side blocks man to man. A ringo call does the opposite; the center, right guard, and right tackle will shift one gap over and the left guard and left tackle will play man to man. It's done like this because most five step drops are out of the shotgun where the running back stays into block. So the offensive line will shift away from the running back, and the back will pick up the first inside blitzer on the back side (where the guard and tackle are playing man to man). Most other formations use three step drops; the principle stays mostly the same, but there will be changes due to cut blocking to keep the defensive linemen's hands down.
In the empty backfield, pass protection changes up because there isn't a running back to help. The quarterback is standing back there naked and alone like the time he went to shower in summer camp only to have his clothes stolen while he was conditioning his hair. The change in the empty back formation will be that the center will make the ringo or lucky call depending on where the nose tackle lines up. If he's on the right of his face, it will be a ringo call; if he's lined up to the left, it will be a lucky call. All of this is simple on paper, but it changes when the blitz comes. Pass schemes are a cinch. Blitz pickups are problematic. This all seems like a bunch of hogwash in paragraph form. It will be easier to see in the pictures below.
Q2, 14:12 remaining, 2nd and 7. Result: 4 yard completion to Andre Johnson.
This is exactly what the offense wants when they use this formation as far as pass protection goes. The defense is only bringing four on this play, so the offense line knows they'll have a double team somewhere. The nose tackle looks like he's head up on the center, but he actually is inside on his left shoulder. So the line will have a lucky call: the center will take the A gap, the guard will take the B, and the tackle will take the C. On the backside, Brandon Brooks and Derek Newton are manned up with the defensive end and the outside linebacker or "smoke" (smoke is when the defense is showing pressure off the edge).
In this still, the play is starting to develop. The key aspect to pay attention to is Myers. Look how he shifted over to the A gap and how Wade Smith moved to the B. Since Smith is uncovered, he has to do two things--provide help to Myers with his right arm while keeping his eyes open for any blitzes coming his way.
When the defense only brings four, it's an easy pickup. Schaub could have created an entire haiku before he would have to worry about any pressure coming his way. In this situation, the offense is able to go 5 against 7 in the secondary. Nobody is uncovered, but they'll have man coverage almost everywhere depending on how deep the safeties are playing.
The end result is Schaub untouched and a four yard completion to Andre Johnson, three yards short of the first down marker. This simple play is the foundation of all pass blocking schemes in the empty back formation. I'll go over something a little more tricky now.
Q1, 3:54 remaining, 3rd and 5. Result: 14 yard completion to DeAndre Hopkins.
When the defense lines up in these "3s" and wide "5s" or "7" techniques (it's approximately a "7" if a tight end was on the line of scrimmage and the technique can be called either one), the calls are a little misconstrued because the center is uncovered. The guard and tackles are both covered, so they'll be man to man against whoever is lined up across from them. The center will drop backwards and look for an incoming blitz or will provide help where needed.
On this play, a half a second before the ball is snapped, the linebacker starts to walk up. The defensive tackle and linebacker will run a simple stunt where the defensive tackle slants inside to the A gap and the middle linebacker takes up his spot. In a perfect world, Myers will drop back, keeping his left arm out while looking for trash to the right until he feels the defensive tackle and moves over. When he does that, Smith should pass him over and be ready for the middle linebacker. Also look at how the receivers are lined up in bunch formation, with Graham and Daniels both playing as wide receivers.
Right now you can see what was discussed above. Myers is using his left arm to feel for anything coming that way while dropping back. Smith is pushing the defensive tackle over to Myers while staying in position to pick up the linebacker.
The defensive tackle was passed over with ease, which can be seen by how square and locked up Myers is with the slanting defensive tackle. However, there's a problem with Smith. In the last photo, he seemed to be in perfect position for the linebacker, but the linebacker's speed was too much for him. He runs right by Smith and rips underneath his block. Smith ends up staying just a hair too long exchanging the defensive tackle over to Myers. As a result, he gets beat when picking up the blitz.
On this play, Houston was lucky they were running a quick drag route out of their bunch package. It's cool to see how the play was designed, with Daniels just acting as a screen and taking up both of the defenders, which allows Hopkins to run freely. When the Texans go into this formation, they need to check and see how many defenders are coming and if they need to have an audible for a quick slant or crossing pattern for Schaub to check down to. If there isn't, this play ends up in a sack more times than there is a completion.
Click the link for an Imgur album with a similar play (edit-shouldn't be a lucky call). Pay attention to the techniques of the defensive linemen and think about what calls would be made.
Up to this point of the game, I have three plays labeled as empty backfield and others where Houston lined up in the shotgun and had the back run out in the flat to leave the backfield empty. At the 1:35 mark of the first half, Tennessee picked up on Houston's blocking scheme and tendencies in the shotgun and decided to bring more than five to blitz Schuab. This play changed the dynamics of Houston's passing game; it led to the Titans blitzing more and Houston becoming more hesitant to leave their backfield empty.
Q2, 1:35 Remaining, 1st and 10. Result: Bernard Pollard Interception.
This play uses the same rules described earlier, but the defense has caught up to the offense's tricks and has something more sinister up its sleeve.
This time the defense is bringing 6. Not only are they blitzing, but their blitz is aimed at the man side of the protection, not the gap side. When a stunt occurs, 99% of the time the defensive lineman will stunt towards the gap where his hand is down. It's done like this to prevent the defensive lineman from opening his whole body up to the offensive lineman. For example, on this play, Jurrell Casey has his right hand down. He's slanting right and the linebacker fills in his vacancy to maintain his gap. Houston has Brandon Brooks left to block two guys while Smith is trying to find something to do. This is the difference between having an extra back left in to block and the empty set.
In a shotgun set, the offensive line will usually shift away from the running back and play man to man on his side. If Foster was hanging out back there in protection, he would be picking up #53, Moise Fokou, and Brooks would be left on #56, Akeem Ayers, and everything would have been alright. The only way to pick this up in the empty back set is for the offensive line to pick up the blitz before the snap and for Smith to "piggy" his way to the other side of the line to pick up the trash. Instead, we get to witness Schaub's life flash before his eyes.
There's one last idea here to grasp. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever do what Brooks does here. He sees the other linebacker coming and tries to pass Ayers (#56) to Myers, who will pass Casey (#99) to Smith. Brooks will then pick up Fokou (#53). I understand the process of Brooks' thinking, but you never let the inside man go to block someone further outside. The result of his decision was allowing Ayers a free shot as he zoomed past a diving Myers and Fokou an easy path because of how unbalanced Brooks was trying to rush over to the other linebacker. When he does this, Ayers is able to get into Schaub's throwing motion, hit his arm, and force a lame pass that hovers before falling into the arms of Bernard Pollard.
If Brooks stays on his man and lets the outside player rush free, Schaub would have had just enough time to get the ball out cleanly. Remember the key to pass protection isn't to be perfect, but to do just enough. On this play, Brooks was trying to be perfect.
Smith never sees the battle raging right behind him. Houston is lucky Pollard isn't able to stay in bounds and return the interception for a touchdown.
This exact same type of aggressive play call by the defense is used to create a Kamerion Wimbley sack on 3rd and 10 with 4:47 left in the game. The Imgur link is here for those who are interested (even though Foster is in to block it's a great example of a big blitz). Remember to look at the ringo/lucky call and where Tennessee is attacking. Tennessee will continue to use this strategy at the end of the fourth quarter and overtime. More on this later.
Now that we understand how pass protection works in the empty back set, let's look at how the pass protection changes when the back is left to block.
3Q, 8:39 remaining 1st and 10. Result: Incomplete Pass to Garrett Graham.
When the back is helping in pass protection, there is usually a predetermined call for which side of the offensive line is going to move over a gap. Wherever the back is going to block, the opposite side will be the one to cover the gap next to them. In this case, Foster is going to block right and look inside to outside for a linebacker coming through. The right side of the line is going to man up, so Smith has the "3" and Duane Brown has the "5". On the other side Myers, Brooks, and Newton will all shift one gap over. On this play Myers isn't looking for the nose tackle. The line is simply shifting away from where Foster is helping.
The defensive line is running a stunt where the defensive tackle slants inside and the defensive end loops over into the A gap. It will be interesting to see how Brown and Smith react.
On the stunt, it's awesome how Smith and Brown turn into one being just like the Brewton I described in last week's column. They come together hip to hip so the defensive tackle can't split them. Smith can feel Brown to the left of him and he knows there has to be someone to fill in the gap that #99 just left. He will pass him over to Brown and square #92, Ropati Pitoitua, up. Foster is taking out the "smoke," Zach Brown (#55), who is blitzing from the outside. On the other side of the play Myers, Brooks, and Newton have all moved one gap over. The problem is Fokou (#53) is coming on a delayed blitz. Brooks needs to be giving an arm to help and allowing Myers to look inside for linebacker heading towards him.
In these two stills, you can already see how much of a difference having the running back in makes for the offensive line. If Foster wasn't back there blocking, Houston would have had a ringo call (towards the 2i) and Smith and Brown would have picked up the stunt the same. The difference would have been that Brown (#55) would have came in free like a drag racer on the outside; Schaub would have had to make a quick pass or he would have been destroyed by a hit from the backside that he never could have seen coming.
Because of gap control-Newton has the C gap, Brooks has the B gap, Myers has the A gap-Fokou (#53) is able to come in freely. Everything is picked up well based on the rules, but because the blitz is creatively arranged and Fokou's attack is delayed, the offensive line is unable to move over to pick him up. Thus far this season, plays where Schaub is put under pressure have been the result of defensive strategies, like the wide 9's jetting up the field in San Diego and unique blitzes designed to attack the flaws in their pass protection scheme. They have not been because of poor blocking performance. This play was a case of bad luck. When watching it live, you can see Myers has his eyes on #53 Fokou. Smith seals the DT right into him and Myers is unable to move over and pick up the blitz.
What we get is a mash of bodies, Fokou coming through untouched, and Schaub having his ribs rattled like the trunk of Bun B's Escalade as he throws in Garrett Graham's direction towards the corner of the end zone.
It seems clear that Houston is going to stick to the empty backfield in order to spread the defense out. They will also line up in the shotgun, put the RB in the flat, and leave their five offensive linemen to pick up the blitz. It will be interesting to see how opposing defenses attack their pass protection scheme and how Houston responds. Hopefully, from this you have learned more about how a pass protection scheme works and the strain an empty back field puts on an offensive line.
60 Yards in the Blink of an Eye
Another theme of this season has been the "controversy" occurring in Houston's backfield. Kubiak has given Ben Tate a share of the playing time and Foster is carrying the ball less than he has in the past. Despite Foster's burning desire for more carries, Kubiak is making the right decision.
Last year Foster had 350 carriesm probably 50 more than he should have had. Since he became Houston's full time bac,k his yards per carry have decreased from 4.9 to 4.4 to 4.1 because of his overuse and the defense's focus on shutting down the run. Running backs have a short life span. Their teats run dry quicker than every other position in the league, expect for maybe cornerback. By giving Tate a share of the carries, it keeps Foster fresh, allows him to run harder, and helps his longevity for this season and the future. If the decision was hard to make at first, it seems much easier now in hindsight with the way Tate has run the football these last two weeks. In the Titans game, Tate broke a 60 yard run on Houston's very first drive and has continued to make a statement. This play that got Houston's offense going before it faded into obscurity in the second half needs to be delved into deeper.
1Q, 14:02 Remaining, 2nd and 6 Result: 60 Yard Run.
First, look at how wide the DE is playing on Duane Brown. He's playing as a wide "5" or "7" tech. Because of it, there's a huge hole between him and the defensive tackle. It's also important to note the impact the formation has on the play. Since Houston is running the play to the weak side, the defense has shifted over to the right to cover the tight end. The reason why the defensive end is playing that wide is because on most zone run plays, the DE is left untouched as the tackle zone steps and blocks the outside linebacker. With the defensive end playing this wide, he has a chance to run flat down the line of scrimmage and make a play on the running back. Because of the formation, Houston is given a large gap for Tate to attack.
Before Tate even receives the ball, he has daylight to run, but the play utilizes a delay so Myers can get up to the second level.
This run play isn't a zone, but a variation of the trap. The guard and center are running a horn block that is usually used on draw plays. It's used as a way to ensure that by the time the back gets the handoff, the lineman is starting to head to the second level. Linebackers are tough to keep locked up because of their speed and agility, so this scheme narrows the time the lineman has to keep his block on the linebacker. Smith will block down on the "1" and Myers will pull flat behind him up to the outside linebacker.
The real beauty of the play is Schaub's drop back and the back side. They're faking a fake on this play, like a dream within a dream, Inception style. On 2nd and 6, a probable passing down, Houston is showing a play-action pass based on the way Schaub is dropping back, Tate looks like he's about to stay in to help pass protect and the back side is just keeping everyone in front of them. Look at how the linebackers are frozen in place, thinking it's a play-action and not attacking the gaps. That little misdirection is all Houston needs.
Another blocking technique that needs to be mentioned is Duane Brown's. What he's doing is showing and going. Brown is dropping back like it's a pass, counts in his head 1-2-3, and then takes his right arm and bear claws the DE to shove him off his path just enough that he can't make a play on the RB. Next, he takes off up the field and acts as Tate's personal bodyguard.
Doesn't this play above and the one analyzed right before look eerily similar? On this one, Schaub does keep the ball on the play-action. This same technique is what keeps the Titans stuck in the mud on Tate's long run.
Myers and Smith had a successful exchange. Myers is now able to take care of the outside linebacker. Brown's show and go worked perfectly. He threw the DE off balance and he can now head up field to take care of the first guy he sees. The backside has completely sealed off the defense like Schaub is about to run a boot; the outside linebackers still don't know who has the ball. Lastly, the middle linebacker doesn't have to be touched because he has to stay in his gap to make sure Tate doesn't cut back up the middle. The possibility of play-action keeps him guessing where the ball is going.
It looks exactly how it was drawn up in practice and in the week of preparation before the game. Tate is now running a 50 yard dash to the end zone with that big bad man Duane Brown leading the way for him. This is one of those plays that Houston created after watching film from the Pittsburgh game. They found a way to attack Tennessee's defense when they have their defensive end lined up in the wide "5". They got the look they wanted and attacked the gap the Titans gave Houston from how they lined up. When watching the game, the Titans shut down Houston's running game fairly well, but the Texans were still able to have some success in the run game against this defensive front.
After the game was over, most of you were starved for some detail about how the coverages changed in the last two drives and why Houston's passing game was able to attack out of nowhere. On the drive that tied the game when Hopkins had three straight completions, the wide receivers lined up in the same formation every play--slot right with Martin and Johnson lined up side by side on the left and Hopkins all alone on the right side of the field.
4Q, 3:02 Remaining, 2nd and 10. Result: 23 Yard Completion to DeAndre Hopkins.
You can see the formation I went over earlier: Martin and Andre Johnson are together on the left side and Hopkins is all alone on the right side. Tennessee's two cornerbacks, Verneer and McCourty, are very good and did an incredible job up to this point in the game. Because of their ability, Tennessee decided to trust them alone out wide and brought pressure with the blitz. On this play, they showed blitz, but the linebackers dropped back into a zone. From this point on, Houston keeps Foster in the backfield to help with pass protection; if no one blitzed, he'd take off in the flat on a route. The Texans decide not to risk only having 5 in to block after the Titans were able to get to Schaub by blitzing. The key to this play is Owen Daniels. He'll run a up route through the middle of the coverage and gets the safeties to focus their attention on him. When this happens, Hopkins is wide open underneath for a 23 yard gain.
4Q, 2:35 Remaining, 1st and 10. Result: 13 yard completion to DeAndre Hopkins.
Again on this play, Hopkins is going to take advantage of Daniels going deep. He'll just slip underneath his route into open space. Foster is back to help with pass protection again.
The Titans decide to blitz six on this play, but they don't show the blitz until the ball is snapped. This decision to bring six leaves only three defenders to play man coverage against four receivers and forces the safeties to play deep in case a receiver burns past a corner. The safeties' only goal is to make sure no one gets behind them. Because the safeties are playing so far back, the entire middle of the field is open. This is exactly where Hopkins' route takes him.
The pocket is clean due to a quick throw and six blocking six. Hopkins is wide open because one guy can't cover two; he decides to take Daniels running the deeper route and the safeties are too far back to help.
4Q, 2:28 Remaning, 1st and 10. Result: 28 yard completion to DeAndre Hopkins.
The Titans are now starving for pressure and want to get to Schaub because the pass rush is how they shut down the passing game on the previous drive. The difference is Houston is now keeping Foster in to block. So Houston again has six to block six. Since Tennessee is trying so hard to get pressure, they are in man to man everywhere with one safety left deep to cover the entire field. All Schaub is doing is watching where the safety goes, and he'll throw in the opposite direction.
The safety decided to not commit one way or the other. All he's doing is going to help tackle whoever Schaub completes this pass to. Even though Brown is beat, the pass is already out of Schaub's hands. You don't have to be perfect, just good enough in pass protection. Now the 6'1" Hopkins is streaking down the sideline and he has to go up and get it over the 5'10" Verner.
The safety just stares in disbelief and helplessness as Dre II goes over Verner to make the catch and put Houston in the red zone.
4Q, 2:22 Remaining. Result: 21 yard completion to Andre Johnson.
Again the Titans make the odd decision to only keep one safety back and blitz six. The five versus six ship they were able to exploit earlier has sailed. This entire drive they have played exactly how Houston wants them to. Right at the snap, Schaub sees one safety and knows he'll go to old faithful for another jump ball.
Look at the pocket Schaub has to step into. This is a direct result of Foster staying in to block and Houston's ability to have a player to match everyone Tennessee decides to bring. The scheme is the same as I went over earlier with the back in the backfield. There's no adjustments. Just better execution and the marginal benefit Foster provides in pass protection.
The ball is already in the air by the time Pollard makes his break on the ball. The coverage isn't bad, but the extra height Johnson has on the corner gives him the advantage he needs. In hindsight, the Titans should have only brought four to blitz, double covered the outside, and played man to man on Daniels and Martin.
Instead they do the same thing and get beat. Houston takes advantage of it and ties the game with a Foster TD/two-point conversion.
OT, 11:35 Remaining, 3rd and 10. Result: 25 Yard Completion to DeAndre Hopkins.
Not only did they get burnt on it twice, but THEY DO IT AGAIN! At the end of the fourth quarter and overtime, the Titans had one safety back. On these three plays, Houston completed three passes for 74 yards to cap off their 24-16 comeback. This time, the Titans had 3rd and 10 and again they decided to bring the house.
Despite their poor decision-making, the Titans were able to get pressure on this play. The middle linebacker came a little later and Foster had his eyes on the outside linebacker instead of watching the inside. The cardinal sin of pass protection is blocking the outside man in favor of the inside man like Brooks did earlier. The problem is Schaub again already knows where he is going with the ball when there is only one safety playing back. The defender gets there too late to make a play.
The ball is out cleanly before Schaub is hit and Pollard is about twenty yards from being able to unleash his destruction.
Then this happened.
Even on the game-winning touchdown pass, there was a safety who didn't have a chance to make a play on the ball. The difference in this game wasn't Hopkins all of the sudden being able to beat man coverage. It was Houston keeping Foster into block while the Titans continued to blitz six, which allowed Houston's taller wide receivers the chance to make plays over the Titans' smaller corners without having to worry about safety help. Tennessee kept playing for pressure; that worked earlier in the game, but the Titans failed to realize Houston's adjustments and make some of their own.
So now Houston is 2-0 and in first place in the AFC South entering Week Three while the Titans allowed victory to slip out of their hands like a bar of soap.