Monday, August 31, 2020

It Really Isn't That Simple

This sack is a throw away play on 1st 20 late in the 4th quarter of the Memphis vs. South Florida game with the Tigers leading by a score of 49-10. From a game situation perspective it really doesn't hold much significance. 

The Rush:
End is contain working up the field with the 3 tech DT looping to contain opposite the pressure. The Nose is attacking the A gap before working to the interior pass rush lane opposite the pressure. The Mike is pressuring the inside half of the B gap and the SS is rushing the outside half of the B gap. 

The Coverage:
3 Under 3 Deep Firezone

The protection is a 6 man half slide concept.

The OL is sliding (Green) blocking the area to the defensive right. The OT is manned up opposite the slide and the RB is inserting/blocking edge threats inside out.

When the defense rushes two threats through the B gap the RB is overloaded 2 on 1 resulting in the unblocked fast pressure on the QB. 

The pressure pattern is a classic concept found in many defensive fire zone pressure schemes. The article could be summarized: Here's an a overload the RB fire zone pressure vs. half slide protection. Good design from former Memphis Defensive Coordinator Adam Fuller, excited to see his defense in 2020 at Florida State. That could be the end of the discussion.

I think there is more to this play than meets the eye on first look. Having more time available I've decided to write a more indepth article and take a deeper dive. Down the rabbit hole we go. 

The resource exchange for the offense is poor. The offense is blocking with 6 protectors while the defense rushes 5. The protection in theory should always be able to account for 5 rush threats. The defense may win some percentage of 1 on 1 matchups to create pressure against any protection. That is a reality of any pass rush situation. However that isn't what happened here. There is 6 vs. 5 and a rusher is left completely unblocked. How? Why?

Fire zone pressures are designed to create these problems. Zone dogs have been around for a long time creating these exact issues, they still work. There are numerous articles and examples on this site about fire zone pressure. What's the big deal? 

This article is less about scheme and more philosophical. There is a subset of coaches who love to toss around the acronym K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid). The half slide protection is a simple idea. Simple concepts unfortunately don't always hold up under multivariable threats. 

If the defense would have brought the Will instead:

The protection is simple and clean vs. this look. The slide side knows they have help from adjacent OL and can pass the twist off. The diagram is clean and the outcome of the pass rush vs. protection battle comes down to the 1 on 1 matchups, coverage vs. routes, and the QB getting the ball out on time. 

If the Mike had been in a zeroed alignment and pressured the slide side, the protection again has a good answer.

The Guard can't allow the Nose to slant from the slide side to the man side and has to redirect his set and travel back. The Mike is isolated on the Center with a two-way go but again the pressure is accounted for by the protection. The pass rush vs. protection battle again comes down to the 1 on 1 matchups, coverage vs. routes, and the QB getting the ball out on time.  

If Memphis had run the exact pressure with the Mike aligned zeroed up:

The slide side OL could have seen the Mike pressuring to the B gap and the C/G could have redirected their sets to handle the pressure. The OL cannot let anything go from the slide side to the man side. Once again the pass rush vs. protection battle again comes down to the 1 on 1 matchups, coverage vs. routes, and the QB getting the ball out on time.  

When the Mike aligned in the B gap instead of zeroed up the protection has issues. The Mike is outside the vision of the slide.  A small change in alignment has a big effect. This is where complexity creeps in no matter how badly the goal is to keep it simple. Complexity comes in two types: obvious and hidden. To account for the Mike's alignment being in the B gap instead of zeroed up the offense has several choices some carry obvious complexity while others the complexity is more hidden:

1. Ignore the Mike's alignment and run the protection as called. The sack is an example of that concept playing out on film. While simple, the QB is pressured immediately. This likely occurred for South Florida because they were late in a lopsided score game with inexperienced players on the field. Those guys likely didn't make the necessary adjustments. No doubt the film session following the game included what adjustments should have been made.

But addressing specifically the keep it simple disciples out there - 

The KISS crowd loves to say:
"that way players can play fast" - players played fast on this play
"that way players can be physical" - it was a  physical play
"that way they don't have to think they can just play" - they did 
"they can play confident knowing their assignment" - no clear indecisive actions on the play

Simple doesn't solve everything. How can the players possibly pick this concept up without making an adjustment, without adding complexity? It doesn't take many plays like this sack for players to get frustrated. Doubt quickly creeps in and players thoughts become "this protection doesn't work". 

2. Ignore the Mike's alignment and run the protection but the QB has to throw hot off of 2 extra rushers to the man side.  

The RB handles the 1 extra rusher and the QB must account or the 2nd. This is problematic because the defense can force the offense into throwing hot off of 5 man pressure or potentially a 4 man sim/creeper pressure. This significantly hinders intermediate and deep passing game concepts. The ball will routinely need to be thrown fast and short. It also requires the route concept to always have a built in hot route or WR's to use sight adjustments to account for the pressure. The QB also has to have all of his read progressions start on that side of the formation. The QB cannot see the hot if he isn't looking that direction. In the clip the QB's eyes are opposite the pressure. He never sees it coming. The ball has to be thrown accurately under duress from an unblocked rusher, the WR has to make the catch and get YAC to make it truly be effective. There is a great deal of complexity to undertake for the offensive coaches, QB, and WRs to select this option all to keep the protection simple for the OL/RB. Additionally this just isn't how hot routes work. Most offenses will not build a hot concept unless the pressure cannot be accounted for numerically by the protection. Hot routes most often come into play on 6+ rush looks with no deep safeties. This goes back to resource allocation. When the O has 6 blockers vs. a 5 man rush it should not make the protection have to throw hot, ever. At least that is likely the goal for the offense.

3. Change the slide and flip the RB. Either the OL or the QB has to change the slide direction. 

The offense has to ID the issue based on the Mike's alignment and communicate the new slide and the RB has to change alignment. The RB is opposite the slide to account for a potential 3rd rusher from the man side. If the RB is working to the man side, the QB is still hot to the slide side. The protection cannot handle the 4th rusher to the slide side. This has all the same hot throw problems as option 2. 

The protection can ask the RB to use a scan technique in this situation.

Now the RB will check his side then scan across to the opposite side. The protection has the pressure picked up in concept. Now we are getting somewhere. Unfortunately for the offense picked up doesn't equal protected. The block for the RB on a full speed rusher across the formation is a very difficult task. It may seem simple to change the slide and flip the RB. But there are a bunch of issues. This has to be repped in practice repeatedly to be used in a game.  The offense has to know how to do it, when to do it, how to communicate it, and how to get that all done on a play clock plus all the technique required to actually execute the protection. The RB needs significant reps of flipping alignment and making a scan block. The protection has to coached to ID the Mike's alignment and communicate/understand what is happening and why. The QB, OL, and RB have to be on the same page. The QB also has to get comfortable with a scan running back flashing in front of him and they both have to learn to co-exist when the QB looks to step up in the pocket or step into a throw to drive the ball down the field. Also flipping the RB has to be programmed into other plays in the offense. If the only time an O flips the back is to adjust the protection for drop back pass the defense will scout that up in film study. A defense may not check into a pressure on RB flip but simply knowing if a play is a run or pass pre-snap is a huge advantage. None of the complexity means this isn't a viable option. This option can get the QB protected and create a clean pocket. 

4. Change the slide leave the RB's alignment.

Back to the problem of having 4 to the slide and needing the QB to throw hot.

If the RB scans all the same challenges exist as in option 3 in terms of coaching and practice time.

The pressure is blocked in principle and the execution may be easier on the RB. The RB checks the Will. With no pressure the RB can stay on his side to pick up the SS. The challenge for the RB in this protection is what happens if the Will is rushing. Any block where the RB has to cross all the way across the formation is a challenge. As with all calls you gain something and you give something up. This call may improve the situation for this pressure but make other pressure pickups more difficult. Again a viable option to create a clean pocket.

5. Bonus the protection

Bonus says the offense is going to put the slide and RB on the same side. This creates a 4/2 protection principle with 4 blockers to one side of the Center the protection can block the pressure. This requires the QB, OL, and RB to ID the situation communicate and get this adjustment made pre-snap and executed post-snap. The RB's block is significantly easier. Another viable option for the offense to protect the QB.

It also isn't without risks. The protection is weaker opposite the slide. Two man twist games to the man side will get no help.

This is a good example of the isolation that occurs when the T/G are manned up vs. a twist with no help. This protection example is likely big on big man protection concept but conceptually the struggle is the same for a bonus protection. 

Bonus protection may force a player to travel back with no help.

The same pressure earlier in the game with the RB working to the slide on a bonus. The Center oversets and the Nose is able to win across his face. Adjustments can help account for the pressure they don't solve 1 on 1 matchups.

Bonus protection also has to scan the RB to Will pressure which is a difficult pick up.

Bonus protection can work and like all calls has strengths and stress areas.

6. OL adjust to a man protection principle when the Mike shows

In half slide protection the first uncovered OL starts the slide. In the initial picture that is the uncovered left guard from the defensive perspective. As the cadence starts the Mike shows early. The guard could make a 5-0 call telling the OL there are 5 treats at the LOS. Now all the OL are covered and all need to use man protection principles. Several things have to happen for this to be viable. The Guard/QB has to make the ID and communicate. The QB needs to control the cadence potentially even giving a "Easy, Easy" type of call to allow the protection to communicate and sort out what needs to happen before restarting the cadence. The Center is now in man and has to set to the Nose and travel back when the Nose crosses face. The Guard and Tackle are also manned up and have no slide help on inside movement to their side. It takes significant work to make a quick protection adjustment during the cadence happen. Again a viable solution but does up the complexity.

7. Call man protection instead of half slide from the start

Man protection or Big on Big (BOB) has the OL handle the 4 down DL and a declared Mike in the this case the OL would say " Mike 3 Mike 3". The blocks are just like option number 6. The big advantage is the OL doesn't have to make an adjustment during the cadence. This isn't without challenges.

In a half slide the OL can't depend on help from adjacent OL. In man protection OL end up going 1 on 1. The RB also has the challenge of going coast to coast. The RB setting to the SS has a difficult scan to the Will. If the RB sets to the Will he has a tough scan to the SS. And a Saw concept is a problem for the protection.

Memphis like every 4 down team has a version of SAW attacking both edges with pressure.

8. Check to Full Slide Protection

The offense still needs to make the ID and communicate. The RB could flip or not. This solution takes a great deal of stress off the RB. The RB on this pressure doesn't have a DE to block. However, in other pass rush situations the RB may have to block the defense's best rusher off the edge. The slide has challenges too. The Guard has to bypass the immediate threat in the B gap from the Mike and push his set out to the SS in the widest part of the B gap. The Center has to bypass the Nose and set wide to the fast threat from the Mike. The back side Guard has to hit a set that stops the Nose from immediate pressure on the midline while also avoid being too aggressive and oversetting the Nose.

Full slide away from the pressure forces the RB to be overloaded. The OT has a B threat from the Mike, the result is two off the edge vs. the RB. The RB vs. the DE is likely and advantage for the D. The overload give the RB no good option.

9. Get the RB out into a route or screen and put the pressure on the defense.

The idea is straight forward. Instead of adjusting the protection, get the RB out and stress the pressure by stretching the defense horizontally and vertically. In a similar line of thinking check/alert the play to a screen. Either way the offense is thinking the stress on the defense will punish the defense for bringing pressure.

Same pressure vs. a RB swing double screen concept. This is a play getting the RB out and a screen on the same play. The edge widens with the RB on the swing and the pressure forces the QB to throw it away. The dropping DE is a problem for the WR half of the double screen. This doesn't solve the fundamental protection problem. How do you protect a drop back pass when you want to throw a drop back pass? 

There are more solutions for the offense but there isn't a need to keep going the point is hopefully made. The reality is pass protection has rules and defenses can manipulate them. A simple Mike alignment change creates big challenges. Offensive line coaches and pass protectors have a very difficult task. On both sides of the ball it is easy to fall into the keep it simple mindset. Who will own the blame when the simple concept breaks down? For me it cannot fall on the players. If the concept needs to be adjusted to work, it needs to be adjusted. We have to accept complexity is necessary and embrace it. Teaching why the complexity exists and how it allows us to be successful has to happen. When a simple concept is broken by moving the Mike a few feet, complexity becomes necessary.

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