Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Dominant Defensive Tackle's Impact On Pass Protection

I probably should have written this post back when the Bucs drafted Gerald McCoy and Brian Price in the first and second round respectively in April. Inevitably when two guys at the same position are drafted that high people are going to speculate about their potential impact. And while most of it is very reasonable, some of it comes close to hyperbole. I think its mostly because a lot of people, including some in the traditional media, aren't really sure about how to measure the impact of a defensive tackle. So invariably someone says something and people start repeating it which becomes an echo chamber. After awhile it has been repeated so many times that it becomes accepted as fact even if it isn't and that's not really a good thing.

So let me get this out of the way upfront, a defensive tackle drawing a double team from the center and guard on a passing play is not all that uncommon or impressive.

What actually motivated me to write this post was a comment Buccaneer head coach Raheem Morris made on the side line during the Miami game this weekend when he was asked about Gerald McCoy. He had plenty of good things to say about him but then he said (paraphrasing) that when Michael Bennett got his sack, some of the credit should go to McCoy for drawing a double team.

Well first of all McCoy wasn't even on the field for that play. I know because I watched both the local broadcast and the NFL Network broadcast which has the clearer view, and the 2nd team defensive line was in with Ryan Sims and Dre Moore inside. McCoy came on the field the next play because it was a third down.

Second of all while Moore did draw a double team it obviously had nothing to do with his reputation as a pass rusher around the NFL (which I will go out on a limb and say at the moment he has none) and everything to do with the Dolphins' normal pass protection.

And third of all even if McCoy had been on the field his presence wouldn't have had any impact on the fact that Bennett made a nice quick inside move and sacked the quarterback.  That was just a great individual play by Bennett.

Here's the deal, there are generally 3 basic pass protections. You have slide protection where the center decides presnap to slide right or left based on their offensive formation and helps out the guard and tackle to that side. You can have an M set where the center sets straight back and looks both ways and then slides to whichever side needs it most. Or you can have kick protection where the whole line slides either left or right leaving the end man on the line of scrimmage free for the back or tight end to block.

Now there are variations of these protections when offenses keep backs and tight ends in to help with the blocking, but those are the three basic protections you will see most often.

Most plays one of the two inside guys are going to be double teamed by the center and guard because of the slide or the M set. The slide is more prevalent though because few centers are quick enough to decide on the fly which side to slide to. And because slide protection is based on the offensive formation, it usually matter's little who on the defensive line is lined up where. If their formation calls for the center to slide to the left it won't matter if the worst pass rushing defensive tackle in the NFL is lined up over there, they are going to get the double team.

So then what is it that dominant pass rushing defensive tackle's do that help the rest of their line mates so much?

Well first of all they push the pocket which helps the defensive ends. Back in the day quarterbacks would take these 8-9 step drops in the pocket on passing plays and they would be sitting ducks for fast defensive ends. The problem for the offense is that when a quarterback drops back they put the offensive lineman at a disadvantage because they now have to try to catch up to a guy running around them with almost a straight line to the QB. Eventually offensive coaches wised up and realized that it would help their offensive line and keep their quarterback healthier if they stopped dropping back as far AND started sliding up into the pocket to buy time for the receivers to get open.

It sucked for smaller faster defensive ends though because now if they ran around the offensive tackles, even if they beat them clean, they would be running past the level off the quarterback. Everyone had to start learning how to use at least some power in their speed rushes in order to try to cut that corner down. But even that doesn't work if you have defensive tackles inside who get stuck at the line of scrimmage.

If the quarterback can just step up into the pocket whenever a defensive end tries a speed rush then its hard to get pressure on the quarterback without blitzing. But when a dominant pass rushing defensive tackle gets penetration and pressure on the quarterback, not only can they not step up, lots of times they end up continuing to go backwards which gives the speed rushing defensive end a much better chance of success.

Now the truly great pass rushing defensive tackles, of which there have only been a handful, can help in other ways as well.

I played with one of the greatest if not the greatest pass rushing defensive tackle in Warren Sapp. But in addition to the great individual rushes Sapp was so successful with, he was also deadly in running our favorite pass rush game back then, a TEX. I have never and don't think I will ever see any defensive tackle be any better or more effective at running this game. For those who aren't familiar, a TEX game is where the defensive end gets up the field as if he is running a speed rush. The defensive tackle on the outside shoulder of the guard to the same side, also comes off the ball like he is speed rushing the guard but then turns to the tackle and tries to get to his back as he is going back in his pass set. Once the defensive end feels and or sees the defensive tackle with his hands on the offensive tackle, he plants and loops inside the guard.

The effect, when run well, is a two on one situation where the guard has to decide whether to keep trying to block the defensive tackle or let him go free and come off inside to block the defensive end. Sapp was so quick off the ball and so good with his hands that when we ran that game most of the time it was like money in the bank as long as the defensive end set it up well.

But it wasn't just when he ran the game that he helped the defensive end on that side. We were so successful at that game that after awhile the offensive tackles were paranoid. If you go back and watch some of our games you will see the offensive tackle reaching their inside hand out trying to protect themselves just in case the game was coming. Well obviously this had a positive effect for the defensive end on that side because its had for any offensive tackle to block one guy when his attention is also on another.

Now there is a way that you can determine a defensive tackle is impressive by the fact that the center and guard double team them. And that way is when you know going into a game the way a team's pass protection is set up for certain formations but they end up altering or breaking their rules altogether to accomodate blocking that guy. I am again aided in this knowledge by having played with Sapp. You see our coach and the rest of the guys on the defensive line studied protections intensly so we could know which way the center was going to slide in most passing situations. The reason was we wanted Sapp to be able to line up away from the slide most of the time and get a one one one with the guard if possible and or we wanted to make sure when we ran a pass rush game that we ran it to the side away from the center slide. But when teams started figuring out (and it didn't take long) that most of them didn't have a guard who could block Sapp one on one you would see centers totally abandoning the things we had seen on film and just sliding his way. Many times you would even see a back stay in just to chip him because he was so quick off the ball.

And he usually STILL ended up getting pressure. Now THAT'S impressive.

Now understand that I'm not trying to downplay Gerald McCoy. He did pretty well for his first live action and he really did get double teamed several times on run and pass. And I totally understand why Coach Morris is talking him up. He was the 3rd pick in the draft and he is going to start for us this year and after a 3-13 rookie season Coach Morris has to be as much of a salesman as he is a coach.

The only point I'm making is that had it been Ryan Sims or any other undertackle on the team they would have gotten double teamed on the same plays too. So the double teams in and of themselves were not all that impressive.

I will say this though, if McCoy DOES eventually become a dominant pass rusher, the Bucs might consider moving him around instead of just keeping him on the right side all the time like he was on Saturday. Otherwise it will be pretty easy for other teams to game plan for him when or if that day comes.

*diagram above is slide protection

Update: Whoops Looks like Joe Henderson needs to be reading Passing On The Game ;)


  1. Steve,
    Great blog and the information you provide the fan is awesome. Thank You. What, if anything will having two good(not yet great) DT's playing in this TEX game? Can it be run on both sides of the line? I like the diagram(s), you show to us any chance we might get you to show us some film breakdown? Along with the diagrams? Wishful thinking.... and you do enough already.

  2. Absolutely excellent article. I would be in heaven if you could manage to write one article like this a week.

    In fact, something like breaking down one key play per week when the season comes around would be awesome.

    I know there's been a lot of speculation about what exactly Brian Price's role is going to be since most of us saw him as a UT before he was drafted.

    Let's make the big assumption that he would be a good UT and McCoy is also progressing along very well as a UT. Wouldn't that give us a big advantage in obvious passing situations, given that the center would be in a 'pick your poison' mode on who to double team? (Obviously, I'm making a lot of assumptions there...but think two years from now if both become forces.)

    In that situation, if we didn't have any great DEs (like now), would they just double BOTH DTs and leave a TE to block one of the DEs one on one? That ever happen?

    Anyway, thanks for inside insight :-)

  3. I think you are the only guy "in the media" writing articles on the x's and o's of d-line play. We need more guys like you in the broadcast booth explaining the intricacies of what is going on. It's not radio, we can see the guy caught the pass.