Teams like the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders are the NFL’s elite when it comes to their offensive lines. In recent years, having a very-good-to-elite offensive line has become a way of differentiating yourself from the rest of the NFL. While most teams are trying to get faster on the defensive side of the ball, in order to match up against more athletic wide receivers and tight ends, some front offices believe in being more stout up front to try and power through smaller and faster defenses.
Having a good line can also help take the pressure off a talented and inexperienced quarterback during the early seasons of his career. Examples of this are Dak Prescott in Dallas and Marcus Mariota in Tennessee.
However, not all teams follow this model of allocating major resources to their offensive line. Actually, investing in your offensive line with draft picks, like the Cowboys, or through free agency, like the Raiders, isn’t always a successful way to have a top-tier offensive line. The New York Giants have spent two firsts and a second round pick on their offensive line since 2013, and have major weaknesses in pass protection and run blocking.
Some teams, like the Seattle Seahawks, choose to spend some resources on their line, but focus on raw players hoping coaching and player development gets the most of their ability. There’s no single way to be a successful team in the NFL, but the one constant is your quarterback needs enough time to drop back and deliver passes.
Many teams struggled mightily in pass protection during the first few weeks, notably the Houston Texans, Green Bay Packers, and the aforesaid Giants and Seahawks. NFL teams can still have successful seasons, and win a Super Bowl, without a top offensive line, but they need to strategically employ methods to cover up these deficiencies. Here are potential ways for these offenses to try and cover up their offensive line troubles.
Increasing Numbers in Protection
Increasing the amount of blockers to protect against the pass rush can help offset some pressure on your quarterback. Keeping your running backs, tight ends, or both back to block can provide your quarterback with some additional time to throw. Max protection – eight blockers – works on key passing downs to protect against blitzes, but it’s not a strategy to use every down as the more players you have blocking, the less targets there are to throw to. NFL defenses would adjust and drop more players into coverage to defend against the limited amount of targets on the field.
Changing up the personnel and ways you increase the amount of blockers would be more effective. Adding a sixth offensive lineman in place of a tight end is an option, but additional offensive linemen are used more often for running plays. For passing plays, a team can line up in 21 personnel in a split-back formation and have both backs block or one block and the other run a route.
They could also assign their backs to block any free rushers and then release into their route. Having two tight ends on a play and motioning one in the backfield can also work or keeping them in line to chip the edge rusher. More on that later. Increasing the number of blockers contains a lot, but adding more blockers should help your quarterback out:
On this play Houston has two split backs, RB Lamar Miller (#26) and FB Jay Prosch (#45) who help protect Watson on this 1st and 10 play. Both backs stay in the backfield momentarily before releasing into the flat. Prosch chips the defensive end – knocking him off balance before running his route. The result is a clean pocket for Watson and a gain on nine yards on the completion to DeAndre Hopkins.
Tight End Alignments
I asked my colleague Brandon Thorn to contribute other methods to help solve deficiencies for a struggling offensive line. He said the alignment of the tight end can help delay the pass rush a bit. Having the tight end in line between the offensive tackle and edge can slow the rush despite the tight end not really blocking. Alignments like this separate the tackle and the edge during the tight end’s release.
As we detail in the ITP Glossary, a chip block is an unexpected quick-hitting block performed by a running back or tight end before releasing into his route to help an offensive linemen with a difficult assignment. The chip block can throw an edge rusher off balance and give the offensive line an advantage in pass blocking.
Strategically, teams will typically use this type of block against very good to elite EDGE players, but can also use this to supplement a deficiency along the offensive line. A struggling linemen could use the extra help to better set up and time the rusher. Should the linemen still get beat by his man, with help the chip block should give the quarterback additional time to make a decision. Check out the glossary for great play examples and breakdowns!
Having a mobile quarterback is something that can work to help cover up problems along the offensive line. Players like Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson, who can make plays with their legs and throw off-platform, are valuable as their teams know they can avoid pressure and make accurate throws.
Front offices may view this as a trade off as having mobility can allow them to invest less into the offensive line. This strategy certainly has its caveats and limitations. Seattle might learn this the hard way as Wilson is piling up hits early in his career now.
There can be long-term injury affects as a result of his line not holding up for him. Yet, Wilson and the Seahawks manage to consistently get to the playoffs with him creating plays off-platform.
Rodgers is feeling pressure from his left and up the middle on this play. However, he calmly moves to his right and delivers a perfect pass on the move to Davante Adams along the sideline for a touchdown. This is what a mobile quarterback brings to the table with a line that’s having problems.
Mobility may be one of the reasons why Bill O’Brien in Houston went to DeShaun Watson during Week 1 after learning their line couldn’t protect Tom Savage against the Jaguars defensive front. Watson is a more mobile quarterback, but as stated earlier there are limitations to having a poor offensive line. Savage was sacked a total of six times and Watson four. It doesn’t matter who’s back there if the line is terrible. Missing your starting left tackle can do that to a team.
Moving or rolling the pocket is also something that works well for mobile quarterbacks. This allows a signal caller to move away from the rush and make quicker reads going through his progressions since he only has a portion of the field available to him. These throws are usually high percentage as the quarterback is working toward his receivers making the throwing lane cleaner.
The left side of the line – mainly Detroit’s replacement left tackle Greg Robinson (#73) had trouble against New York’s pass rush all night. To prevent Olivier Vernon (#54) from having an impact on the play the Lions roll the pocket on a critical 3rd and 2. Matthew Stafford rolls out right along with his center, right guard, right tackle, and running back. This makes it difficult for the pass rush to get near Stafford and creates an easier throwing lane to Golden Tate, resulting in a 1st down on the play. Tate was also motioned inside on the play and then ran an outside route to better get separation against his man.
Quick Passing Game
Teams without a mobile quarterback will need to rely on the quick passing game to move the ball through the air. This strategy is essentially self-explanatory. Pass protection isn’t giving the quarterback any time and thus he needs to get the ball out to his receivers quicker. This works well for teams that implement the West Coast offense that runs a lot of quick slants and hitches.
This is why Odell Beckham Jr. is such a valuable piece in New York. He’s able to quickly win off the line of scrimmage, creating separation between him and the cornerback, which allows Eli Manning to get the ball out before the rush gets to him.
Players like Sterling Shepard should also be able to get the job done, but Dallas threw a lot of new zone coverages at New York in their Week 1 matchup which slowed down Manning’s mental processing ability. This hurt as their tackles, Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart, played very poorly against Dallas’s rotation of defensive ends resulting in three Manning sacks.
Employing these methods should at least lessen the pressure on struggling offensive lines and protect their quarterback investment.
During Week 2, Manning once again was consistently pressured when he dropped backed to pass being sacked five times on Monday Night. New York got Beckham Jr. back, but it didn’t help much. However, quick slants like this to Beckham need to be called more often to give Manning a chance to complete passes.