When Raiders defensive end Kamerion Wimbley picked up four sacks against the Bears in Week 2 of the preseason, it seemed to confirm the worst fears people had about the combination of a Mike Martz offense – always good for a huge upswing in sacks – and a line that helped Jay Cutler get sacked a career-high 35 times and lead the league with 26 interceptions in 2009.
What came out in an interview offensive line coach Mike Tice did with ESPN Chicago, in which he defended then-left tackle Chris Williams' performance in the game, was that he was not using line protection calls in training camp and the preseason. This despite the fact that Tice, by his own account, carries as many as 37 protections in the regular season.
"You have to carry a lot of protections," Tice said at the time, "because you really think you know what the other guys are going to do, but sometimes you don't know what they are going to do. You have to have ways to adjust to that. It could be you throw a protection out on a certain day and say, ‘Let's not do that,' even though that was one of the ones you worked on and it was a major one in your plan.
"Sometimes you need to go to protections to help other players that might be having an off night. ‘Let's major in this protection so we can keep the tight end in.' All of those things come into play, so you need to carry that many protections."
But in practice, frequently going up against All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers, Williams did not have protection help. And, apparently, the Bears didn't want to reveal Tice's array of magical protections before their time. Thus, Williams was doomed to be a man alone through the preseason.
Martz revealed at the time that the Bears would not be using tackle-plus-tight end protections in the preseason, which was part of the reason that Williams was so vulnerable through the exhibition slate. He had no outside help on any of Wimbley's four sacks, and that was a problem for a player who has never presented enough of an elite skill set to transcend the need for that kind of assistance.
Protections in their simplest form are specific O-line calls either sent in pre-set or adjusted at the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped. Frequently, centers will be tasked with calling these protections based on what the defensive line is showing. If a young center is still learning the intricacies of line calls, a veteran guard may take his place.
Step 1 in making a protection call is to determine how many defenders are in the box and how many may blitz or drop, depending on tendencies ascertained from film study and stat research. The lineman making the protection calls must know where his own blockers are on every play, and that includes the halfbacks, fullbacks, tight ends and receivers that may be asked to stay in and block. A call may adapt to have additional blockers stay in for a blitz read, or it might send skill-position players off their blocking assignments to counter nickel or dime defenses by attacking the flats and seams.
Options abound, and everyone has his own assignment. For example, if the halfback's responsibility – say, the weak-side linebacker – drops into seam coverage at the snap, the back might hit the flat for a swing pass.
Step 2 is to gauge protection needs with the amount of time that the quarterback requires while in the pocket. In Martz's offensive system, the five- to seven-step drop is frequently the order of the day, which makes things a bit more difficult from a protection standpoint, especially with Martz's predilection for three- and four-wide sets.
In a typical Martz offense with a single back, a variation of a "74" protection might be the call (Figure 1). Against a 4-3 defense, or any four-man front, the 74 call brings the tight end and halfback in to deal with seven defenders looking to penetrate.
Against a 4-3 "over" front (a front aligning over the tight end side), man-on-man protection would be the recipe for success, with a two-level concept in place to deal with the linemen and linebackers. In this case, the left tackle gets the call to take the right defensive end, the left guard takes the inside tackle, the center takes the middle linebacker upfield, the right guard takes the outside tackle, the right tackle takes the strong-side linebacker and the tight end takes the left defensive end – the right tackle may chip the end before heading upfield, as well.
In the diagram, you can see that the weak-side linebacker presents an option for the halfback. If he comes after the quarterback, the halfback will stay in to block. If he drops, the halfback may hit the flat for a hot-read pass, but he also has to watch out for a corner or safety blitz. That's the challenge when you leave a single back in on the weak side with minimal protection.
A "Jet" protection call is a little different in that it affords the tight end a free release off the line instead of a blocking option. Protections beginning with "3" ("312" and "313" are common calls) refer to plays in which three-step drops by the quarterback are mandated. These are quick calls that may involve play action and are designed to get a hat on a hat, as they say, as quickly as possible.
Scat protections, of which you may see variants in any Martz scheme, are simpler and quicker calls in which only the five offensive linemen block up front. With man protection, it's five-on-five if facing a 3-4 defense. The center would take the middle linebacker if the guards and tackles are dealing with a four-man front. Scat protection puts pressure on the quarterback to read the D quickly because there are more receivers and fewer ancillary blockers, which is why the halfback would generally be the hot read in the flat or even behind the line of scrimmage.
Sprint option or rollout protections frequently employ slide protection (all of the offensive linemen head one way in order to use the momentum of the defensive linemen against them) and may use run action. Run action is a variant of play action in which a pass is the main call, but the blockers fire out as if run-blocking to fool the defense. This is a great call for any team with an impaired run game that still wants to sell play action. Slide protection one way or another is also a common call against a defensive overload to one side.
These are but a few of the protections you might see in the NFL. Each team brings different wrinkles to the playbook, and each offensive line coach will assign different responsibilities to each lineman. It's a complicated dance, which makes preseason practice all the more important.
This makes Tice's decision to avoid the use of advanced protections in exhibition games all the more curious. Perhaps only now, along with all the personnel changes earlier in the year, are we looking at the real reason behind the Bears' blocking improvements in the second half of the season.
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Doug Farrar is a senior writer for FootballOutsiders.com, an NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports and an NFL contributor to the Washington Post.
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