Tales from the Tape: Pass Protection

We break down Bears offseason film, from both organized team activities and the minicamps, to analyze the protection schemes of Chicago's offensive line.

When asked about Marc Trestman this offseason, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler espoused his offensive-minded head coach, particularly in the area of pass protection.

"He understands quarterbacks," Cutler said during veteran minicamp. "He understands how to protect quarterbacks."

During the past three seasons, Cutler has been one of the most-sacked quarterbacks in the NFL. Trestman, as well as GM Phil Emery, are very aware of the organization's protection issues during that timeframe.

"On the offensive side, it starts and ends with the quarterback," said Trestman during his introductory press conference. "We've got to protect our quarterback, and we've got to keep him safe."

To that end, Emery signed two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod in free agency, making him the richest offensive lineman in franchise history. He then spent a first-round pick on Kyle Long, an athletic blocker who can play multiple positions. Emery also added four-year veteran Matt Slauson, who has 48 career starts under his belt.

Kyle Long
Reid Compton/USA TODAY Sports

For a GM criticized for ignoring the offensive line last offseason, Emery went borderline overboard this year. Although, considering how awful the pass protection has been for years, no one is going to complain.

Yet adding a bunch of new faces doesn't necessarily equate to immediate success. The Bears are installing a brand new zone-blocking run system, which is going to take a lot of time to perfect. And in pass protection, the schemes will be completely different in Trestman's West Coast system, which is the polar opposite of the downfield offenses of the previous two offensive coordinators.

So what does Trestman, as well as OC Aaron Kromer, have planned this year to help keep Cutler upright? Let's go to the film we recorded this offseason during organized team activities and the minicamps to analyze the new approach.

Seven-step drop? Never heard of it

Remember the days of Mike Martz and Mike Tice and their insistence on dropping Cutler 15 yards into the backfield? Of course you do. And you also surely remember how long those plays took to develop and how vulnerable it made Cutler when there was even the slightest break down in protection.

Those days are in the past. Trestman's offense is built around the concept of the short pass, which gets the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly, thus reducing the potential for a hurry, hit or sack. So when Cutler drops back to pass, he'll be taking five steps at maximum, with the majority of his drop backs consisting of three steps or less. During play action there will be some seven-step drops but that's out of the necessity to sell the fake, not due to preferential design.

That in itself will the biggest shift in the success of the Bears to protect the quarterback this year, more so than any schematic or personnel changes. By releasing the ball in two second or less on nearly every play, opposing pass rushers just don't have the time necessary to work past offensive linemen and to the quarterback.

Down the Barrel

Of the passing plays executed during OTAs and minicamp, roughly 75 percent were run from shotgun. This accomplishes two things. First, it allows the quarterback a wider view of the defense. Second, it starts the quarterback three yards from the line of scrimmage, giving him extra cushion against the opposing rush.

Quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh has spent much of his 1-on-1 work with the quarterbacks focusing on their footwork in shotgun – which makes sense considering the number of passes being thrown from the formation. For Cutler, the footwork is simple: take one shuffle step to align the body, then two full strides and plant. It's not even three steps; it's more like two and a half. On most plays, he's expected to fire the ball as soon as he plants.

By combining shotgun formation with quick drops, it makes it even harder on the defense to reach the quarterback.

Technique in Blocking

When I was in high school the offensive linemen were taught a relatively unique technique, to me at least, during slant patterns. The goal of the technique is to keep defensive linemen from getting their hands into the passing lanes. So the offensive linemen were taught to immediately drop to all fours at the snap and fire their helmets into the defender's crotch. The natural instinct of the opposing player is to drop his hands to protect his midsection, which then opens up the passing lanes.

The Bears aren't using such a technique but their concept is similar for the quick passes. Typically, when an offensive lineman drops into protection, his first move is a kick step to move him back into position. It's a backward move meant to mirror the opposing pass rush. Chicago's offensive linemen often use this standard technique, yet play-side blocking, or first-read blocking, is a bit different, where the offensive linemen move forward and not backward.

Jermon Bushrod
Stacy Revere/Getty

For example, if the first read is a slant to the right side, right tackle J'Marcus Webb will not kick slide at the snap. Instead, he raises his hands and drives into the defender. Webb knows there isn't enough time for the defensive end to get to the passer, so his job isn't to stop him from getting into the backfield. Instead, Webb needs to make sure the defender doesn't get his hands in the passing lane. So instead of creating cushion with a drop step, play-side blockers close the cushion and occupy the hands of the defensive linemen.

Bushrod Island

The Bears signed left tackle Jermon Bushrod because of his ability as a blindside protector. Other than a poor showing against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 12, Bushrod allowed just two sacks in his other 15 starts last year, according to Pro Football Focus. He did allow a concerning number of hurries but that was mitigated by Drew Brees' ability to quickly find open receivers and get the ball out of his hands.

Under Trestman, Cutler is expected to utilize similar timing, which the team believes will again fit Bushrod's style. As a result, Bushrod is being put out on an island on nearly every drop back. If protection is being shifted, whether by lining up an edge tight end, chipping a running back or pulling a backside guard, it's going to be toward the right side. The team feels better about Bushrod and left guard Matt Slauson one-on-one on the left side than it does with J'Marcus Webb and either James Brown or Kyle Long, two inexperienced players, on the right side.

The Result

Based on what we've seen so far, it's hard to imagine the pass protection not improving dramatically this season. With fresh faces and a fresh system in place, one designed to keep the quarterback off the ground, it would be shocking if the Bears were again near the bottom of the league in sacks allowed.

In fact, for all the reasons outlined above, it wouldn't be surprising if Chicago shot into the top half of the league in that category. If so, the onus then falls on Cutler to make the right decisions with the ball, as pressure will no longer be an excuse.

Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.

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