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Cleveland Browns X's & O's at The Orange and Brown Report: All Sacks Are Not Created Equal

While the Cleveland Browns finally got on the board with a Christmas Eve Day victory the San Diego Chargers, the offense surrendered nine sacks and quarterback Robert Griffin III was knocked out of the game and placed in the league-mandated concussion protocol. While the narrative of a hapless offensive line has gained steam over the last month, can the blame for poor pass protection be placed squarely on the unit? Join the OBR in the film room as we grade every sack while looking at basic prote

Before we dive into the plays, let's set some basic parameters:

1. Like the OBR's previous breakdown grading every throw Cody Kessler made in the first half of the Ravens' loss, we received input from competent outsiders.

"The film was graded by three coaches, including myself. I received input from two coaching mentors, one an accomplished high school coach who has called plays on teams that have gone as far as the State finals, and another who is currently a position coach at a large college football program you have heard of." 

Although we did disagree on minor points. the coming analysis represents a group consensus. Keep in the mind that WITHOUT THE SPECIFIC PLAYCALL, QUARTERBACK READS, AND PROTECTION SCHEME, IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO GRADE WITH 100% ACCURACY! 

2. In an NFL offense quarterbacks must drop to a precise depth, whether it is a 3, 5, or 7-step drop. 

When the quarterback reaches the 'top' of his drop, he should be prepared to deliver the ball to his primary read. Any variance in this drop can cause major issues with pass protection as the offense line pass sets at a certain angle and depth based on where they expect the quarterback to be. As a primer, read this excellent article by former New York Giants offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz - the brother of former Browns' right tackle Mitchell Schwartz - as he explains exactly how an NFL quarterback can get himself sacked.

From Schwartz's article:

"Sacks and hits are mostly on the offensive linemen. We either get physically beat, take a crap set, think we have help, and so on. This article is about the few times when it’s NOT our fault.

Most often that’s the case when the quarterback doesn’t stay at the depth they are supposed to be at, we get hit by the running back while taking a pass set, or lastly, the quarterback leaves a good pocket. I’m going to focus on the first two here. It’s easy to see when the quarterback runs out of the pocket. Not so easy to tell when a QB isn’t deep enough in their drop.

Each offensive system sets the QB depth for each protection. Some drops are 10 yards, then push to 9. Some are 9 and push to 8. A 3-step drop is only 7 yards. As offensive linemen we use these depths to understand where we are allowed to let upfield rushers continue to rush."

3. Good quarterbacks possess an internal clock that will ring alarm bells if the ball is held too long. Metrics that measure average 'time to throw' must be taking in context as quarterbacks that can run/scramble will have higher "hold" times as they use their legs to extend the play. In addition, quarterbacks that run West Coast short-game schemes will see lower times as the offense is built around 3 and 5-step drops designed to quickly get the ball out. 

For our purposes, we will use a benchmark of 3 seconds to receive the snap, drop back, and go through the reads before the quarterback must either step up in the pocket or escape outside.

Protection Types

The three main types of pass protection run in the NFL are BOB (Big On Big; think man), slide (zone or area protection), and half slide (a combination of both).

Chris Brown from Smartfootball has an excellent article up explaining the basics of each protection.

We'll look at the protections as we go through each play, but I highly recommend you take the time to read Smartfootball's breakdown.

Play #1

The first sack of the game came off a quarterback's worst nightmare, A-gap pressure.

A-gap pressure is the quickest way to blow up a play as the defender has the shortest path to the quarterback while also preventing him from stepping up into the pocket to buy time.

The offense appears to be running a combo protection, with the left guard, center, right guard, and right tackle playing zone to their left side, while the right tackle plays BOB, or man. The tailback will read the linebacker (#52) and release into a route if he does not blitz.

So what happens here?

The motion from the tight end causes the nose tackle tightens up over center Cam Erving, upping the level of difficulty of right guard Jonathan Cooper's block. This creates a tough angle for Cooper, as he must now cover this extra distance as he protects the A-gap to his left side. Remember, he must prevent inside penetration at all costs.

Cooper's first two steps should be flat along the line of scrimmage as he faces immediate inside pressure from the nose tackle. He needs to get his second step down ASAP, so he must not take high steps in order to keep his feet close to the ground. The shoulders should remain parallel to the line of scrimmage and he should punch as the second step hits the ground.  

In order to maintain his power base, the inside foot should be staggered forward to defeat a bull rush.

Because Erving does not face an immediate threat in his gap, he should help Cooper by punching the defender with his right arm. An uncovered offensive lineman (no immediate threat to the gap) should never gap-step without helping his teammate.

Notice that Cooper's feet are parallel after the second step, leading to a weak punch that the defender easily sheds with a swim move. Cooper compounds the issue by stopping his feet as he strikes, causing him to lunge inside for the rusher.

Erving could have provided more help to hide the extra distance Cooper had to cover after the nose tackle adjusted his alignment, but Cooper has to make this block.

Guilty Party: The offensive line

Play #2

The second sack of the afternoon occurs as the offense attempts to target the 'X' receiver on a comeback route. This is likely a specific call made from the sideline, so the "read" is removed from the play as the quarterback is told to target the comeback against man coverage.

Because the comeback will break at 12 yards, the quarterback must take a 5-step drop (3-step from the gun) in order to let the route develop and stem downfield. Furthermore, because the tailback stays in the block, the concept does not feature a single route that breaks under 10 yards. There is no built-in hot throw for any pressure.

Including the tight end and tailback, the offense has seven blockers to account for seven potential rushers. Because it is third down, the exotic pass-rush package has come out with only two "down" linemen. Notice that both A-gaps are threatened by the stand-up rushers and the right side faces two potential edge rushers. The defense can overload the line from multiple areas here.

The defense ultimately brings pressure from the left side, looping the 5-technique and MIKE (#51) while bringing the edge rusher (#31). The goal of the play design is to pull the left tackle inside with the 5-technique in order to create a 2-on-1 with the tailback on the edge. The line call appears to be either a full slide to the right or a half-slide with Thomas playing BOB over the 5-technique and Johnson dual-reading the MIKE and edge rusher. 

The line call appears to be either a full slide to the right or a half-slide with Thomas playing BOB over the 5-technique and Johnson dual-reading the MIKE and edge rusher. Regardless of the protection call, Johnson is facing a 2-on-1. In this spot, he needs to attack the most immediate threat, #51 

The specific breakdown occurs when the left tackle and left guard fail to pass off the DE/MIKE stunt. Joe Thomas is able to recover just in time to wash the rusher, allowing the quarterback to step up in the pocket. Unfortunately, at this point the pocket has become a mess and RGIII is easily tackled.

The question becomes, did RGIII hold onto the ball too long?

While the route concept did not include a 3-step throw like a slant, flat, or shallow, RGIII clearly sees the safety drop to cover Gary Barnidge. Knowing that he has his tight end on an out route against a flat-footed safety, the ball should be out as he hits the 35-yard line. The pressure did come quickly, but RGIII could have delivered the ball if he had correctly read the coverage, recognized the personnel guarding his tight end, and understood the defender's technique in relation to the pass route.

With that said, Thomas or Johnson made a protection error. If the line was in a full slide, Johnson should have blocked #51. If the line was in a half-slide with Thomas blocking the defensive end in man, he should he picked up #51 on the stunt. Again, without the actual protection call,  is impossible say for sure who this falls on.

Guilty Party: Split between the QB and offensive line

Play #3

This sack squarely falls on the quarterback's shoulders.

Go back to our initial discussion of the importance of drop depths so offensive linemen can set their landmarks.

First, RGIII barely gets to six yards. He simply must get more depth in his drop. Ideally, you would like to see him hit the top nearer the 40-yard line.

The real issue here is again, a lack of coverage recognition and anticipation from the signal caller.

The defense is in a Cover 4 or 'quarters' shell, with four defenders each playing a deep quarter of the field with the three underneath defenders playing the intermediate and short zones.

Focus on the left cornerback. Notice that while he is pressed up to the line of scrimmage, he immediately makes a zone turn with his back to the sideline. The quarterback should immediately recognize that his receiver running an inside-breaking dig route has a huge advantage over the defender because he does not have to cross the defender's face as he stems inside.

While the quarterback does have to turn his back to the line of scrimmage to execute his play fake, the cornerback's leverage is directly in his line of sight as a flat route is run to the same side of the field. RGIII should see this.

The right tackle's technique is nothing to write home about, but he likely expected RGIII to get a bit more depth in his drop, allowing the defensive end to be washed around the backside of the quarterback.

There may be some debate about whether RGIII did indeed have time to throw, but if he puts together the retreating safeties pre-snap and the cornerback's zone turn, Cover 4 bells should be going off in his head. The dig route off play action is a gimme here.

Guilty Party: The quarterback

Sack #4

The offense runs another play action concept featuring a full slide to the right (each blocker is responsible for the gap to his right) while the tailback takes the backside D-gap after executing the ball fake.

It is difficult to assign blame here because the drop depth is shallow due to the short routes run by the twin receivers to the left of the offense. The defensive back does a great job screaming off the edge, and while the tailback does a nice job picking him up, the jump prevents RGIII from delivering the ball. Notice that the defender is already in the air as the quarterback turns around from his play fake.

All he can do is pull the ball and hope that a receiver works open on the scramble drill, but a linebacker quickly closes the space. With that said, RGIII had a chance to chuck the ball into the stands and save yardage. It's okay to take the L and move on to the next play.

Guilty Party: 1/2 to the quarterback for not throwing the ball away when he recognized the MIKE spying his scramble.

Check back soon for Part II

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