During a recent sit-down with two NFL offensive line coaches, I was taken by surprise. What caught my attention is the apparent shift in philosophy when it comes to using the spread formation to protect the quarterback in passing situations.
The coaches, one active and the other retired, surprisingly favored five-man protections over six or seven blockers under certain conditions.
Years ago, both old-school coaches believed in getting everyone blocked, but now see the potential benefits of less protectors and the use of spread sets to neutralize the opposing pass rush. As one coach pointed out as a criticism of using six or seven men, "The more people I crowd in around the QB to get the blitz blocked up, the more people are capable of rushing the passer."
First, let's explore how a spread formation with an empty set (no back in the backfield) or a formation with one running back, who has a free release, can protect the passer. Both strategies are known as "scat" protection, which means the offensive line will declare the five defenders they will block, leaving the quarterback responsible for the other rushers with a quick release and an accurate pass.
While there's risk involved, the spread formation also moves the extra defenders away from pass rush lanes and makes it very difficult to get to the signal-caller in time.
- By moving these players away from the tackles, potential pass rushers have to move out with them, and it becomes easy for the quarterback to identify which defenders are rushing.
So, when is it time to spread out your offense to try to neutralize the blitz?
That kind of question gets answered when looking at an opponent and their desire to pressure an offense. Down and distance also has to be considered, as does field position. Both coaches agreed that most blitzing defenses will reveal tendencies about themselves and by examining those trends, the offense can figure out when the five-man protection scheme is most effective.
There were 1,101 sacks last season and 496 (45 percent) came when more than four rushers were employed, but the most important tidbit is when those calls were made.
Upon further examination, you can see in the chart which teams want to dial up pressure. In turn, the offense, according to the two line coaches, needed to spread the field to better protect the quarterback.
Unless a team is over 50 percent on pressure calls in any down-and-distance situation, it's not wise to build a plan based on the numbers.
Another big reason to spread out in obvious pressure situations is the risk of an interception by a quarterback under heavy durress.
The most interesting portion of our protection conversation centered on the red zone. As one coach pointed out, the best time to neutralize pressure is inside the 20-yard line, and some of the numbers back that. Last year, there were 2,123 pass plays in the red zone and 675 of them (32 percent) involved a blitz call.
Teams must score touchdowns as often as possible in the money zone, and they certainly can't get knocked out of field goal range. The good news for offenses was that only five percent of those pressure calls wound up in a sack and the five-man protection schemes played a big part in that success.
Play-calling is dictated depending on the team and which down it is in the red zone. Third down proved to be the predominant time to bring pressure.
Dallas used pressure on close to 40 percent of plays outside the red zone, but that number increased 20 percent inside it. Miami went up 10 percent when opponents entered its 20. Indianapolis also used a more aggressive style, up 24 percent. Point being, an offensive line coach who knows that kind of information is going to adjust protection by field position.
The active offensive line coach told me his team only gave up two sacks in five-man protections last year and over 30 in their six and seven blocker looks.
Trying to pressure a passer on fourth down in the red zone has proven difficult of late. Over the last two years there were 135 such pass attempts and defenses blitzed 45 times, but delivered just two sacks. Most fourth-down pass plays call for the quick fade route to a wide receiver, when the defense has no chance of getting to the quarterback.
Expect to see even more spread formations this year. Offensive line coaches appear to be on board with the protection merits of spreading out a defense.