by Ben Muth
Welcome to the second-ever Question and Answer edition of Word of Muth. Let's get right to it, starting with my homophonic buddy Bin's question:
Bin: As a Raider fan I see quite a few six-linemen formations. Are there different blocking philosophies and techniques when it comes to these formations? Are these taught at the college or high school level?
For the most part, individual blocking techniques are the same in situations where you bring on an extra offensive lineman. The only person it would really affect is the offensive tackle that is lined up next to the extra man (assuming that the extra lineman is lined up as a tight end, and not in the backfield). On passing plays when the tight end stays in, you are usually taught to help him as soon as possible if you don’t have a blitzer to account for yourself. But if the tight end happens to be an offensive lineman, that offensive tackle would help inside more, and only slide out if he’s in trouble.
As far as if this is taught in high school: I don’t know. You see, while most pro teams run versions of the same stuff, high school teams run all kinds of crazy formations and plays. I’ve never been involved with a high school squad that ran six-linemen sets (often called elephant personnel), so I don’t know what they would teach.
Kyle: As a former offensive lineman, I love your column. I have a question that is related to your piece on the Titans counter play last week.
It seems that at the high school level, and also at the college level to a lesser extent, you see teams running a Wing-T style of offense so that they can put smaller, more athletic offensive lineman (who often aren't as good at just muscling a defensive tackle off the ball) in position to make effective angle blocks with downs, kicks, etc.
Why don't NFL teams (the Titans come to mind) turn to this idea more often? The Titans interior line is bad, and that's putting it politely. Very often, they get no push or allow penetration, so running backs get blown up three yards behind the line. Is it because the guards often do "take you to the ball" on the bread and butter type plays, so it's just too easy to defend in the NFL, or is there more to it than that?
First off, thanks for the kind words. I’ll start with the straight Wing-T offense portion of the question first, and then broaden out to more of the Wing-T type concepts.
Basically, the Wing-T offense has two base plays: the trap and the sweep. The trap play gets used sparingly in the NFL, and almost exclusively in passing situations. The reason for this is that NFL three-techniques are simply too good to trap if they are in run-stopping mode. If they read the back block by the playside guard, squeeze down, and stuff the trapper from the backside, then the play is dead in the backfield. They’re just too big and too disciplined to move. Every now and then a team will pop a trap on a passing situation, usually from a shotgun formation. In that case, the defensive tackle is more worried about rushing the passer, and he can get a little too far upfield before realizing what is going on. But that is the exception, not the rule.
On the Wing-T sweep, both guards pull -- the frontside guard kicks while the backside guard leads. The biggest problem with this is that it becomes hard to cover up those guys leaving. In high school, your running backs and pulling guards are going to be able to get outside without worrying too much about run throughs (where the defense shoots a gap behind the play and runs down the running back) from linebackers, or pursuit from defensive lineman. In the NFL, defenders make those plays all the time, and the linebackers frequently can run through and get the running back.
Also, to run the sweep effectively, even in high school, that backside guard has to be able to move really well. He basically has to be as athletic as opposing linebackers. In the NFL, the opposing linebackers are guys like Patrick Willis, and there aren’t any guys that are 280 pounds and can move like Willis -- if you do find one that can do that, he's going to be playing defensive end where he can rush the passer. The thing is, you have to be at least 280 pounds to hold up in pass protection at guard in the NFL (and that is probably pushing it). You just can’t find athletes that can block and move well enough to make a sweep concept work.
Those are the two base plays of the Wing-T, and both would struggle against a team full of big and fast defenders (for example, any NFL team). Some of the concepts do work though. The Wing-T is basically a down block and kick scheme. Well, one of the most-popular running plays in the NFL is a down block and kick scheme in the power play. Basically, it’s a version of the sweep, where the fullback replaces the frontside guard on the kick out block, and the backside guard still pulls and leads through the hole. The reason this is more safe than the Wing-T sweep is that you get a double team at the point of attack (either with the guard and tackle or the tackle and the tight end) and there’s less space for a linebacker to run through and make a play in the backfield. Plus, it generally hits inside a little more than the sweep, and that makes it far easier for the backside guard to get there.
Pamela: Enjoy reading your OL breakdowns. My question is regarding pass protection calls in a loud environment. Say, on the road inside the redzone. Are those protections set in the huddle? I'm curious in particular about the Ben Roethlisberger TD to Jerricho Cotchery @ Cincy a couple weeks ago. It looks like it's a slide left, even though Cincy loaded up the right side to everyone's awareness. No presnap communication at all between the OL. Only Ben, who apparently alerts Cotchery, his hot receiver. It seems the protection was called in the huddle and they were sticking with it regardless. It was an empty set with the RB slotted left. And the strong tendency in the past has been they would get blitzed by the DB covering the back. I can only assume they thought sticking Mewelde Moore out in the slot (not motioned out), they could guess which side the pressure would come from. Guessed wrong, but great play by Roethlisberger to beat two blitzers and make a play. I'm curious how all that works and if my assumptions are in the ballpark. Communication has always been an issue with this line, particularly on the road. Is this their way of compensating for that?
Wow, that looked really bad. For those with NFL Rewind (which is an excellent investment, by the way) it happens at 9:21 in the first quarter of the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati game in Week 10. If you watch the all-22 film of it, which is available on all touchdowns, you can see that Maurkice Pouncey clearly points to the left before he gets ready to snap the ball. After that, the defense shifts and loads everyone up on the offense’s right side. It’s an empty protection, and the Steelers decide to full slide it, which means there’s probably going to be an unblocked rusher off one edge. Why didn't they slide to the right, so there was only one unblocked guy instead of two? I have two theories.
The first (and best) theory is that it has to do with their silent count. If you watch the endzone camera, it’s pretty obvious that the Steelers are working on a silent count here because of the noise. Everyone is looking in at Pouncey as he is looking back at Roethlisberger. Once the quarterback gives the signal that’s he ready, Pouncey raises his head and snaps the ball about a second later. The reason he waits a second is so his offensive linemen can get their eyes back to the defense just before the snap, because they know they have about a second before he snaps the ball. This is how most silent counts work: the center gives the indicator, in this case raising his head, waits a second, and snaps it. You can also go on "two" in the silent count, by having the center lower his head again and raising it a second time. This prevents the defense from jumping right at one second.
Anyway the biggest problem with a silent count like this is that the center’s head is between his legs for most of the time at the line of scrimmage. As a result, he can’t see any shifts the defense makes. This is why a lot of teams will have the guard look back at the quarterback and just tell the center when he’s ready, so the center can see the defense the entire time. Or, another option is to change the indicator to a head turn or something. This allows the center to raise his head and see the defense before having to snap the ball. Here, Pouncey didn’t get a great look at the defense before he had to snap the ball, and therefore was locked into his initial call.
The other theory, that I don’t put much weight into, is that maybe Pouncey can’t change the protection. I would hope that’s not the case on something as simple on full slide, but it is a remote possibility. You never know without being in a team’s meeting room, but from every quote I’ve heard about Pouncey, the staff seems to trust him, and should allow him to make those kind of adjustments.
This seems like a good place to stop for a holiday mailbag. I’ll try to do another one of these before the end of the season. I hope everyone has a nice Thanksgiving.