Word of Muth: Protection Adjustments

Word of Muth: Protection Adjustments
Word of Muth: Protection Adjustments
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

Having to catch up with some things after Thanksgiving break meant I wasn’t able to write a typical column this week. This week will be entirely devoted to one play from the Cowboys-Redskins game on Thanksgiving. The play itself was pretty unremarkable (it set up a third-and-long), but FOX’s microphones picked up Tony Romo’s protection adjustments before the snap.

Romo had been sacked the play before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter. They faced a second-and-21 from their own 30. Dallas was in 11-personnel with Tight End Flex Trips to the right. The Redskins were in a Nickel 3-3-5.

The Cowboys were in a man-based protection scheme (which they, along with San Diego, tend to use more than most teams), meaning the offensive linemen were responsible for the four down linemen and the Mike linebacker. Since the Redskins only had three down linemen, the Cowboys would have to count a linebacker as a lineman.

Based on how Romo adjusts the protection later, the above picture is how I believe the Cowboys originally counted the defense. The three defensive linemen are obviously counted as down guys. I think I saw the center point to the linebacker over the left guard -- I say "think" because the wide shot was blurry and it happened right as the film cut on -- which would make him the Mike.

They probably counted Lorenzo Alexander as the fourth down lineman. He is lined up just outside of right tackle Doug Free's shoulder, within a yard of the line of scrimmage. He is also the only linebacker on that side not lined up over a receiver: that would designate him as the most likely rusher.

With the Redskins front being counted like this, the offensive line has to block the three down linemen, Alexander (being counted as a down lineman), and Mike linebacker Perry Riley, who is lined up over the left guard. The running back would be responsible for the two defenders over the slot receivers.

However, before the snap, Washington’s linebackers shifted. Riley went from a couple of yards off the line of scrimmage to walking up right into the A-gap. Alexander backed up further off the ball and stepped inside a little bit. Not a huge difference, and Dallas still has everyone accounted for. Still, Romo wanted to make sure he and his offensive line were on the same page.

Romo walks up to the line and identifies that "52 is down." 52 is rookie linebacker Keenan Robinson, lined up on the line of scrimmage between right tackle Free and flex tight end Jason Witten. He’s a stand-up Wide 9 technique, so it makes sense to count him as a down lineman, even though he would back off just before the snap.

As a side note, let’s appreciate Free’s pointing in the picture above. That’s strong big-man posture right there. While FOX doesn’t pick up what Free is saying, I’d like to imagine it’s "...and a couple of them bear claws in the back."

Not content to just identify the four down linemen, Romo also declares "97’s the Mike." (Once again, a direct quote thanks to FOX.) 97 is Alexander, and previously seemed to be counted as a down lineman. Because of his alignment, center Mackenzy Bernadeau is responsible for Alexander. He’s probably working in some combination with right guard Derrick Dockery. Unlike Free, Bernadeau doesn’t feel the need to point at a guy that Romo just pointed to. I assume Free mops the floor with Bernadeau when they watch Blue’s Clues.

Now the Cowboys are locked into their men. It’s important to note that the quarterback always has the last say when it comes to identifying guys in protection. It doesn’t matter if he changes the Mike from Ray Lewis to a sideline reporter. You slide to Pam Oliver if that’s where the quarterback sends you.

On this play, the blocking is pretty straightforward. Both guards and tackles are responsible for defenders lined up right over top of them. The center has the Mike linebacker lined up over the right guard. The running back has the only other linebacker in the box.

At the snap the Redskins run an inside cross blitz. Every coach has a different name for this blitz, but my personal favorite was Bozo Cross. Riley is coming into the left A-gap and Alexander loops in behind him. In all twist stunts -- whether they be tackle/end, tackle/tackle, linebacker/end, or in this case linebacker/linebacker -- there is a penetrator and a looper. On this stunt, Riley is the penetrator, and his goal is to blow up the center’s hip to create a hole for Alexander.

Both defensive ends are dropping. Stand-up end Robinson is dropping for coverage, and down end Ryan Kerrigan, who lined up over the left tackle, is dropping to spy. It’s also possible that Kerrigan is running the world’s worst twist, but going off his pace, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he’s spying. Both defensive tackles are rushing wide for contain.

Notice in the picture above how center Bernadeau is looking at Alexander, but is leaving a hand out to feel for Riley. Because Riley was lined up in the A-gap, Bernadeau has to be aware of a possible pick stunt.

As Alexander continues further laterally, without attacking the right A-gap, Bernadeau figures out what Washington is trying to do. He feels Perry coming and turns back into him. That’s a key to stopping a cross/twist stunt in man protection: the blocker responsible for the looper has to recognize the stunt and turn back into it. The guy blocking the penetrator (the running back, in this case) can’t tell the difference between a stunt and a straight rush (here, a straight A-gap blitz), but his teammate can based on the pace or route of the defender’s rush. This was a nice job by Bernadeau.

Because Bernadeau recognizes the stunt early, running back Lance Dunbar can adjust off him. Yes, it’s man protection, but you still have to pass off twists. Here the Cowboys do a great job of passing off a stunt that is typically difficult for man-protection schemes.

The last thing I wanted to point out was the Redskins' inability to keep contain here. Once Robinson drops into coverage, Free turns inside to to help on the defensive tackle. He immediately seals the defender, and the defensive tackle doesn’t really make an effort to get contain again. Even though the Cowboys did a great job picking up the inside blitz, Romo rolls right simply because he can. He ends up completing an eleven-yard pass.

This is what I never get: if you are a defensive tackle who has to loop outside for contain, it is almost impossible for you to get a sack. It’s just too long of a route. The only way you can get a sack on a blitz like this is if the quarterback is forced to escape right into your contain. Still, at least twice a game, you’ll see a defensive tackle do this thing where he tries to keep contain and rushes the passer. This is the worst of both worlds.

Looking back, that play probably didn’t need 1200 words written about it. Or eight diagrams. But because FOX’s coverage picked up something interesting, I thought it would be fun to look at how even the ultimately meaningless plays are little chess matches.


45 comments, Last at 03 Dec 2012, 1:47am

#1 by Juni (not verified) // Nov 29, 2012 - 11:55am

Reading this reminded me of the Cleveland game a coupla weeks before; the mics once again picked up Romo at the line on a consistent basis. On one such occasion you could hear him identify 53 as the Mike, he shouted it twice. Four seconds later, he was sacked by 53. Good job Dallas.

Points: 0

#19 by K2K (not verified) // Nov 29, 2012 - 2:57pm

I saw that too on NFL Replay. Romo clearly yells out 53 is the MIKE and looks at RB Dunbar only to have Dunbar brake out into the flat for a pass. Romo was sacked in about 1.2 seconds. Seems pointless to continue to have man blocking schemes if they don't seem to work. Why not go the route of the rest of the league?

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#21 by commissionerleaf // Nov 29, 2012 - 3:11pm

If 53 is designated the Mike, then the RB isn't responsible for him, he is designated as a man to be blocked by the offensive line. It was not Dunbar's blown block.

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#2 by Kulko // Nov 29, 2012 - 12:10pm

As always, great read, and one play in 1000 is exactly what the world needs more of.

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#3 by Bill (not verified) // Nov 29, 2012 - 12:15pm

Ben -

Don't self-criticize. This is exactly the kind of stuff we want. In fact, more of 1200 words : one play instead of overviews of whole games.


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#6 by Mike B. In Va // Nov 29, 2012 - 12:37pm

Agreed 100%. Not that I don't read your column every time anyway, but this kind of stuff is riveting. We're all here because we're fans of "the game inside the game", anyway.

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#12 by tgt2 (not verified) // Nov 29, 2012 - 2:13pm

While the overviews are more informative of the quality of whole lines, this detailed breakdown teaches us to be able to do this ourselves. I love it.

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#39 by In_Belichick_W… // Nov 30, 2012 - 10:47am

Agree, agree, agree. This is the stiff I can't seem to find anywhere else.

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#4 by commissionerleaf // Nov 29, 2012 - 12:17pm

This was one of my favorite Word of Muths ever.

San Diego is another team that has serious problems in pass pro. Does anyone have any idea if the man-protection scheme is the problem (too limited for NFL defenses?) or whether it is simply the only way to deal with the unreliable personnel?

Points: 0

#20 by speedegg // Nov 29, 2012 - 3:10pm

For San Diego it's more of personnel (or lack of) than scheme, but scheme is a problem also. Their O-line isn't talented enough to win matched up man-on-man. Against the Broncos, their tackles weren't quick enough/strong enough to match up with Von Miller, Wolfe, Woodyard, etc. Of course, it doesn't help when they slide AWAY from Miller after Rivers sets the protection.

The other problem is they don't really have a HB or TE help with pass blocking. That and Norv Turner is a base personnel guy, like to use Regular personnel (2WR-1TE-2HB), and wants to run. Can't run since Ryan Matthews isn't a franchise running back. So you can't run and you can't pass protect, so Rivers gets pounded.

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#28 by Ben Muth // Nov 29, 2012 - 6:41pm

Yeah man schemes are often more sound with fewer hot reads than zone ones. Plus they're far more flexible and allow the QB to dictate exactly who he wants to block who. The problem is that it's tough to generate help or double teams in man schemes. As a result it's tough on your linemen, particularly tackles with no idea if help is coming.

It's funny all play callers recognize when they have an overwhelmed QB (due to age or ability) and tend to call plays to help him out. But when you have some talent deficiencies up front teams continue to call their regular stuff. Then they just go woe is me, and then complain that "we need a better effort up front". Yes that is correct, but when was the last time a coach said "(QB name)played like shit, we need more for him"? No if a QB struggles it's "Well, we need to help (QB name) out more. Receivers aren't getting open enough, we weren't protecting him well enough, and we need to put him in better situations". How about a little support for the over his head overweight guys too. What's good for the overpaid goose is good for the overworked gander and all.

That's my bitter rant for the day.

Points: 0

#40 by In_Belichick_W… // Nov 30, 2012 - 10:52am

Perhaps you should break down plays where the QB screws up even though everybody else did their job. It may help you feel better.

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#7 by Karl Cuba // Nov 29, 2012 - 12:50pm

My only issue with this WoM, or any WoM, is that there aren't enough of them. We want more, bearclaws and all.

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#8 by Anonymous3737 (not verified) // Nov 29, 2012 - 1:04pm

Blues Clues... "Right There!" too funny.
Lately, I've hearing announcers call what I think of as "stunts" as "running a game up front." Do they mean the same thing? Aikman, in particular, has been throwing that around a lot lately, and I don't remember hearing it described as that before.

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#34 by Jerry // Nov 30, 2012 - 5:54am

I've heard them described as "games", "twists", and "stunts" over the years, and I wouldn't be surprised if there's another term or two floating around.

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#9 by Tri Shanku (not verified) // Nov 29, 2012 - 1:17pm

Ben, this was a wonderful piece. I would actually say that it will be more illuminating for us to have a similarly detailed dissection of a play, than your usual overall assessment article (fascinating and interesting as they are).

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#10 by wr (not verified) // Nov 29, 2012 - 1:58pm

Nah, let's shoot the moon and have him do both his usual overview
AND do a detailed dissection of what he thinks is the most interesting

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#23 by DEW (not verified) // Nov 29, 2012 - 4:35pm

I could go for that! One of *each* a week! I love the regular column for breaking down overall line play, but this was fascinating. I agree wholeheartedly with Ben's conclusion, in that it's really interesting to see what's happening even on plays like this one, that the outcome of it ultimately matters little. I greatly enjoy learning the complexities of line play and strategizing in columns like this one.

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#25 by Thomas_beardown // Nov 29, 2012 - 4:38pm

I also love (no offense Ben) the explanations of what the defense is doing to either try to create the matchups they want or confusing the offense.

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#33 by Podge (not verified) // Nov 30, 2012 - 5:50am

I agree. That's a thing that Tanier was pretty good at doing, and its not really been replaced since he left. His was a less in-the-trenches view than Ben's, but was always pretty interesting.

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#11 by nat // Nov 29, 2012 - 2:06pm

Awesome article.
I love it when the broadcast picks up all the protection calls.
I wonder if offenses use deception in these. Or if defenses key on them. (e.g. blitz unless the QB points you out as a down lineman)

Points: 0

#14 by tgt2 (not verified) // Nov 29, 2012 - 2:21pm

See the Colts/Ravens 2007 playoff game. Peyton Manning and Saturday are changing plays and protections in parallel and series with Ray Lewis changing coverage and rushers. I remember some of the Ravens defenders talking about the game afterwards and saying that a significant portion of their audibles were pre-defined fakes, and that the Colts were faking audibles and protections as well to try to keep them from keying off the information.

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#27 by TacticalSledgehammer // Nov 29, 2012 - 6:20pm

I thought about this too. It would be relatively simple for a defense in, say, a a 4-2-5 nickel alignment to tell the linebackers that whoever is identified as the Mike drops into coverage, while the other blitzes. Is this regularly done?


“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.”

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#29 by Ben Muth // Nov 29, 2012 - 6:47pm

The problem is the Mike is ID'd on every play. And in half slide schemes (which most teams major in) the back is responsible for the Mike. So against a lot of teams you would be dropping the guy the back has.

What is common is checking stunts based on back alignment in the shotgun. Sense most teams have the back block to the side he's lined up on (easier for him/doesn't have to cross the QBs face mid-play) teams will check their stunt under that assumption. Offenses do send the back across occasionly but that's more of a changeup. Certain stunts are designed to beast the the slide side and others are designed for the man side. You check them so they hit the side you think will have the right technique.

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#30 by Karl Cuba // Nov 29, 2012 - 8:37pm

Please define 'half slide schemes', pretty please with sugar on top.

Also, how does an offense define the 5 'linemen' against a 3-4? What I mean is that in a 4-3 it's easier, down linemen plus a mike, but in a 3-4 the most likely rushers are the three down linemen and the two outside linebackers, so picking the 'mike' to be blocked by the O-line seems wrong to me, as the OLBs are probably the most dangerous pass rushers.

I await your wisdom.

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#31 by Thomas_beardown // Nov 29, 2012 - 10:04pm

I believe a half slide is when 3 lineman block in zone on side fanning out to that side. While the other 2 are in man blocking on the "back" side.

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#36 by Podge (not verified) // Nov 30, 2012 - 6:00am

That's what I understand it to be. If you have a half-slide left, the right guard and right tackle will be in man blocking, and the centre, left guard and left tackle would be responsible for the gap to their left, and the back is responsible for any blitz at any gap to the right.

Full slide left would (I think) be everyone responsible for the gap to their left, with the RB responsible for a blitz off the right.

I can't seem to find a Word of Muth where Ben has fully defined it, but there's this one http://www.footballoutsiders.com/word-muth/2011/word-muth-seahawk-slide where its explained next to the diagram at the bottom, and this one http://www.footballoutsiders.com/word-muth/2012/word-muth where it's explained under the third picture.

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#38 by Rich A (not verified) // Nov 30, 2012 - 10:39am

Like this:


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#42 by Anonymouse (not verified) // Nov 30, 2012 - 11:22am

Was I the only one who looked at that blitzology article and thought the analysis might be wrong? In the clip, it looks to me that the Mike (51) doesn't drop into coverage, he straight rushes (right into where the guard has slid over to block him).
So I see nothing really fancy, just a six-man blitz against five blockers, where the poor right tackle gets caught trying to decide which of two rushers to block and ends up getting neither.

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#13 by Dean // Nov 29, 2012 - 2:19pm

I suppose you're used to getting plaudits for your analysis, and I can echo the chorus here as well. It doesn't have to be a pivotal moment for it to be insightful. But it's also a pleasure watching your writing style evolve and watching you get more and more comfortable with slipping moments of levity into your work.

"You slide to Pam Oliver if that’s where the quarterback sends you" should make quotes of the week. That's good stuff right there.

Points: 0

#41 by In_Belichick_W… // Nov 30, 2012 - 10:57am

As long as you proof read after. A keyboard error when trying to type something about Pam Oliver and sliding may not come out as intended.

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#15 by TMayor (not verified) // Nov 29, 2012 - 2:24pm

Excellent piece! As a Cowboys fan, it's nice to see that sometimes the line can do its job. Bernadeau has looked like a liability this year, so it's nice to see him gets some props too. Great article, more please!

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#16 by Thomas_beardown // Nov 29, 2012 - 2:26pm

I'll add to the pile of praise for this article. As much as I love it though, I would love 3000 words about 3 plays more :)

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#17 by Jerry Garcia (not verified) // Nov 29, 2012 - 2:29pm

Good stuff.
Now can you detail the play where the cowboys were in the post season, and Romo needed to hold the ball for the place kicker.. that was my favorite Cowboys' play!
I want at least 1200 words! ;)

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#22 by EQ (not verified) // Nov 29, 2012 - 4:18pm

Ben -- What's the protocol for configuring blocking assignments on the road--in a loud dome or Seattle's Tarmac-like stadium-- where no one can hear Romo? (and Blues Clues pointing is insufficient???)

Seattle may be a particularly good example where this schematic breaks down, as I recall the Cowboys getting absolutely pasted in that game.

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#37 by Podge (not verified) // Nov 30, 2012 - 6:01am

The Cowboys getting pasted in Seattle isn't a schematic thing. That's just the Cowboys being the Cowboys.

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#43 by EQ (not verified) // Nov 30, 2012 - 2:02pm

Well, if the pasting comes in the form of untouched blockers who reach Romo in 1.2 seconds due to lack of hearing QB protection calls... I guess you're right. Boys will be Boys.

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#24 by RedDog (not verified) // Nov 29, 2012 - 4:35pm

Great read! Thanks.

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#32 by cajasky // Nov 29, 2012 - 10:18pm

Disce, puer, virtutem ex me, verumque laborem;
Fortunam ex aliis.

loved it

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#44 by JR San Diego (not verified) // Dec 01, 2012 - 3:30pm

I don't mind the 1200 words - it's a great DETAILED illustration of the endless NFL chess match that is in these little details. GREAT JOB.

And thanks for putting in the time on it.

Points: 0

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