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Let's Speak Technique: Pass Protection

In this post we look at Pass Protection Technique for both offensive linemen and running backs.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Last time we discussed pass protection schemes, but that's only a part of actually protecting the QB. The other vital part is technique, which many players lack coming out of high school. Pass protection is difficult, it's difficult for simply what it is, but it becomes especially difficult as defenses become more complex, defensive linemen grow bigger and faster, and defenders know they can pin their ears back and test your mettle. In this second part looking at pass protection we will focus on the technique that is involved in a standard pass protection scheme.

Protecting the Pocket
The pocket, also known as the passing area, changes depending on drop and set from the QB. In general terms, it is the area the QB needs to effectively move and step into any throw that he may make. It does differ, as I said, with various types of drops. For instance, on a 3-step drop your interior OL will try not to lose any ground. On a 7-step drop the interior OL can drop about 3 yards.

For common drops and protections, the interior OL will drop to a depth of 3 yards and are responsible for maintaining the depth of the pocket. The tackles are then responsible for the width of the pocket and will extend their depth to about 9 yards. On top of that, TEs will often assist in the protection of the edge, many times simply by slowing the speed at which the defender can gain depth and therefore squeeze the pocket. RBs, depending on their coverage, could be responsible for depth or horizontal maintenance. Typically, the RB will want to step up and into the defender, preferably setting no deeper than the heels of the OL, and never in front of the OL.

The Cylinder

There is this idea that an offensive lineman must essentially stay within "the cylinder". This is one of those cute phrases that coaches use to try to give players a picture of what is to happen. While pass blocking, the feet and knees must always maintain a stance outside the hips and the feet should be inside the outside of the ankles. This is the cylinder and it sounds completely confusing when it's simply in writing. All it's really directing is how to place your feet relative to your body. For example, stand up and put your feet slightly wider than shoulder width. Now bend at the knees. If you have a normal stance, you'll see that your feet are still outside your hips but that your knees are generally aligned with your ankles or even outside. So to correct this, kick out your ankles so that they are parallel and once again bend at the knees. You'll notice now that your feet and knees are both outside your hips and your knees are inside the outside of your ankles. This is staying inside the cylinder.

Combined with proper weight distribution, this allows for proper center of gravity, leverage, and balance. If the knee rotates outside the ankle, for instance, the shoulder and hip open up and this creates a soft hip and soft shoulder in which a defender can drive through. Always stay inside the cylinder.

But this is just the lower body. The upper body must ideally remain inside the cylinder as well. This means the upper body should not lean, but rather the back should be flat from the waist through the shoulders vertically. Heck, even the chin should be back and the head up. Leverage comes from the hips. In every way, a pass protector blocks from the hips. While the arms may extend outward to maintain balance upon moving, when set to punch, the arms should drop down the sides of the body and tucked, the hands should be inside with the thumbs up, and the punch must extend out and up from the inside of the body. The offensive lineman will try to squeeze the rushers breast plate right around with his palms out and fingers open, as if, well, as if grabbing the rusher's breasts. So that's the cylinder. It also describes another key pass protection technique: the punch, which will be described more in asecond.

The Pass Pro Sequence
Outside the concept of leverage, it all begins with footwork. Footwork is so important that we'll focus on it with five separate sequences to getting into a position to block and maintain that block through the play: drop, set, mirror, punch, recovery.

The Drop
There are 3 basic drop steps: a kick, slide, and power step. The former two are your common footwork to gain depth, the latter is to gain inside-out leverage, which is key to good pass protection (maintaining half-man position).

The power step is a step with the inside foot. Depending on the defenders alignment, there are two different types of power steps: hard or soft. A hard power step will be used against someone that isn't lined up directly over top of the offensive lineman. It is a step with the inside foot about 4-6 inches, where the step foot should be planted with all the cleats in the ground and the outside foot quickly slid inside upon that plant to regain proper stance. In general, they are used by guards to protect the A gap by assisting a center taking on a nose tackle. An OT can also use this step against a 6i technique to protect the B gap. Remember, the blocker is trying to maintain inside leverage on the defender.

A soft power step, meanwhile, is typically used by a center to take on a shade NT. It is a quick step that is about 2-4 inches and is used to maintain the inside leverage that is desired. It may also be used if a defender is lined heads up on a blocker. On both a hard power step and a soft power step, the OL will punch with his inside hand into the defender's chest to push him inside-out.

The kick can be used in combination with the slide ("kick-slide") or can be used as a "soft kick". A soft kick is used on someone lined up slightly outside of them, such as a by an OG against a 3-technique. It is a short jab to the outside (cleats in the ground) and recover to maintain proper half-man positing.

Against wide set defenders, such as a 9-technique DE, an OT will use a kick-slide technique. The OT will push hard off his inside foot backwards and outside. He should not turn his shoulders yet (as it presents an open shoulder and hip) and must try to maintain them parallel to the LOS as possible. He doesn't want this initial step to gain too much depth, as then he'll be off balance. He will then slide his inside foot to regain his stance. The OT will punch with his outside hand into the defenders outside number as to not give up the quick corner. If the OT tries to reach with his inside hand he will get off balance and the defender can take advantage.

The offensive lineman must judge whether a simple kick step is sufficient or if he should use a simple kick-slide technique on a defender. Either way, unless the defender is wide (outside the body), he shouldn't gain too much depth. If the defender tries to fight back inside, a power step should be used to squeeze the inside gap and maintain inside leverage.

For a power step the offensive lineman is engages immediately. They will not try to remain parallel to the LOS, but instead will keep square to the defender. On the drop step, when the defender is about to engage (after the outside arm is punched into the outside number) the OL will flip and become square to the defender and punch the inside number with the inside hand.

The Set
First let's focus on weight distribution. It is important that an offensive lineman never leans. Once an offensive lineman is caught leaning, the defender can immediately take advantage by gaining leverage or using that lean to his benefit by forcing the offensive lineman in that direction. So we will focus the weight on the instep of your foot. If the weight rotates to the balls of your feet you will tend to fall forward, and any move by the defender which gets a push from the back (such as a swim or rip move) will beat the blocker. Likewise, if the offensive lineman is on his heels his mass is falling backwards. This in general will force the blocker to open up his shoulder and hip in an effort to regain balance, but also results in being pushed back into the pocket and the rusher being able to utilize a bull rush to get past the offensive lineman.

Now let's look at the actual feet upon getting in a position to block a defender. The inside foot is called the post foot. About 70% of the body weight should be transferred through the hip of the post foot. The outside foot is called the set (anchor) foot, which will transfer the remaining 30% of the body weight. All the cleats should be planted in the ground while the offensive lineman plays on his insteps with his toes very slight out, keeping inside the cylinder. The feet should attempt to be aligned at approximately 45 degrees from one another and the hips and shoulders should be square to the defender.

The Punch
We discussed the initial aiming point of the punch in the drop section, and talked about some of the technique before that. To reiterate, the punch must be upward and out. It is a short extension that must pop or explode into the defenders chest. The arms are initially tucked, elbows in, and thumbs upward at 12 o'clock. By punching upward and out and keeping the elbows in, the defender can't lock out the elbows so that the blocker loses power and allows the defender into his body.

The blocker should never reach, and instead should be patient and wait for the defender to commit. Shoulders back, check tucked, hands cocked. Starting from the shoulders and extending through the elbow, wrist, and hands, the blocker must explode into the defenders chest once the defender has commit to a position.

The punch has several benefits, namely, it creates space between the defender and the blocker so that the defender cannot control the blocker. It is imperative that the upper body is relaxed until the punch makes contact, and that the offensive player maintains proper knee bend and remains inside the cylinder. It is also important that a punch is never made off the kick foot. Because the post foot maintains most of the weight, it is used for power, while the set foot is used for balance within the proper foot stagger.

The Mirror

Once initial contact is made, the blocker must mirror the defender. While doing this, he must maintain proper inside leverage along with keeping his shoulders square to the defender. He must maintain the proper angle with his post and set foot so that he isn't opening up internally or externally for the defender to take advantage of.

If the defender moves inside, the blocker must use an inside power step and slide his back foot back into position. The weight should be maintained on the post foot. Lead with the hip and remain inside the cylinder. Control the inside shoulder and continue hand fighting. Against an outside move utilize the kick slide technique. Do not set past the midline of the defender. If the feet get too narrow then leverage is lost. The base must be maintained with proper footwork and remaining square to the defender.

The Recovery
Obviously, the play isn't over just because you've successfully initiated contact with the defender. The defender won't stop and will instead keep trying to fight to the ball. Therefore, it is important that the offensive lineman continue to regain and adjust their position, maintaining a square position to the defender with proper foot alignment, balance, and inside-out leverage. The eyes must remain on the proper landmark.

The blocker can't completely lose contact with the defender, otherwise he has put the defender in a position to get a running start in space, a much hard assignment for the blocker. So he must maintain contact to continue to control the defender, jabbing into the framework of the defender consistently with proper punch technique, stance, and leverage.

RB Blocking
Blocking for a RB isn't a whole lot different once they become engaged with the defender (outside a cut block, which will be described a bit below). As previously stated, the RB should try to meet the defender near the heels of the OL. He will approach the defender in a squared position (he won't be staggered to start as an offensive lineman is). He will then step with his inside foot up into the defender, properly initiating the punch and continuing through the recovery phase.

It is vital that he doesn't jump or lunge with his step. He must maintain balance and strength without giving up his entire body. This step into the defender should put him at an even position as the OL.

Cut Block
For most teams, a cut block by the RB requires a couple things: a quick pass, typically off a 3-step drop (any more, the defender will recover and get to the QB), an assigned defender in which an OL will not engage (otherwise the cut becomes a clip and a 15-yard penalty).

A cut block for a RB isn't a whole lot different than a cut block for an offensive lineman (think zone scheme, particularly Minnesota in the 90s and early 2000s under Mason). The RB will aim at the defenders outside hip and will attempt to "rip the hip". This is like a rip move directed across the defender's body will put the RBs body directly into the thighs of the defender. Cutting too high will slow the defender, but won't take him to the ground, allowing him to still get his hands into the throwing lane. Cutting low is not only dangerous, it allows the defender to utilize his hands to "push the blocker's facemask into the ground" and step over top of him.

So you can kind of see while this technique isn't exactly natural. Not only are the offensive lineman not attacking off the line of scrimmage as they are used to, they also can't simply catch defenders. They need to get into a position (sometimes even by gaining depth) and still be forceful at the point of attack, gain leverage, and control the defender. This isn't a natural thing until it is practiced a lot. Even once you get the technique, it is extremely difficult to not be mechanical in the sequence. So, along with all the schemes (plus roll schemes, plus PA schemes, plus all the techniques involved within those schemes) must be learned to a point where it becomes second nature. That's because there is so much happening during a play that a blocker can't afford to be thinking through it in real time. This is why freshman don't tend to play on the offensive line. This is why freshman RBs are rarely relied upon in pass protection. And this is why, when you start including the entire run game playbook for every defensive front and every technique required in that, that this is a very difficult position for young players to play.