Week 9 Pass Protection Review: part one - communication and chemistry

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

In the first part of the Week 9 pass protection review, we look at some evidence that the apparent improved play on the offensive line is a product of increased chemistry and communication by the OL - and explain why it still needs to improve further.

Mike Glennon had his best game against the Seahawks, and by all appearances, the pass protection gave the QB the cleanest pocket, for the most part, that it had all season.

But don't be fooled, there were still rampant issues in the pass-pro schemes. That said, there were some nice things to take away too, and though he did have a few mistakes, Jeremy Zuttah in particular seemed to come into his own during this game.

We'll start our pass-pro review with something that the offensive line seem to be developing more and more each week - their mid-play communication.

Lending a helping hand

We begin with a play that wasn't successful for two reasons - Glennon's hesitancy in throwing, and Skye Dawson running a fake end-around not blocking Richard Sherman, as chronicled by Stephen White on Twitter (check out the Storify of his tweets, his comments on this play are the ones timestamped 3:02pm - 3:05pm). The latter, you can chalk down to a rookie not yet having a developed sense of the game - as we'll see, Mike James appears to be responsible for Sherman, but James is in no position to realistically get to him. A veteran WR might have realised this and at least chipped Sherman to give James time to get there, but as with many rookies, Dawson ignores him because Sherman is not his responsibility according to play design.

But I digress; the play may have been unsuccessful, but it does offer two examples of how the Bucs' OL help and communicate with each other mid-snap.

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via i.imgur.com

The Bucs are lined up in an 'offset-I tight' formation, with Tim Wright as the fullback and Gabe Carimi in at tight end on the right. The Seahawks have eight defenders in the box, with Richard Sherman (on the right of the picture) clearly showing blitz.

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When the ball is snapped, the defense appear to be in man coverage, with Bruce Irvin peeling off to cover Tim Wright, Bobby Wagner staring straight at Mike James, and K.J. Wright watching Skye Dawson running a fake end-around. True to his pre-snap look, Sherman is clearly blitzing. Up front, though, is where we want to focus. The two ends on this play, Tony McDaniel and Red Bryant, are blocked by Donald Penn and Carimi respectively. Having six on the line gives two double teams on the play, Jamon Meredith and Zuttah on Brandon Mebane, and Davin Joseph and Demar Dotson on Clinton McDonald, both of which are circled. In particular, notice Dotson - he's watching Wright to see if he comes on the blitz, but his arm is on McDonald's shoulder.

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Having faked the hand-off to James, Glennon is now about to fake the hand-off to Dawson. First thing you should notice is that if this were an actual end-around, Sherman would have buried Dawson in the backfield. As it is, you'll see James has turned around to seal off any free defenders (which in this case is Sherman). You'll also see that James has very little chance of actually getting to Sherman in time (and, in fact, doesn't).

But in pass protection terms, you'll see I've circled Dotson's inside arm, still firmly planted on McDonald's shoulder even though the rest of his body is turned outsides to pick up Wright if needed. It's a minor technique, but an effective one - it allows Dotson to watch the second level for blitzers, or even stunting DEs, with his body ready at the right angle to block; yet, if Joseph struggles with McDonald, Dotson will be able to feel his arm being pulled backwards, and knows he needs to come back to help out his guard. Dotson's not the only lineman who does this either, this is just a good example of the technique but it's something that all Bucs interior offensive linemen (which Dotson is on this play thanks to Carimi) do at some points during the game. The OL have clearly been drilled at doing this, and remain disciplined with it too for the most part, so credit to Bob Bostad for that.

Meanwhile, I've also circled Zuttah's arm, which you might notice is not on Mebane, but rather on Meredith's hip. This is something I noticed Zuttah doing against the Eagles with Ted Larsen. Zuttah is effectively directing his guard to leave the double team and help out Penn - by pushing his arm into Meredith's side, he's telling him "I've got this one".

Curiously, Zuttah only seems to be doing it on his left side. It could be because Penn has always been susceptible on his inside, so it makes sense to get him help there now that Carl Nicks isn't on Penn's inside (and, yes, Nicks is good enough to be able to do that - I'll do a longer article about the presence of Nicks probably in the offseason, but against the Cardinals, on one play he literally was blocking Karlos Dansby with one hand and helping Penn out with Calais Campbell with the other hand - and I'll be damned if Penn was doing more than 30% of the blocking on Campbell).

On the other side, though, it could be because Joseph has been so visibly bad this season, Zuttah doesn't feel as comfortable directing Joseph to help out others. For whatever reason, though, Zuttah seems to only direct the left guard, but the fact that he is directing people mid-snap with this signal really shows Zuttah taking command of the offensive line.

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via i.imgur.com

With Zuttah's arm still pushing into his back, Meredith looks over to Penn and sees McDaniel about to spin inside Penn. Meanwhile, Wright runs off to cover Dawson, but as Dotson appears to not yet feel a need to come back to help Joseph, he's got his arm on Carimi's back too, presumably so he can feel Carimi turning towards him in case Bryant tries to get inside Carimi. Still, he never takes the hand off of McDonald.

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Dotson finally feels McDonald start to move - you can even see in the previous picture the gap between Joseph and Dotson that McDonald tries to split - and comes back to double team McDonald. A simple hand placement let Dotson scan all of the field for potential blitzers, yet still have him aware of when he needed to come back to help Jospeh. Again, a simple technique, but an incredibly useful one. Meanwhile, also circled, Meredith has left Mebane under Zuttah's direction to help out Penn with McDaniel's spin move. You can also see that James isn't in the best position to block Sherman because of Glennon's depth - if Glennon had stepped up into the pocket a little bit more, it would have forced Sherman to change his approach angle to one that would have benefited James. As it stood, Sherman gets his hands around Glennon, so Glennon throws without much power and the ball thuds into the ground short of Jackson.

It's a shame, because it actually shows the OL communicating well. When you hear pundits refer to an offensive line needing to develop 'chemistry', it's in order to be able to communicate like the OL do on this play. Zuttah needs to know the tendencies and strengths of the left side of the line before he can feel comfortable sending the guard to help the tackle; likewise, the left guard needs to have faith in Zuttah and know him and his play well enough to determine whether it is in fact safe to leave Zuttah. Likewise, Dotson and Joseph need to be on the same page; Joseph needs to know at what point Dotson will come back to help, so he knows where to ferry the defensive tackle if he needs assistance, while Dotson needs to have faith that Joseph will keep his inside solid to force the defensive tackle towards Joseph's outside gap (and towards Dotson). If the offensive line played any better this game, it's because they've clearly gotten comfortable with each other (which makes sense, as Zuttah had several game playing next to Meredith last season before Nicks' toe injury forced Zuttah to move to left guard.

Here's what appears to be another example of Zuttah directing Meredith, though it's harder to be 100% sure because of the camera angle. It also gives us the opportunity to look at a recurring them in these pass-protection reviews - Davin Joseph dropping his head and allowing the defender to beat him as a result.

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Above we have Erik Lorig picking up Bruce Irvin, Penn blocking Bryant, Meredith and Zuttah double-teaming Mebane, Joseph blocking McDaniel and Dotson shadowing Chris Clemmons (who will be looping inside), with Mike James looking to pick up Wright. Again, it's hard to tell at this angle, but you can see Meredith's helmet is right up against Mebane's. Zuttah's arm, meanwhile, does appear to be pushing against Meredith.

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As you can see in the right circle, Meredith has been directed over to help Penn with Mebane (even though, in this instance, Penn didn't need the help). In the left circle, however, you'll notice Joseph has dropped his haid. Again. This makes it incredibly easy for McDaniel to swing his left arm over Joseph's head...

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... and execute a swim move, leaving him with a free path to the quarterback. Luckily, as you can see, the ball has been thrown, but if this was one of those deep-route-only plays that Mike Sullivan likes to call so much, this ends in a sack.

We'll go back to Joseph's issues later (as White pointed out in his Storified tweets, the Seahawks tended to send power guys rather than speed guys at Joseph, which Davin does typically hold up better against. Once they put guys with speed on #75, though, he was routinely beaten, as he has been all season). Though the OL, Lorig and James kept Glennon's jersey nice and clean on that play, the pocket was not solid thanks to Joseph. The play does also illustrate, however, that while it's good to see Zuttah taking charge with his directing of guards, he is only in his second year of playing center. HE needs to develop a better sense of when and when not to send Meredith off to help Penn; it was unnecessary on this play, and was downright dangerous on the play below.

"It's always the same"

*bonus points for those who get the reference*

When I talked earlier about the chemistry and communication of an offensive line, I mentioned that "likewise, the left guard needs to have faith in Zuttah and know him and his play well enough to determine whether it is in fact safe to leave Zuttah". See, that chemistry, that communication cannot be a one-way street. Meredith needs to use his own instincts and decision making as to whether or not Penn needs help, and as to what else might be coming on the play. To be clear: I am not blaming Meredith for the following protection breakdown; it's the first game he's started this season, and he was merely following Zuttah's direction. The following play just shows that Zuttah still needs to continue to develop a wider sense of what's goes in during a play.

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The Seahawks send five here. Cliff Avril (standing up over Crabtree), McDaniel (at 3-tech over Joseph) and Clemmons (lining up as a wide 9-tech to the left of the screen) go on a straight rush, while McDonald (at 3-tech over Meredith) and Wright will both shoot into the strongside A-gap.

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I've circled Zuttah's arm above - yup, he's again directing Meredith to go help Penn with Clemmons, even though Penn doesn't need any help at this point (or, indeed, at any point during this play). Not also that Wagner, #54, is in man coverage on Brian Leonard.

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This, however, is the result of Zuttah's directing of Meredith: Zuttah, with his arm still outstretched from pushing away Meredith, is now left with both McDonald and Wright to block.

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Zuttah is able to pick up McDonald, but Wright is in Glennon's face. Unable to scan the field, Glennon goes to his check down, Leonard, who gets 8 yards on the play. Unfortunately, the down and distance was 3rd & 18; Zuttah's rashness in sending Meredith off to help Penn did nothing to help put Glennon in position to conver the third down. Had Zuttah not, then Meredith would have been able to stay on McDonald, allowing Zuttah to peel off and pick up Wright. It's the kind of pass-pro breakdown that the team cannot afford when Sullivan goes into panic mode and dials up a pass 75% of the time.

In the next part of the pass-pro review, we'll look at how some bad play, poor discipline and hesitation on the offensive line hurt the team last Sunday.

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