Last week's game against the Eagles saw what was probably the best pass protection the Bucs have shown all year... in a way. More accurately, it was the game where the QB was under the least duress this season, with protection holding up OK for the most part.
The biggest notable on the offensive line was it was the first extensive playing time for Ted Larsen this season, starting in place of the injured/infected manbeast that is Carl Nicks; Sunday also saw plenty of Jamon Meredith, mostly in as tackle-eligible, but also finishing the game at left guard, with Larsen having to play center when Jeremy Zuttah went down late in the fourth. Larsen wasn't bad on the day, making some nice blocks here, a few mistakes there, and showing a streak of aggression that helped and hurt in equal measure, decleating a few defenders on some plays but over-committing and getting beaten on others. He was also guilty of a needless and, yes, dirty chop block on a running play that not only was he lucky to not be flagged for, but actually killed the play by preventing Zuttah from moving up to the second level. Meredith, on the other hand, appeared to have notably regressed from 2012, when he started a majority of the season at right guard.
The line on the whole, however, can have their pass protection last Sunday summed up by four words: sloppy but largely successful. The biggest help that offensive line (and other assorted blockers) had in pass-pro, though, was a greater use of play-action and shorter route combinations requiring only three- or five-step drops, something that had been absent for a majority of the season to this point.
The best way to demonstrate this sloppy sort-of success, though, is using coaches' film: here are three plays that are representative of pass protection against the Eagles for most of the game.
As always, click a picture to enlarge it.
It's all in the feet
Our first play is a straight drop-back pass, with the Eagles rushing four:
Philadelphia will drop the nose tackle over Zuttah, Isaac Sopaga, into coverage, and Connor Barwin (who's off screen) will come in from the right. The match ups on the left are straight forward: Penn drops back to pick up Brandon Graham, the linebacker outside Tim Wright, leaving Ted Larsen on Fletcher Cox, who's lined up at 4i-tech (Penn's inside shoulder).
I've circled Larsen's feet in the above picture - look how wide his stance is! It's something I've mentioned in previous OL reviews, but it's so incredibly important for offensive line to keep good balance and maintain even weight distribution in their feet - to not do so is just inviting the defensive lineman to beat you around the side you're leaning away from... which is what happens here.
Cox takes advantage of Larsen spreading himself out, follows up with a quick swim move which Larsen's feet position precludes him from being in a position to counter...
...and Cox is past Larsen, whose only recourse is to try and wrap him up in a blatant hold. Larsen wisely lets go of this - avoiding giving up ten yards on a holding call - but it leaves Cox with nothing between him and Glennon. What's a shame is that the rest of the line do a good job - Penn's engaged Graham, Joseph hasn't gotten sucked in by Cedric Thornton going around the outside and is in good position to pick up Barwin, while Dotson likewise in good position to take Thornton no matter if Thornton attempts to go inside or outside. This, unfortunately, has too often been the story of the Bucs' offensive line so far this year - a majority of the line could be executing well, but very rarely will all five execute - there's normally one or two players who've whiffed on their assignment, and here it happens to be Larsen.
HOWEVER - not all is lost. Though, as seen in the circle, Cox is bearing down on Glennon, the rookie QB throws to Doug Martin on a swing pass, and the Hamster takes uses his shake and wiggle to evade defenders and gain ten yards on the play, picking up a Bucs' first down. This is the advantage of using quicker pass plays, and having more running backs or even receivers running checkdown routes, something sorely lacking in the Bucs' gameplan early in the season. Even when the offensive line as a unit don't execute (even if only one of the five actually messed up), Glennon is able to make a quick throw to a playmaker in space, and the offense is able to move the chains as a result.
Serendipity saves a sack
For all that offensive linemen spend their time refining technique to try and give themselves the best possible chance to win on game day, sometimes there's just no substitute for a big ol' bag of luck - and the Bucs found that out last Sunday.
This play is from early in the third quarter, the possession following Riley Cooper's 47-yard touchdown. It's third and seven, so it's an obvious passing down - and the Eagles will send six of the seven players in the box, with DeMeco Ryans covering Tim Wright (as indicated by the orange line). Mychal Kendricks, who's standing up outside Dotson, and Trent Cole, with his hand on the ground outside Wright, will be rushing straight outside; Vinny Curry, who's standing over Dotson, will hit the weakside B-gap, while Connor Barwin will loop round to hit that same B-gap. Cedric Thornton, lined up at 1-tech, shoots the strongside A-gap, while Nate Allen blitzes the weakside A-gap. It's the kind of defensive play that the Bucs' D often employs on third downs, so it's something you'd expect the Bucs' OL to be used to protecting against.
Martin goes to block Kendricks, with Penn dropping back to pick up Cole. Dotson immediately engages with Curry, Joseph positions himself to take Barwin, while Zuttah and Larsen step in to take Thornton. It's important to note the latter two's sightlines - Larsen is watching to see if he needs to help Penn with Cole, while Zuttah is checking Ryans, as it is not yet clear whether Ryans is in coverage or will come on a delayed blitz.
Now note the sightlines - Larsen is still focused on Cole, and is starting to turn away from Thornton; meanwhile, both Zuttah and Joseph have turned their attention to Allen's blitz. This might pose an interesting question - what about Thornton? It's a fair question to ask, as both Larsen and Zuttah let Thornton go in order to deal with Cole and Allen respectively.
And here is where that good ol' bag of luck comes in handy: it could be a result of pushing against two players who suddenly move away; it could just be he lost his footing; it could even be the case that he forgot to tie his shoelace. No matter why it happens, Thornton trips over to the ground, effectively taking himself out the play - had he maintained his balance, this play is a sack. Meanwhile Joseph has eschewed blocking Barwin for Allen, while Zuttah lowers his shoulder for impact with the safety.
Zuttah forces his shoulder into Allen's gut, while Joseph puts hands on him too, sending him into the air. Barwin is now unengaged and begins to move around to the outside, while Curry is starting to get the inside on Dotson. However, in the time this has taken to unfold, Glennon has found his man, and winds back his arm.
I've circled Barwin and Curry in the above photo; though Joseph is reaching out an arm to Barwin, there's no real way is in position to stop him, and Barwin would have like had a free shot at the quarterback - likewise, Curry has (with a cheeky hand-to-face) disengaged from Dotson and is only a few steps away from Glennon. It also looks like Kendricks has escaped from Martin's leverage, leaving Cole, who Penn is washing up field, and Allen, who is literally in the air in the above photo, as the only defenders blocked through the play - even Thornton is beginning to get to his feet. It is, however, moot in this instance, as the ball is on its way to Wright, who manages to catch the ball for a gain of twelve, comfortably picking up the first down.
The fact that the poor communication between Zuttah and Larsen didn't end in a sack is pure luck - Thornton was only a few ballet classes away from downing Glennon. Aside from that lucky escape, though, this play should make you question - if coverage on Wright was a little better, and Glennon had to hold onto the ball another second more, would this not likely have ended in a sack for Curry, or possibly Barwin, or even Thornton had he gotten up quickly? This is the kind of play that might make you think the offensive line are doing a good job, but the truth is there are arguably only two offensive linemen who actually won their match ups on this play.
The quarterback's best friend
It's often said that a quarterback's best friend is a strong running game - ostensibly because it means that the team doesn't need to rely on the QB to be the sole source of offensive production. While undoubtedly a huge help, an even bigger advantage of a running game that a defense must respect is that it allows a team to utilise play-action more effectively. Play-action helps not just the QB, but almost the entire offense - it gives offensive line the advantage of putting the DL in an easier position to be leveraged against due to them chasing the running back; it gives receivers that extra split second to break away from their DBs as they pause to see if they need to switch to run responsibilities; and of course, it sucks linebackers out of coverage, giving easier reads to the quarterback and opening up areas of the field that would otherwise be locked down. Due to all these reasons, a well-sold play action can even overcome bad blocking.
The Bucs line up in 21 personnel, with Jamon Meredith in as an eligible tackle. Basic responsibilities are marked out above, with Penn and Larsen taking between them them the defensive tackle, Cox, and the linebacker, Kendricks, behind him, Lorig and Martin being responsible for Ryans (presumably with one of the two then releasing into a passing route), and Dotson responsible for Barwin, who is off-camera to the right.
Now while I'm often critical of Joseph, he has been put in a tough situation here - the play-action is designed to look like what appears to be inside zone, so Joseph has to take a step to the right - but Thornton shoots across his face to the gap on Joseph's left. That's a difficult block to ask a guard to take when you're trying to sell the play-action, and as he resultantly doesn't get proper leverage on Thornton, he actually does a good job in the given circumstance, though as we'll shortly see he's not helped by Zuttah. Meredith, on the other hand, really doesn't have much of an excuse for his lack of leverage on Cole - Meredith really needs to be getting his helmet in front of Cole, not behind as in the photo above, and as a result he gives away the inside to Cole.
As you can see here, Cole is breezing past Meredith, while Zuttah is chasing Sopoaga who is looping round. A DB comes in from the left of the screen to chase the play down from behind.
With Sopoaga out his reach, Zuttah comes down to doubleteam with Joseph on Thornton; meanwhile, Cole has thoroughly beaten Meredith, but based on the shallow angle he's running at, it appears Cole is still thinking this is a run. Lorig approaches the line of scrimmage and lines himself up to block Sopoaga.
Above is a bit of an unusual technique, but something that some teams will teach defenders to do: pushing away offensive linemen to get their team mates off their blocks. It's something Lavonte David has done once or twice this year to free up Gerald McCoy, and Cole does it above, pushing Larsen in an apparent bid to free Cox, as well as closing up a potential cut-back lane had this been a run.
Zuttah coming in to double with Joseph on Thornton has had the opposite effect than that intended - rather than making sure the defensive lineman is blocked, Zuttah actually succeeds in pushing Thornton away from Joseph, who did not have great leverage due to Thornton's step being against the blocking scheme. On the other side of the line, having pushed Larsen off of Cox - which you can see has happened in the photo above - Cole is free (just his helmet is circled to identify him)... but take an angle towards Martin, not Glennon, suggesting the veteran defensive end is still thinking run, not pass. Ryans and the DB, however, have realise their mistake, with the DB breaking his feet down to change course from Martin to Glennon, while Ryans starts to back pedal towards that lovely patch of wide open field circled behind him that he vacated to play the run...
... but it's all for naught. While there are other notable aspects of the play - Penn coming into to clean up Cox now that Larsen was pushed off his block, in the light blue circle; Cole and Thornton now free, and might have been a threat to the quarterback had the ball not been thrown - the bit everyone cares about is in the dark blue circles. Though the pass protection was very sloppy on this play, the play-action drew Cole's attention away from Glennon while sucking Ryans out of coverage, resulting in a huge window for Glennon to throw the ball to. That blur at the top of your screen is Vincent Jackson on a crossing route; Jackson catches the ball in stride and turns up field for his first touchdown of the season.
As you can see, just because Glennon probably faced the least pressure a Bucs' QB has faced all year, it doesn't mean that the offensive line has played well; in fact, we've seen the same issues we've seen all season long - one or two players will make a mistake that undoes the otherwise-solid blocking of the rest of the line. One of the takeaways I took, though, is that Joseph did look slightly better in pass protection than he has done in the previous four games - though still as disappointing as ever in the run game. Reviewing the pass protection has made it even more clear to me that this line will not allow a quarterback to succeed if the coaches keep dialling up deep passes after deep passes - if not for increasing use of short routes, there's no question that some of the plays that ended up being nice gains for the Bucs would have instead ended in sacks. It's a trend I for one hope continues - not only does it play more to Glennon's strengths, but it disguises what has been a very sloppy offensive line.