Making the Grade: Irish Offensive Line Improvement in 2008
Expectations for Notre Dame’s 2008 season were high. The majority of the offense returned and the Irish faced a pedestrian schedule. But after the two consecutive disappointing offensive seasons, many are grasping for answers. A 3-9 campaign followed by an underwhelming 7-5 season can cause even the most ardent fan to forget about quarterback Brady Quinn and the promising offense head coach Charlie Weis led in 2005.
Recent reality is an offense that has struggled for the better part of the past 25 games. The criticism for Weis’ scheme and predictable play-calling has begun in earnest, and many wonder how it is possible to have such an inept running game that fares even worse when benchmarked to the competition. The most common culprits are overly-finessed offensive line play and poorly-crafted zone blocking schemes.
Putting it mildly, versions 2007 and 2008 of the Irish offense haven’t been up to par. Even in 2005, Notre Dame’s most prolific offensive season during Weis’ tenure, the Irish failed to manage a level of rushing production conducive to a national title run.
Finding a silver lining in the 2008 Irish offensive performance is an arduous task. The poor rushing output and dismal record may overshadow it, but there has been substantial progress protecting the quarterback.
The Irish offense went from a Notre Dame record 58 sacks in 2007 to 22 in 2008, a reduction of more than 60 percent. But casting these numbers in terms of passing attempts—a more apt metric for quarterback protection—shows an even bigger improvement. From 2007 to 2008, Notre Dame’s offense went from one sack per 6.7 pass attempts to one sack per 20.3 attempts, an improvement of more than three-fold.
The numbers paint the picture, the Irish made great leaps in pass protection from 2007 to 2008. This naturally begs a few questions. First, does this even matter. Second, how did this happen? And finally, does this remarkable one-year turnaround give hope for the future?
Does It Even Matter?
The obvious—and correct—answer is yes. But more importantly, how much does it matter?
In offensive football, manageable down and distance situations are imperative to success. Favorable down and distances minimize schematic tendencies and allow play-callers to be creative, selecting from the entire playbook. This maximizes the chances of successful execution by keeping opposing defenses guessing. In other words, neutral—and to a much larger degree negative—plays hinder execution by giving the defense an unnecessary advantage.
Unmanageable down and distance situations are an impediment to successfully and efficiently moving the ball. When an offense operates behind the chains tendencies are revealed and the advantage goes to the defense.
Therefore, irrespective of offensive philosophy, the goal of virtually all schemes is to create favorable down and distances. Minimizing negative plays (sacks, penalties, etc.) is a integral part of successfully achieving this goal.
For the Irish this is a virtual axiom. More than most college teams, Weis’ offense heavily relies on the passing game to create personnel mismatches. This makes protecting the quarterback a valuable commodity.
What Is Pass Protection Anyway?
Before diving into the reasons for the dramatic reductions in sacks, a discussion on pass protection is needed. There are essentially two scenarios in pass protection, equal and overload.
Equal Pass Protection Scenario
An equal pass protection scenario occurs when the defense rushes the quarterback with a number of defenders equal to, or less than, the number of offensive players in the pass protection scheme. This means the defense drops at least one more defender into coverage than receivers out in routes. While this can make finding an open receiver problematic, it does make protecting the quarterback a more facile proposition.
Successful offensive pass protection in the equal scenario means winning one-on-one battles. The offensive players must identify who to block, achieve a position of leverage, engage the defender and execute. This can require pre-snap adjustments and/or reacting to stunts and blitzes, but the onus is largely on the players involved in the protection scheme, i.e. offensive linemen and possibly tight ends and/or running backs.
The quarterback may adjust the protection prior to the snap, but this is typically where his involvement ends. As such, the quarterback’s protection responsibility is minimized and he can focus on reading play development after the snap. With extra defenders dropping into coverage, this focus is needed to find open receivers.
Overload Pass Protection Scenario
The second situation is when the defense rushes the quarterback with more defenders than offensive players assigned to protect the quarterback—here termed the overload scenario.
If executed correctly by the defense, protecting a quarterback against an overload pass rush is a more challenging endeavor. Avoiding a sack is not only the responsibility of the players involved in pass protection, the quarterback is also accountable.
This means pass protection in an overload scenario is two-fold.
Because there are more defenders than blockers the offensive players must correctly decide which defenders to block and which to allow unabated to the passer. Typically an inside-out method is employed where players are instructed to first block defenders to their inside. Since defenders to the outside must cover longer distances, this maximizes the protection time for the quarterback.
Relative to the equal scenario, correctly identifying their couterpart is an additional responsibility of the blockers. Otherwise their responsibilities are virtually identical to that described above. But the burden on the other players, particularly the quarterback, is substantially increased against an overload pass rushing defense.
A Weisian offense counters overloaded pass rushes with hot routes and/or audibles. The former requires precise communication and timing between the quarterback and his receivers. The latter requires the quarterback to act as an extension of the offensive coordinator/play-caller as calling an audible is effectively changing to a cheater play in real-time. This negates the need of the play-caller to anticipate defensive adjustments, the quarterback is tasked with managing and redirecting play-calls to compensate for the overloading pass rushing tactics.
Certainly this comes with a downside. Hot routes and audibles require intelligent, decisive quarterback play and neither is easily achieved, particularly in noisy, hostile playing environments. In other words, success and failure are largely determined by the quarterback and the majority of the execution burden falls squarely on his shoulders.<!–nextpage–>
How Did This Happen?
So, how did the Irish improve so much?
The reasons for allowing a sack are diverse, complicated and rarely easily identified. Exactly characterizing how the Irish offense was able to reduce the number of sacks between 2007 and 2008 by a factor of three would require in-depth analysis of each allowed sack. That doesn’t, however, mean a general, higher-level assessment isn’t warranted or of value.
Notre Dame’s offensive line progressed dramatically from 2007 to 2008 in terms of understanding, balance, footwork and hand position. The first of these translates to blocking the correct defender while the last three help position, engagement and execution. The natural result was improvement protecting the quarterback against equal pass rushes.
But the progress didn’t stop with the offensive line.
Quarterback Jimmy Clausen’s overall understanding of the offense grew and with his development came more flexibility adjusting plays at the line of scrimmage. Clausen also improved his timing with receivers, his speed reading progressions and defenses, and his ability to correctly identity the appropriate cheater play.
Clausen’s increased understanding of Weis’ offense contributed dramatically to the offense’s improved pass protection, perhaps even more than the upgraded play of the offensive line.
Hope For The Future?
The progress outlined above should not be understated. It is difficult to look beyond the putrid running game during Weis’ tenure, but 2008 showed a substantial level of improvement and provides hope for continued development in future seasons.
While it isn’t realistic to expect a similar upgrade in pass protection for 2009, continued gains in this area will serve to lengthen drives, create more scoring opportunities and improve third down efficiency. This is a must for Weis’ pass-first approach and should bode well for the future of the Irish offense.
Furthermore, the progress in pass blocking also suggests the opportunity for improvement in the running game. Even if the reduction in sacks was the result of disproportionate practice time spent on the passing game, a similar level of devotion to the rushing offense could dramatically benefit the Irish.
The success of the Irish offense in 2009—and Weis’ continued employment—will be largely determined by the proficiency of the ground game. If the rushing production can improve the way pass blocking did in 2008, Notre Dame will field the most potent offense during Weis’ tenure, and perhaps even in recent memory.