Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Sacked! | by Michael

It's not exactly going out on a limb to say that giving up a quarterback sack is bad. In fact, a sack is usually a key component of a busted drive, and the statistics clearly bear this out: last year, on sixteen regular-season possessions where the Irish allowed a sack, Notre Dame scored only twice. Ironically, both occurred against Michigan State, and the Irish could have gone three for three on that dubious distinction were it not for the failed Schwapp run on 4th & 1. (By the way, a shout-out to Sportscenter: Charlie Weis has never beaten Michigan State. Brilliant.)

Notre Dame has since graduated the entire right side of its OL (Dan Stevenson & Mark Levoir). Right guard will be manned by seasoned veteran Bob Morton, but three players are competing for Levoir's vacated spot: 5th-year senior Brian Mattes, sophomore Paul Duncan, and freshman Sam Young. Additionally, the Irish lost another important blocker on that right side in TE Anthony Fasano. Three spots, and three new players. Although Morton has a ton of experience under his belt at LG and C, he has yet to take a snap at RG. Meanwhile, likely starting TE John Carlson is also undergoing re-education.

The new right side has its work cut out for them, since last year's version played a vital role in protecting Brady Quinn. Overall, the Irish only gave up 16 sacks during the regular season, although they surrendered five more to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. But overall, OL coach John Latina clearly has the pass protection headed in the right direction.

Sacks Allowed per Pass Attempt

Pass Att.
% Allowed

For all you aspiring defensive coordinators, let's do a little scenario wargaming. How would you attack the Irish pass protection and stop those drives cold in their tracks? Based on what happened in 2005, here are some guidelines for bringing down Brady.

1. Front Four Ain't Enough
If you want to accumulate sacks against the Irish, you're going to need to bring more than your front four defensive linemen -- unless you're Ohio State. Only four of the 21 sacks came against a defensive front four alone. One of those was a bad snap against Michigan, and the other three were racked up by the Buckeye's DEs beating our OTs mano y mano.

2. Two is Better than One
Not including zone blitzes, defenses recorded just two sacks against Quinn last year when they rushed only one blitzer (BYU and Southern Cal were the lucky winners). Two or more blitzers were more successful; nine of the 21 successful blitzes incorporated two blitzers. Additionally, for all of the hoopla surrounding Tennessee's vaunted front four, their three sacks all came with two blitzing LBs. Defenses that wanted to pressure Quinn need to send multiple blitzers.

An Example from '05: ND vs. Michigan
It's 2nd & 9, and Weis has inserted an extra tight end (Carlson) to replace the FB. Michigan will blitz both a MLB and a safety. On the snap, John Sullivan and Stevenson double-team the DT, and Sullivan then picks up the blitzing Mike LB (leaving the DT with Stevenson). However, that left the safety with an easy gap to Quinn on the right side between Levoir and Stevenson. Walker makes a move to get back into that gap, but it's too late. Quinn does a nice job to partially avoid the blitzing safety, but the blitzing LB has now beaten Sullivan to his left shoulder and takes down Quinn.

3. Zone Blitz, Anyone?
Quinn was sacked four times by zone blitzes. Michigan State (twice), Stanford, and Syracuse all used the zone blitz effectively.

An Example: Syracuse vs. ND
It's first down, and the Irish have three WRs on the field with Fasano and Walker. Upon the snap, the defensive end drops, and both linebackers blitz. Quinn makes his play action fake to Walker, who picks up one of the LBs. Meanwhile, the other blitzing LB puts a spin move on Stevenson and gets inside of him. That move forces Quinn out of pocket to his left and into the lineman being blocked by Santucci.

(What's a zone blitz, you ask? Here's an old friend to tell you more.)

4. Don't Play Fair - Use Deception
On the successful blitzes, more often than not, defenses waited for Quinn and the OL to call out the protection, and then they would shift and either show blitz or back off. Ohio State did this over and over again in the Fiesta Bowl with their linebackers. Almost every play there were LBs showing blitz, dropping back, or executing a flurry of different looks all at the same time. The sheer amount of feints and fakes that OSU used had to be confusing for Quinn and the OL. The most successful blitzes against the Irish last year were disguised beautifully.

An Example: BYU vs. ND
ND has two WRs, two TEs, and one RB. The ball is on the left hash and the Irish have overloaded the short side of the field with Jeff Samardzija, Carlson, and Fasano. Quinn calls out the protection to the OL, then settles into the crouch. Carlson is sent in motion to wide side, and suddenly one of the BYU defensive backs creeps up. As Carlson slows down in preparation of the snap, the DB attacks the line of scrimmage, and the OL and Quinn haven't accounted for this blitzer. On the snap, the play appears to be a quick pass to Carlson in the flat, but the charging DB has his hands up and Quinn can't make the throw. Levoir doesn't slide over to pick him up because it's not his assignment; maybe the guard Sullivan is supposed to kick out, but there's no way this protection anticipated the blitzing DB. Before Sullivan can get there, the DB is in Quinn's face.

5. Use Your Corners
Teams like USC and Michigan were able to blitz their slot cornerbacks to force Quinn to step up into the pocket. Because both defenses had strong DLs, these blitzes were able to force Quinn to run into another defender, who could take Quinn down if the original blitzer hadn't done so already.

An Example: USC vs. ND
It's 3rd & 9, and the Irish have their regular personnel on the field. There are twin WRs to the wide side. The SAM backer and slot CB blitz for the Trojans. Darius Walker does a decent-enough job picking up the blitzing corner, and Sullivan takes on DT Sedrick Ellis, who eventually beats him to Santucci's side. Ellis takes down Quinn as the blitzing corner forced Quinn to step up into Ellis.

Among these five strategies, two were emphasized the most: deception, and strength in numbers. Teams just couldn't get to Quinn with only one blitzer, and despite the fact that the Irish are breaking in a new right side of their OL, it's likely that trend will continue. Even when Quinn was under pressure, how often did he escape the rush or make a terrific pass while being hit?

With that in mind, the key to continued success against blitzing defenses is going to be blitz recognition. How well can Brady anticipate and spy blitzes, and at the same time, set up his blockers with the best pre-snap protection scheme? Additionally, how well can his blockers adapt on the fly to well-disguised blitzes? A closer look at last year's offense showed us that pre-snap deception often befuddled the offense, and a second viewing of the Fiesta Bowl might convince others that Jim Tressel felt the same way.

Even with the new cogs in the Irish line, there is plenty of good reason for continued confidence in the pass protection. Last year Quinn absolutely torched defenses in his first year under Charlie Weis, and his development under Weis and QB coach Peter Vaas is likely to contain even heavier dosages of blitz recognition. In fact, during Notre Dame's Media Day, Quinn discussed his off-season activities, which included talking to NFL quarterbacks. Said Quinn:
Talking to Peyton Manning, you truly realize he is a business guy and he is obviously a tremendous quarterback, a very talented athlete, but at the same point of time, takes a business approach to everything. He looks at himself as his own corporation. I think some of the stuff that he talked about that he does before games, or even just going into his final season as a senior, it's just amazing. I think hopefully, you know, I can kind of work in some of the same routines that he used his same year.
There's not a quarterback in the NFL who studies defenses as intensely as Manning. Are these the "routines" to which Quinn refers? If so, our excellent pass protection will be even more formidable this year.

Here's a bold preseason prediction: the Irish offensive line -- regardless of who plays right tackle -- will give up fewer than 10 sacks in the regular season.