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Spring Study Hall: Three primary types of pass protection

Good pass protection is more than just hand-fighting and brute strength…it is a highly technical endeavor.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama
Offensive line plays isn’t just’s all about technique.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

(This spring, as part of the Spring Study Hall series, we’re focusing on a few specific aspects of the game that oftentimes fly beneath the radar. If there’s some obscure technical topic you’d like to see discussed, feel free to mention it in the comments and I’ll give it a look-see. - OWB)

Burly lineman shoulder against each other across an imaginary line from their defensive opponents. The ball is spotted, the center places a hand on the pigskin, the quarterback lines up behind him and barks seeming nonsense while the guards and tackles hold motionless on fine triggers, waiting for the moment to explode with their 315-pounds of momentum into a wall of men in different colored jerseys. The ball is snapped…and then what?

For most of us, that moment blurs into a mass of push-and-pull, a maelstrom of human tonnage, as the largest men on any football squad crash and collide…scratch and claw…shove and rip…in a tug-of-war that pits the predatory defensive pass rush against a great wall of pass protection. The guards and center must lock down the heart of the offense and stop the surge, and everyone knows the left tackle is a right-handed quarterback’s best friend. But how do these big men, who are underappreciated athletes, go about the task of preventing defensive linemen and linebackers from regularly assaulting their passer?

It’s not all just brute force and momentum. Sure, those factors play their role, but good offensive line play is an exercise in proper technique, flawless execution of fundamentals, and a scheme that benefits the primary aims of the offense. Even with a traditionally run-based offense like Alabama’s under Nick Saban, pass protection and its execution is of critical importance. With a gun-slinger like Tua Tagovailoa expected to earn considerable playing time under center this year after recovering from a reported broken thumb, those pass protection sets could be of the utmost importance to an Alabama offense that will need to buoy a young defense in the early portion of the year.

Let’s take a few moments to briefly review the three primary pass protection sets we’ll see this season from Alabama’s offensive line. The Tide’s front should be talented and somewhat seasoned, with returning starters at key positions and an infusion of fresh five-star talent that could make the Tide’s offense one of the most feared units in college football.

First, a little basic terminology

What, specifically, are pass pro sets? In the vernacular of the game, “sets” are the techniques a blocker uses to protect the passer behind him. It’s not particularly the alignment or formation, as is often the meaning of the word “set” when football folks discuss offense (such as a “three-receiver set.” Rather, set can also include the technique each lineman uses to execute the overall pass protection scheme. For example, there are three primary pass pro sets, and one could see all three of them used simultaneously on the same offensive play by the five linemen.

Now regardless of which set a player may be using, the fundamentals of good pass protection remain the same: the player must have a balanced base, he must get great punch, he must target his opponent well, he must stay as square as possible, and he must maintain inside-out leverage on his opponent

“Base” is the foot width and stance a lineman takes, and it is critical that a player walks the tightrope between a wide enough base to balance a big body and a narrow enough base to retain ultimate mobility. This generally means that the feet should roughly stay shoulder width apart throughout the blocking exercise. The lineman needs to be light on his hand in a three-point stance, as white knuckles can tip a wary D lineman to the blocker’s eventual direction (left or right, or forward or backward). The blocker must have a flat back in his stance, must keep the head up, and needs to bend at the knee rather than the waist without falling into a squat.

The “punch” is familiar to even the most casual observers of football, as it is the concussive, explosive extension of both an offensive lineman’s hands into the body of the player he intends to block. It is the point at which the lineman engages the defender, and it needs to be a short, directed, detonation of muscle fiber that knocks the opponent off balance immediately and stops his feet.

“Targeting,” though it has a negative connotation in the modern vocabulary of the game, is not a helmet-to-helmet blow against an opponent in offensive line terminology. Rather, it is the placement of the punch, and how it is used to steer a pass rusher to buy time and create distance between the predator and quarterback. For example, a well-targeted punch to an edge-rushing defensive end’s inside shoulder could push him wide of the play and give the QB a chance to escape out the other side of the pocket.

“Staying square” is a necessity for an offensive lineman, as it is how he stays ready to engage the defender, regardless of set. The lineman starts with his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage generally, but that can shift as he diagnoses the angle of the defender he must block. If the rush is coming from the edge, he no longer wants to stay square with the line, or he will give up and edge rush. He must pivot to keep his shoulders squared to the threatening pass rusher: if he doesn’t pivot enough he will get beat around end, and if he pivots too much, he’ll give up a lethal inside move.

“Inside-out leverage” refers to the way that a lineman must keep himself between the quarterback and rusher. More specifically, he wants to keep himself just inside the inside shoulder of the opposing rusher while pushing him as wide as possible without overcommitting. All offensive linemen give up and inside move every now and then, but ultimately, it is the job of a block – particularly tackles – to push the rusher wide from an inside-out orientation to increase the distance between the rusher and QB (because distance equals time, and time is a QB’s best friend).

Enough with the vocabulary…let’s talk sets.

Three basic types of pass pro sets

Whether it’s high school, college, or professional ball one is watching, the careful observer is sure to see these three sets used for pass protection on nearly every passing down. While there are variations of these sets, these are the three foundational pass pro sets that offenses use to give a quarterback time to get the ball out while keeping his shirt clean.

The three basic sets are jump set (or Power set), 45-degree set (or “Kick” or “Lateral” set), and vertical set. Each one has its proper role and context, though they may be mixed and matched on a particular play to create an overall protection scheme. Some offensive line coaches prefer an aggressive pass pro set, which will include a lot of jumps and 45s across the line. Others like to master what is ultimately the most fail-safe way to defend elite edge rushers, the vertical set. Regardless of how a coach elects to use the tools in his toolbox, the goal is to build a scheme around the talent he has up front and develop a plan to turn their strengths against their opponents.

Pass protection sets are also heavily dependent on what the offense is trying to do as a whole. In offenses primarily run from the shotgun, certain sets are almost useless. The same is true if an offense is looking to air the ball out. The offensive line is constantly rolling the tumbler of combinations to get the right combination of sets that maximize the strengths of his blockers, which is why it is common to see a line struggle early in games, only to become dominant later in the second half when a coach has dialed in his plan.

Jump Set

The jump set is the quickest set a blocker can use to engage his opponent and get his hands in play. It is commonly seen on play-action looks, or on short drops (like a three-step) when the ball is expected to come out quickly. It is an aggressive set that allows a blocker to get his hands on the defender and impact his options as quickly as possible. Therefore, it’s common to see lines use jump sets when the defenders are lined up directly in contact with the line heads-up. It is routine to see guards and centers (especially in run-heavy offenses) use the jump set to attack noses and tackles and move them before the big men gain momentum and lean. The blocker properly executing a jump set rockets out of his stance and engages the defender on his second step, or first “kick,” while committing to sell the run action that is built into most pass plays to move defenders’ eyes and cause hesitation.

It’s an aggressive, attacking set that involves forward footwork, and therefore forward momentum. When an interior line properly jump sets a defense, it can look all the world like a run-blocking scheme, though the true goal is not to move bodies and gain push, but rather to stymy the defensive attempt to collapse the pocket at the nose.

Don’t underestimate the importance of selling the run to a successful jump set. When a defense reads run, even for a second, it causes D linemen to stop moving their feet, at which point they completely cede the advantage to the blocker who already had a momentum advantage in the first place. A side effect is that when linebackers see the linemen stop their feet and break off the rush, they too assume there’s a run, which leads them to stream towards the gaps, thus creating space just behind them that at a quarterback on a three-step drop (or less) can exploit.

Because the lineman engages the defender immediately, he can physically attack the opponent and tie his hands up, providing a window for the quarterback to get the ball out quickly. That’s one reason the jump set works so well with a short, quick passing game, as it gives the quarterback the best window to dump those quick throws and get the ball to the receiver upfield.

To properly execute the set, a blocker must get his feet in the ground quickly while maintaining inside-out integrity. In other words, the blocker needs to push the pass rusher wide, though he must also be cognizant of a potential inside move from a rusher. It is incumbent upon the blocker to keep his feet moving even when the defender stops moving his, as it is that offensive line momentum that allows the lineman to get to rob a pass rusher of his power.

45-degree Set

The 45-degree set is quite like the jump set in technique, but it differs in its timing and direction. Whereas a jump set is typically used to make immediate contact with a defender lined up directly on a lineman’s body, the 45-degree set is used when a defender lines up a step or two (or more) off the lineman’s body. Many times, when one sees guards and centers using jump sets, it may be that the tackles use 45-degree sets, especially when the defender is not lined up directly in contact. If a tackle jumps a defender who is too far away, for example, the result is that the end will likely beat that tackle around the edge and terrorize the quarterback.

The 45 splits the difference for the tackles, however, as it still allows the bookends to get on their defenders quickly, but it builds in an extra step to allow the blocker to kick-slide out and maintain the inside-out integrity of the edge. Where the jump set involves engaging the defender on the second step or first kick, the 45 allows a blocker to take an extra step and engage the defender on the second kick while moving in a 45-degree, or lateral, angle from his starting position.

Another difference between the 45 or lateral set and the jump set is the footwork. Whereas the jump set uses forward-moving footwork, the 45 uses lateral footwork during engagement. It still uses the same strong, balanced base and powerful punch characteristic of the jump set, but it’s even more important for a tackle in a 45 set to target the nearest point of the defender’s body with his punch. When using a 45, you may see an OT kick out to cut off the angle from an edge rusher playing, say, a 9-technique, then immediately engage with a jump set tactic.

The 45 set is used on play-action and three-step drops by tackles, or by tackles on longer drops when the OT expects help from the guard inside. Though it is a good, aggressive set, it also has its weaknesses. It can be beaten by well-timed, aggressive stunts from a talented defensive line, and against lighter, agile speed rushers on the end, there’s always the chance of an inside move that allows a more athletic end to slip the block of a lumbering tackle.

Vertical Set

The vertical set is one most often used by tackles, especially left tackles, when the quarterback is right-handed. In this set, the lineman doesn’t immediately engage the defender at all, but rather drops back towards the quarterback, maintaining inside leverage, to force the pass rusher to attack from a wide angle which is more predictable and easier to defeat. The vertical set has the added benefit of allowing the tackle to stay square longer while remaining ready to cut off any number of moves. It takes some of the guess work out of diagnosing a pass rush.

It is common to see a tackle use a vertical set if the defense lines up off the body or if the offense is looking to stretch the field with a long pass play, which will obviously require the offensive line to protect the quarterback for longer. It is especially helpful against blitzes, as the additional time prior to engagement gives pass protectors more chances to diagnose blitz vectors and pick up pressure.

It’s not without its problems, however, though most of the negative outcomes arising from vertical sets come from improper execution as opposed to inherent weaknesses in the set. For example, if an offensive lineman fails to stay square in his drop, disaster could ensue, and he could give up an outside speed rush. A dropping lineman who gets sloppy with his feet and loses leverage is easily gobbled up by a bull rush. If the blocker engages one kick step too late in the drop, he can give up the inside. With the longer drop, it’s more difficult to properly time an explosive punch, and for many linemen, the longer wait to engage results in dropped hands (which is problematic at best against elite edge rushers). All these factors are magnified by the fact that there is less margin for error with vertical sets, since they inherently through their design allow defenders to penetrate deeper and into closer proximity to the passer before they are engaged. Quite simply, there is no wiggle room with vertical sets, and small mistakes or fundamental errors can result in sacks.

All that said, a lineman (or O line coach) who takes the time to master the finer points of the vertical set can become nearly unbeatable. It is frustrating for edge rushers in particular to gobble up chunks of ground and build momentum only to be rendered one-dimensional in their attack at the point of engagement. The vertical set also limits the options a pass rusher has when properly executed, and it boils pass rush success down to a physical battle between the tackle and end (which in many cases the lineman will win, since a stalemate for an offensive lineman is a win).

One variation of the vertical set that one will see used by elite tackles involves a vertical set at the beginning (including the drop), then a jump set at the end to quickly get into contact with a slower end, or a defender who is twisting. It lulls the defender into expecting one outcome (a vertical set), then the lineman attacks him with an aggressive jump and explosive punch (rather than tying up and diverting).

Of course, as previously stated, the objective regardless of set is for the offensive lineman to put his body between the defender and the quarterback. While there are other set variations that may crop up from time to time, watch the linemen during the spring and attempt to identify their sets in pass protection. It will give one a new appreciation for the work of the road graders up front, as offensive line play is far more cerebral than many imagine.

(If you would like a visual representation and discussion of these practices, click this link for a pretty clear instructional video on the three primary pass pro sets featuring University of Miami linemen. I know, I know…it’s The U but this is the simplest explanation of the topic I could find.)