An ever-evolving game, football across all levels has become more reliant on the passing game than ever before. While quarterbacks and wide receivers may receive the majority of credit on the highlight film, today’s aerial battle can be won and lost in the trenches.
This is where we defer to the unsung heroes on offense, the offensive line. Relentlessly battling the man in front of you for four quarters is an exhausting and thankless job. More importantly, this responsibility is critical for any team that expects to win. The offensive line is a team of five individuals working together as a single unit while creating the perfect pocket for their quarterback. That is what pass protection is all about.
At the high school levels, some offensive lineman can get by each week just by using their natural size and strength. However, for those aspiring to become truly elite, they must properly learn to execute the elite technique that is the foundation for the very best offensive lineman.
For Coach Steve Ciocci, the importance of great pass protection is an idea that he knows very well. The current defensive line coach at Wagner College spent the previous three seasons coaching the offensive line at Pace University. He was also a head coach this past summer at the National Development Games held in Canton, Ohio.
Whether honing an offensive lineman’s fundamental skills or trying to break them down on defense, Steve Ciocci knows the keys to success for effective pass protection.
When building an offensive lineman, coaches will start from the ground up. If an offensive lineman can properly train their feet, then the rest of their body will follow.
“Footwork is incredibly important in pass protection,” said Ciocci. “Something as simple as the angle of your foot can lead you to open your hips and give the inside gap to the defender.”
The proper foot movement techniques in pass protection might look simple, but when explained by someone who really knows footwork, it quickly becomes intricate. Coach Ciocci does a great job explaining the techniques he has seen at the collegiate-level.
“In a staggered stance you have a kick foot and a post foot. Your post foot should always stay in front of your kick foot. For example, if I am playing right tackle, my left foot (post foot) would be ahead of my right foot (kick foot). This stagger allows you to kick or post based off of the defender's rush,” said Ciocci.
“When kicking, your weight balance should be favored to your post foot so you can use that foot to spring yourself back into your kick,” Ciocci said. “If all of your weight is back on your kick foot you will be susceptible to different types of pass rush and off balance.”
Keeping the quarterback safe
Keeping your quarterback protected might seem like an obvious objective. Conversely, it can quickly become a long day when the offensive line is not able to protect their quarterback. If an offensive line can keep their quarterback on his feet, they can help lead their team to the end zone.
“More important than loss of yards when a quarterback gets sacked or pressures that lead to interceptions, protecting the quarterback should be your offensive line’s mentality and reason for existence,” said Ciocci. “There should be a standard from day one of being an offensive lineman that it is not acceptable for anyone to touch the quarterback at any time. It not only helps the team statistically, but develops a culture of excellence in both the quarterback and offensive line groups and sets the tone for the offense.”
Using your eyes to your advantage
In order to dominate the defender who’s trying to dominate the offense, the offensive lineman needs to watch his opponents every move. If a lineman does not use his eyes to read the moves of the pass rusher in front of him, they are putting themselves in a position to give up a big sack.
“Look at the chest and the stomach [of the defensive lineman you are responsible for blocking]. You want your body to be in-between the defender and the inside gap you are protecting,” said Ciocci.
“If you look at the hands moving or the head fakes, you will fall for [the defensive lineman’s] fakes. This [indicating his chest and stomach] is where the most mass is and the [chest and stomach] cannot move like their head or hands. [Following the chest and stomach] will show where they are moving their body,” said Ciocci.
When in pass protection, offensive linemen usually find themselves in one-on-one matchups with pass rushing defensive linemen. These individual-battles that take place all along the line are tests of strength and leverage.
No matter how strong or skilled the defensive lineman might be, the offensive lineman can always begin the play strong by achieving effective initial hand position.
“Hand positioning, hips and your feet are the most important aspects of offensive line play. Where your hands should be placed depends on the type of block,” said Ciocci. “In the pass game, you want your hands inside his chest on the breastplates with your arms locked out in a basic punch so the defender cannot grab you. If your hands are outside the framework of the defender’s body he will have his hands on your chest and control your body.”
When it comes to a passing attack, an offensive line’s number one job is to keep their quarterback upright, which directly effects the team’s prospects of winning. Practicing these fundamental techniques and executing them in the game are sure-fire ways to make sure the job gets done right.