Earlier on Saturday, our Erik Schlitt posted an NFL Combine preview of 10 interior defensive linemen that Detroit Lions fans should pay attention to next week. Most defensive tackles and closed end players do not generate huge pass rush statistics unless they are an extreme outlier like Aaron Donald. Detroit fans have not had the pleasure of seeing such a player on the Lions defense since the early years of Ndamukong Suh’s career. In a league where most of the money is made through the air by the best teams, why pour resources into defensive front positions that don’t often tally pressures or sacks?
Well, it turns out Pro Football Focus’ Diante Lee posted an outstanding article on Friday explaining “How NFL defenses attacked five-man protections in 2021.” The article does a nice job showing the critical role the middle of the defensive line can play in generating overall pressure by the defense. So no, the defensive tackles in front of the guards and center might not get credited for the sacks, but very often they are responsible for creating the conditions under which someone else on the defense can get to the quarterback. As the author points out, understanding what defenses do against five-man protections (meaning no TE or RB held back to block) matters because “in every season since 2018, NFL offenses have used five-man pass protection schemes more than 70% of the time.”
it’s time to get into some written PFF_Clinics
The NFL wants to get into 5 man protection whenever it can, maximizing the options for the QB and stressing coverage rules
How that works, and how NFL defenses can manipulate it with the pass rush:https://t.co/OYGDwnUaIA
— Diante Lee (@PFF_DLee) February 25, 2022
Five-man Scat protections are weird because the offense can’t commit a balanced number of blockers to both sides of the tackle box. Even in a 4-1 split there will not be a sixth blocker to pick up a blitzer like you would in Jet protection. The center has to figure out which side needs more help and tells the rest of the blockers which way he will go so they know if there’s inside help on their side or if they must win one-on-one. When we hear about “slide protection,” this is the spirit of the phrase; the offensive line slides extra blockers over to where it suspects there are more pass rush threats.
What the defense wants to do is fool the offensive line into committing to one side where they think the threats are greatest, but actually attack on the other side the line is sliding away from. In a nutshell, what Lee’s examples (and there are many of them) show is that either defensive tackles or walked up linebackers in front of the center are crucial in this deception: they can line up in ways to elicit a blocking call from the center, and then slant their rush angles to turn blockers around and cause chaos in the protection scheme. When the blockers are counting on all working in one direction but a defensive player refuses to cooperate and yanks the attention of the center or a guard against the grain of the line call, it rips a seam in the protection for a free rusher to shoot through. It’s almost like zone run thinking in reverse, employed by the defense against the blockers. When it happens in the area around the defensive tackles, it’s even more disruptive than an edge stunt or some other overload design because it’s going to be in the critical A-B gaps up the middle: shortest route to the quarterback.
Our John Whiticar explained why the Lions defensive line is actually in pretty decent shape heading into the offseason with young guys like Alim McNeill and Levi Onwuzurike around a veteran leader in Michael Brockers. Does that mean mock drafts like Daniel Jeremiah giving the Lions another defensive tackle early are off the mark? Not necessarily. Even if the Lions get a defensive tackle who isn’t known as a pass rusher, a smart and athletic one can help create opportunities for the rest of the defense as Diante Lee’s article demonstrates. The article is very well written with great film examples to aid the reader. Even if you’re still not sold on the value of spending more resources up the middle, it’s a fantastic read on line play.
Now, on to the rest of today’s Notes:
- If you’re now curious about the defensive tackles available in this draft class, NFL Network’s Ben Fennell has a heck of a Twitter thread of clips he calls his “iDL Combine thread.”
- Here’s some positivity from the Lions social media team:
Earlier today, we dropped off donated clothing, supplies and prepackaged meals from the Black-owned restaurant Urban Soul to the non-profit organization Motor City Mitten Mission, to be distributed to people experiencing homelessness. #LionsBHM pic.twitter.com/Lx9ZnzjWkU
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) February 26, 2022
- If you’re starved for professional football while the NFL is in offseason mode, why not look into the USFL’s Michigan Panthers? Bryan Knowles at Football Outsiders put up a massive 2022 USFL Season Preview.