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BSD Film Room: A Frustrated Offense

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Film Room takes a quick look at pass protections, and savors a few defensive highlights.

Penn State turned the ball over four times - five, if not for the generous roughing the passer penalty which negated a pick six.  Our Lions were also flagged for three personal fouls, three false starts, and eight total penalties.  Forget about sanctions and scholarships and youth and anything else - teams rarely win games when they beat themselves.  And Penn State did itself few favors Saturday.

Post game, one of the stories was the visible frustration exhibited by Christian Hackenberg.  The sophomore quarterback's struggled with the coaching change which replaced what had to have been his central reason for attending Penn State - Bill O'Brien's tutelage - with occasional jogs outside the hash to line up as a receiver while a running back catches a direct snap.  And to make it worse, it typically comes in the red zone, where the best quarterbacks shine.

Kill The Lights

John Donovan uses slide protection a bunch.  That's not a bad thing.  In fact, it could be considered a good thing, in that it is "simplier", and, theoretically, provides simple answers to complex blitzes and stunts - just what you'd think a young, struggling offensive line might need.

A slide protection is zone blocking.  An offensive lineman doesn't need to worry about a particular man, or front, or whether one or more defenders will be blitzing.  He only needs to know two things: 1) which way are we sliding; and 2) do I have a defender in the gap to where I'm sliding.

It sounds easy, right?  Not always.  In the video below, Penn State performs a "full" slide protection to its left - every lineman will be moving left, while the tight end and running back will move to their right, in order to double team the otherwise unblocked defensive end to the right side.

Andrew Nelson, playing left tackle at the top of the video below, got blamed by Joey Galloway on the ESPN broadcast for being beaten to the inside.  That's not completely fair, though.  Since the line slides left, Nelson's gap to protect is to his left.  Because no one is outside of Nelson, he correctly 'punches' the Maryland DE with his right hand, in expectation of his left guard linemate, Brendan Mahon, moving into the gap, and stoning the Maryland DE's push to Nelson's inside.

Unfortunately, that doesn't happen.  Mahon gets tied up with a blitz fake from Maryland's MLB (who drops into the flat), then trips over the DE beating him thru his gap responsibility, and falls down.  Andre Monroe, the DE shooting the mostly vacant gap, gets one of the easiest sacks in his career to tie Shawne Merriman for 2nd place on the Terps' all-time list.

But lest we bash the offensive line too much, it's important to note that the pass protection struggles are hardly the sole fault of the O-line.  Here's another blown slide protection.  The line slides left again, while tight end Jesse James, he of the frequently cited name in TV broadcasts, moves counter to the slide in order to pick off the unblocked DE/OLB.  But, as shown below, that doesn't quite happen.

Slide protection brings definite drawbacks.  By definition, it ignores "big-on-big", which is the theoretical notion that large, fat men are better equipped to block other large, fat men, as compared to, say, a fit, trim running back.  What you gain in "simplification" with the slide, you lose in flexibility.  If a full slide is called, then the ball must come out on time - or, you're up a creek, because few running backs can pass block a 300-lb five-technique defender for very long.  That point was driven home to both Christian Hackenberg and Bill Belton in the video below.

There's not much Belton can do about getting bull rushed there.  He's going to lose that battle eventually, every time.  He knows it, and the rest of the offensive players know it, too.  Even though Maryland doesn't blitz, and doesn't stunt, choosing to send just four down linemen in a pass rush, Penn State's going to lose after approximately 2 seconds, even if it plays all of its protection assignments correctly.  The receivers MUST uncover in 3 steps, and the ball MUST come out at the same time.  Or else, you're sacked.  Again.

But John Donovan's not exclusively slide/zone.  Here's an example of man blocking from shotgun spread.  Even better, with an empty backfield, Maryland chooses to blitz six defenders on this 3rd and 7 red zone play.  Six defenders against five blockers means one Terp comes completely free.  But it also means all five Penn State receivers are locked up in solo, mano-e-mano coverage.

A good offense is going to win this play 9 times out of 10.  Every offensive player on the field can see clearly what is about to happen (thanks to the spread formation).  And a good offense can "sight adjust" routes to roast the defense for an easy score.

But that's not what happens in the video below (in Film Room's opinion, at least).  Each receiver appears to run the route as it was called in the huddle, without consideration for the defense being run.  Hackenberg's primary receiver appears to be TE Mike Gesicki in the near slot to the top of the screen.  Gesicki will run a corner-post double move, and has to watch the ball sail over his head as he exits his second cut, while the other four receivers run routes that would help free up Gesicki, if this were not "zero-man" coverage they were facing.   Consequently, no one is "hot" for Hackenberg, who stands tall in the pocket and takes his beating from the free running linebacker like a man.  A frustrated man, no doubt about it.

Lighten Up, Francis Section

Let's end with a few "fun" videos, for a little levity.  Late, at the bottom of the video below, humanitarian Randy Edsall points out to the referees that he has an injured player, and his team should receive an injury timeout.

Why is the Penn State defense playing so well?  For one thing, their effort is through the roof.  Check out Penn State nose tackle Austin Johnson, all 300+ pounds of him, blowing past his over-matched blocker and chasing down the Terp tailback to the sideline, to limit what could have been a decent play to just 2 yards.

And Penn State is getting contributions from down the depth chart, as well.  In the two videos below, freshman Garrett Sickels wins the hand fighting, rips, and "runs the arc".  Then former walk-on Tyronne Smith gets under the Maryland guard, and puts him on roller skates seven yards deep, directly into C.J. Brown's lap for a sack in the second video.

The Grades

Defense Plus Minus Net Offense Plus Minus Net
Johnson 8 0 8 James 3 2 1
Allen 7 2 5 Godwin 1 0 1
Hull 6 1 5 Hamilton 3 3 0
Zettel 3 0 3 Mangiro 2 2 0
Sickels 3 0 3 Lewis 2 2 0
Barnes 5 3 2 Hackenberg 8 9 -1
Olaniyan 4 2 2 Mahon 4 5 -1
Wartman 3 2 1 Nelson 3 4 -1
Williams 1 0 1 Carter 2 3 -1
Barney 1 0 1 Zanellatto 0 1 -1
Cabinda 1 0 1 Blacknall 0 1 -1
T.Smith 1 0 1 Gesicki 0 1 -1
Nassib 1 0 1 Dowrey 0 1 -1
Bell 3 3 0 Gaia 2 4 -2
Lucas 3 4 -1 Belton 0 2 -2
Amos 2 3 -1 Lynch 0 2 -2
Campbell 0 1 -1 Laurent 2 5 -3
Bars 0 1 -1
Cothren 0 1 -1
Defense Total 52 23 29 Offense Total 32 47 -15

Austin Johnson dominated the interior of Maryland's line.  True freshman Marcus Allen jumps off the screen and forces you to notice him - in a very positive way.

Teams Plus Minus Net
Ficken 5 0 5
Della Valle 2 0 2
Dudas 2 0 2
Walker 1 0 1
Apke 1 0 1
Bars 1 0 1
Haley 2 2 0
Campbell 1 1 0
Pasquariello 1 4 -3
Teams Total 16 7 9

If Christian Campbell and Grant Haley didn't knock each other off the tackle of William Likely on the final punt of the game, Penn State's coverage units would have played nearly perfect football against one of the most dangerous return teams in the nation.  Likely totaled just 8 yards (net) on 5 returns, while Stephon Diggs' nearly 30-yard season average was trimmed to just 19.

Hit The Lights

Woo boy, could this team ever use a win Saturday.