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Fixing the run and shoot’s protection problems

Last month, Andrew posted a few links on some staple plays from Chris Palmer’s run and shoot offense that we’ll probably see the Titans using this fall. I noted a couple times, notably in the Browns game recap, when the Titans ran the Switch, another run-and-shoot staple.

As Chris Brown of Smart Football, who knows more about the run and shoot than I do and whose new book The Essential Smart Football I just reviewed and strongly recommend to anybody who cares enough about football to put up with my writing, noted, though, the run and shoot was eventually killed off from the NFL and found in the collegiate ranks only in generally rare and odd locales. What proved the shoot’s undoing was fundamentally a protection problem. Teams learned to zone blitz shoot teams, with their outside linebackers and cornerbacks, and were virtuallly guaranteed a free rusher while the dropping defensive lineman still gave them enough players in coverage. With the true shoot almost invariably having four wide receivers and one running back on the field, that meant too many times rolling directly into a blitz.

Fast-forward to last year. That Palmer was still implementing plenty of run and shoot elements was clear even in the preseason; the touchdown pass Locker threw to Yamon Figurs featured a shoot-style half-rollout, and Locker delivered an accurate pass for the score. While Locker’s overall accuracy numbers were on the whole worse than the collegiate body of work of any good pro quarterback recently, virtually every scouting report also noted his accurate became much better on the move, and thus he seemed like a natural fit for the offense, more natural than a consensus higher-ranked player like Blaine Gabbert.

Palmer noted in a media session this offseason, though, that, like Chris, he recognizes what killed the run and shoot was its vulnerability against pressure to the outside. As noted in my post this week on Craig Stevens, that hasn’t meant that the shoot is no longer fundamentally a 5- or potentially 6-man protection scheme. Instead, Palmer noted the change he’s made is that the quarterback is now a drop-back, pocket passer, and the half-rollout is used only rarely, if at all.

As with any 5+1 protection scheme, though, the potential vulnerability to outside pressure remains, and Palmer has found a way to adapt it. One of those responses seems to have been to make it harder for opponents to overwhelm the outside pass rushers. In that case, the Titans’ habit of dropping their offensive linemen particularly deeply reflects not a concern about the ability of the linemen to pass off twists and stunts (though I still believe that was a real problem for them at times), but a solution to the potential offense-killing problem of overwhelming the tackles.

A very good example of this is Jake Locker’s touchdown pass to Nate Washington against the Saints. I’ve written about this play before, focusing on the unsoundness of the Saints’ coverage scheme, but what I didn’t pay enough attention to was the protection by the offensive line. The Saints try to overwhelm the left side of the offensive line by bringing two defensive backs and lining up a defensive lineman directly over Amano. That should give the Saints three rushers against only Roos and Harris. Amano’s first move, though, is away from line of scrimage and the nose tackle, giving him enough time to move over and pick up a block and letting Jake Scott block the nose tackle. That gives the Titans five to block five, eliminating the overload blitz and the free rushers, and giving Locker, whose core is roughly in a vertical line with where Jake Scott’s left leg was when the ball was snapped, a perfectly clean pocket for the strike to Washington.

Of course, with another offseason of work, opposing defensive coordinators will be scheming up new ways to attack the Titans, while Palmer and Bruce Matthews are seeking to better their own protection of the quarterback, whether that’s Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker. The game of move and counter-move never ends in the NFL.