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LSU, 2020, and the 5 Man Protection Debate

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With the rise of spread offenses in college, and their threatened rise in the NFL, a debate is ongoing about how to best protect the passer in these open systems. Essentially, it boils down to whether or not it is more effective to empty your protections and use rush (aka hot) routes to punish teams for vacating space by sending extra rushers, or more effective to leave an extra guy in to keep your passer upright and try to ensure he’s able to work through the intended, more downfield concept. Over the past couple years, LSU has gone from extreme to extreme, relying far too heavily on 7 and even 8 man protections in 2018 only to (thankfully) shift to an offense that relies with virtual exclusivity, on bare 5 man protections. On this debate I tend to give the extremely boring answer of “it depends on personnel.” Now, I’ll never support going back to the consistent 7-8 man suffocated garbage that LSU used to do, but unfortunately, the 5 man utopia LSU lived in last year is probably not realistic for next season for a couple reasons:

  1. Joe Burrow, vanquisher of free rushers, has moved on,
  2. The offensive line has sustained heavy loss, including at center.

LSU 2019 is often cited as an example of how 5 man protections can be utilized on a wide scale. After all, they were the best pass offense in College Football history and they protected with 5 on basically every dropback! Right?

Well, kinda.

LSU sending 5 guys out on pretty much every pass attempt, combined with a QB who can get to his 5th option in a progression in half the time it takes a normal QB, was legitimately unstoppable. It’s impossible for a defense to cover 5 people on every single play, and that’s what the LSU offense demanded. The problem is, LSU’s situation is extremely difficult for the 2020 team, and many other teams, to replicate. In short, LSU is probably gonna have to leave the back in to protect a fair bit more. Joe Burrow was uniquely unbelievable at dealing with free rushers. He was so adept at moving in the pocket, escaping rushers, and simultaneously continuing his process that a singular free rusher was essentially blocked. Joe Burrow himself was essentially a 6th pass protector. Allow me to demonstrate.

Exhibit A, Ankle Annihilation.

Corner blitzes are one way defenses can attack 5 man protections, with no back in to clean it up, the corner is gonna have a free shot on the QB and that could be some serious trouble. Of course, like I said, Burrow’s athleticism, pocket instincts, and reactivity essentially served as a 6th protector.

Exhibit B, the Second Heisman Moment.

LMAO, Patrick Mahomes energy. Truly one of the most ridiculous plays by a college QB in the last decade (still behind 3rd and 17)

Exhibit C, the Beclowning of Monty Rice.

The weakside backer comes behind LSU’s half slide protection and Burrow erases him.

Essentially, in man based BoB (Big on Big, Back on Backer) pass protections, you do your best to account, pre snap, for every possible blitzer. Unless you’re protecting with 8 guys (which I advocate never doing at the college level), then you simply cannot account for every dude they may send at your QB. When those unaccounted for defenders (or missed assignment free rushers) come after you, the QB is hot, which means he has to bail on the pocket, dodge the rusher, or just dump the ball to his rush route, the lattermost shown below in three separate instances. Sometimes, just to be able to hit your rush you need to make an athletic play, Burrow was just such a beast at handling pressure I don’t know what else to say.

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With so many variables and possible rushers in a play, what scheme designers will do is assign what are known as “dual reads.”

Dawgs By Nature, SB Nation

This is generally what it looks like for a back, but it can also apply to guards, particularly in a 5 man protection (showed up a lot for LSU, with Damien Lewis being adept).

Here’s what it looks like for a guard. Here, I think Lewis sees that the MIKE (as defined by the offense) stays back in coverage so he works right to help with the blitzing DB #24.

In general, the idea is to prioritize from higher danger to lower danger. This can differ from specific game plan to game plan, but usually pressure is viewed as more or less dangerous by how direct the line is to the QB, with the most direct (A gap for instance) being most dangerous. For a back, a lot of times they’ll be given the option to “check release,” which allows them to flare out as a pass option if none of their reads end up blitzing. By leaving a back in to protect, you can still send 4 guys out in the concept (hard to defend when the 4 guys are as talented as those LSU will field), take some pressure off the QB, and give an extra safety blanket for the OL. LSU’s OL lost pretty much everyone, and busted assignments, along with simply getting beat by talented SEC rushers, will happen. Next year, LSU will need, with far greater frequency than last season (essentially never), a guy in the backfield to possibly clean up any leaks.

Will all of this said, LSU cannot afford to, and definitely will not, revert to a world in which 7 and 8 man protections are the norm. They don’t have to completely abandon 5 man protections either, as the system has really good hot route schemes in place. That said, given the loss of Burrow and the losses on the line, the exclusive 5 man protection utopia that many idealize, that LSU realized, is probably not a reality next season. That’s okay though, the schemes are still great, and the talent is still top notch. LSU’s offense still figures to be a heavy strength next season.