Football 101: Breaking Down Pass-Protection Fundamentals

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterJune 11, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 18: Nick Mangold #74 of the New York Jets prepares to snap the ball against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on December 18, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

On any given pass play in the NFL, chances are, you watch the quarterback until he throws the ball and then you watch the receiver. There's nothing wrong with this, but in doing so, you miss out on the constant chess match that is offensive-line play. Today, that's going to change.

The job of the offensive line on a pass play is quite obvious—protect the quarterback. Sounds simple, really, but it's much more than just ramming heads with the defense while trying to stall the pass rush from getting to your quarterback.

Offensive-line play is a choreographed war, with each player having a job that, if not fulfilled, will bring down the entire unit.

There are three common types of pass protection taught from high school through the NFL. During my time as a coach at the high-school and semi-professional level, these were our go-to protection schemes for every pass play. 


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Man-blocking is a lot like man defense in any sport. Each player along the offensive line is responsible for one defender. How is this determined?

The center will often give a line call of which side of the defense is the strength—determined by the amount of players near the line of scrimmage. This designation allows the guard and tackle on either side to coordinate whom they will be blocking—all done in a matter of seconds.

Knowing whom to block can be simple in a base 3-4 or 4-3 defense, but it can become trickier when a blitz is shown. Because of this, communication between linemen is incredibly important.

A man scheme is much more proficient when facing blitzes and stunts, as the offensive linemen do not have to make a decision in regard to which player is most important to block. In a man scheme, the running back will almost always be matched up against a linebacker, as opposed to a defensive lineman.

Man-blocking is great for five- and seven-step drops, as the scheme allows the linemen to quickly engage their man and tie up pass-rushers for the longer pass drops.


Zone-blocking, or area-blocking, has become more common as the NFL shifts to a pass-first league, but it can be a dangerous principle if there is poor execution.

A zone scheme calls for one side of the line to operate without designating whom to block, but each player is responsible for an area after the ball is snapped.

This can be dangerous if the defense stunts (where two defensive players switch places after the snap to rush the passer), as the offensive linemen can be matched up poorly. 

Zone schemes work very well against base defenses, as the offensive linemen are rarely matched up in one-on-one situations and can help each other. If the right tackle is struggling, the guard can often chip the inside shoulder of the pass-rusher to assist. In a man scheme, this isn't possible.

During my coaching tenure, we employed zone-blocking for passing downs, as we had a smaller offensive line that was better at sliding to the left or right to protect a rolling quarterback. A zone scheme can be great for roll-outs and also for quick-strike passing attacks. 


Right guard-center combo block on a three-technique tackle.
Right guard-center combo block on a three-technique tackle.

A combination block is a useful tactic against a dominant defensive lineman. For example, Warren Sapp was often combo-blocked during his NFL career due to his ability to penetrate so quickly off the snap. Ndamukong Suh is becoming a player that teams combo often on passing downs.

A combo block is called before the snap, usually by the center, as he is the person most often angling to combo block or shifting to pick up the guard's man/zone in the event a guard-tackle combo is called.

In every combination scheme coached in my career, the other linemen would zone block while the two players executed a combination block. This isn't always the case in the NFL, but the prevailing logic is that the three or four remaining linemen would zone block here.

Combination blocks are incredibly useful, but they must be used sparingly. A good defensive coordinator will notice combo blocks happening and call a blitz to counter a double-team on a defensive lineman, leaving the offense at a numerical disadvantage.

No one blocking scheme is better than the other, as each has its own purpose against the defense. The next time you're watching a game, keep your eye on the offensive line after the snap and see which type of blocking scheme the offensive line is executing.

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