The offensive line has been dominated two games in a row; here's what we're seeing

Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

Jeff Tuel has suffered a lot of criticism for holding the ball too long. We throw the Stanford game - the nadir of pass protection - under the microscope. How much time did he have before the Cardinal defense got in the backfield? We'll break down each sack, examining what happened up front, and draw some conclusions for what it means going forward.

Editor's note: A version of this story first appeared on Saturday, but sort of got lost in the shuffle. It's been updated to reflect the happenings of Saturday's loss to Utah.

Washington State went into The Farm two weeks ago and nearly upset the Stanford Cardinal. While coach Mike Leach and the rest of the Cougs don’t allow moral victories, fans were certainly pleased to witness quarterback Jeff Tuel and the offense move the ball, racking up 401 yards through the air. It’s really too bad the Cougs also racked up 10 sacks, including one on Stanford’s doorstep to end the game

Following the BYU game, the popular refrain was "Tuel holds the ball and gets sacked," and it wasn’t wrong. Tuel was initially hesitant in the offense. The tune has changed to "the offensive line is terrible." They were even last week’s most important 'person' before the colossal meltdown that resulted in Mike Leach making all sorts of unflattering comments about the line. The following will break down each sack by the Cardinal, including the time Tuel had before being reached by pressure, so that we can get a clearer picture of just why the blame has shifted to the offensive line.

[Note: Tuel got absolutely blasted on a couple plays that weren't sacks, where he stood tall in the pocket and threw into the face of a blitz. His toughness last Saturday cannot be overstated.]

As each of these 10 plays unfolds, here's what you'll see: There were mistakes by the Cougs in picking up zone blocking assignments, but for the most part it was the Stanford front simply beating them. Overpowering them off the ball, beating them to the edge, using leverage from a stunt. The Cougs up front started to win those individual battles in the 3rd quarter, but couldn't maintain to finish the game.

Stanford has one of the best defensive fronts -- if not the best defensive front -- in the nation. Former Cardinal Coy Wire was a commentator for the game, and at one point early on mentioned Stanford head coach David Shaw wanted to utilize some punt blocking stunts against the wide splits of the WSU line: twists where a backer goes around multiple teammates and shoots the A gap (between the center and guard) would qualify. Most teams are not anywhere near fast enough to consistently pull this off, but Stanford was. That is a huge credit to them.

Unfortunately, it didn't get a whole lot easier for the Cougar linemen on Saturday after making their way to Salt Lake City to take on Star Lotulelei and the Utah Utes. Lotulelei will won his fair share of battles, and while the blitz and stunt packages weren't as exotic as what the Cougs faced against Stanford, there still were plenty of them. And it's becoming more clear than ever that these confusing pass rushing packages are what give the offense the most trouble in terms of protection.

One aspect of the protection that's come under critique is the wide splits employed by Mike Leach. Cougs have watched a single-back spread offense under Mike Price get the protection it needed, and now this single-back spread offense is not protecting the quarterback. Well, the line splits have changed, so it must be that, right? Change them back and it'll fix the problem! This is not the best approach, and there are probably a few of reasons you haven't seen the coaching staff adopt narrow splits.

First, the protection problems we can see are not directly attributed to splits, and are more a cause of poor technique and mismatched ability. Looking at the sacks from Stanford, many times the defender took advantage of a deep drop by the offensive tackle or guard and cut inside to get to the quarterback. This is a technique issue. Second, the wide splits function in other aspects of the offense, not just pass blocking. Defenders have to spread out their front with the O-Line spacing, creating essential throwing lanes for the quarterback on short underneath routes. The splits establish the space wide receivers will use on their routes. And, third, these problems can be mitigated within Coach Leach's system. Against Utah we saw more designed and impromptu roll-outs and 20 personnel (two runningbacks) - these changes are done to specifically help with the pass protection.

SACK 1

Q1 13:32, Drive 1 play 4
1st and 10, WSU 42
Time before pressure; 1.9 seconds
Time until sack; 3.8 seconds
Formation; 11 personnel, Slot left (wing T look)
Defensive front; 4-3, corner (left, top) blitz at snap to outside

Play; This is pass rush is able to be handled by man on man blocking. The blitz outside is picked up, but the right offensive tackle #55 Wade Jacobsen is beaten by a swim move. Jacobsen bites on the fake inside then is not fast enough to recover and the defensive tackle gets past him, gaining a free path to quarterback Jeff Tuel.

Ba-stan-q1-1332-gif

SACK 2

Q1 12:16, Drive 1 play 6
3rd and 15, WSU 37
Time before pressure; 2.1 seconds
Time until sack;3.0 seconds
Formation; 10 personnel, Ace
Defensive front; 2 down lineman outside shade of tackles. Stand up ends. Middle linebacker shows blitz

Play; The two defensive tackles (DTs) both line up on the outside shade of the offensive guards (OGs) and drive upfield between the OGs and offensive tackles (OTs). The backer on the left end drops into pass coverage, double teaming Brett Bartolone’s shallow cross with the corner. The stand up backer on the right stunts. A "stunt" refers to when the players on the defensive front don’t just rush straight up field. This stunt is called a twist.

The right DT and the middle linebacker both rush, pushing the center, guard and OT to the outside. The left defensive tackle pushes hard up field between the right OG and OT, driving them both to the outside, leaving an open hole directly in the center. The backer on the right flies behind his teammates pass rush and through the hole. He does not get the sack, instead he gets leveled by running back Carl Winston. Unfortunately, the middle backer that ripped the A gap, beat the center and got to Tuel. Gaps, or the spaces between offensive lineman, are given letter designations. Between the center and the guard is the A gap, the guard and tackle is B, the tackle and end is C and outside the end is D. The naming convention is the same for both the right and left side of the ball.

Ba-stan-q1-1216-snap-to-sack

This play puts stress on the OGs. Watch both during the GIF. Left offensive guard #77 John Fullington managed to block no one. He drops thinking to help the OT to his left, then sees the stunt and tries to follow it, all while his center is getting beat by the middle linebacker. Right offensive guard #69 Jake Rodgers does help his OT with the DT rush, then tries to leave and pick up the stunt but is just a little too slow.

Ba-stan-q1-1216-replay-gif

The most noticeable things from this behind shot are the size of the hole opened up in front of Tuel, and how impressively Carl Winston shuts down any thoughts that backer had of getting to the quarterback after running through it.

SACK 3

Q1 06:44, Drive 2 play 4
1st and 10, WSU 42
Time before pressure; 2.2 seconds
Time until sack; 3.7 seconds
Formation; 20 personnel, doubles right
Defensive front; 3-4, outside backers on either side at line of scrimmage (LOS) rush up field

Play; The two stand up backers at the line rush the passer, until both running backs swing, then they turn to cover them out into the flat. The nose tackle bull rushes the center, driving him straight back as hard as he can. To his right, the DT is just to the inside shade of the left OT, but shoots the A gap between the guard Fullington and center Elliot Bosch. Fullington is beat to the inside and the DT gets to Tuel.

SACK 4

Q1 01:54, Drive 3 play 5
2nd and 2, WSU 48
Time before pressure; 2.3 seconds
Time until sack; 3.0 seconds
Formation; 10 personnel, Ace
Defensive front; 3-4, with all backers walked up to the LOS showing blitz

Play; All 4 backers at the line drop into zone coverage and only the 3 down lineman rush. The center handles the NT and the two OT are responsible for the DTs.

Ba_stan_q1_154_break

This could’ve been a misunderstanding between right OT Jacobsen and right OG Rodgers. Rodgers initially looks to help out Jacobsen after the backer drops, then leaves to help center Bosch who was doing pretty well with his man. The DT tackle shucks Jacobsen and cuts inside, where Rodgers would’ve been. Winston also fills to the outside of Jacobsen, most likely thinking the blitz was coming and was out of position to fill when the DT broke through.

SACK 5

Q1 01:10, Drive 3 play 6
3rd and 7, WSU 43
Time before pressure; 2.4 seconds
Time until sack; 3.2 seconds
Formation; 10 personnel, trips right
Defensive front; 3 down lineman, two stand up backers to the outside of left DE

Play; This is another twist by Stanford. The NT drives the A gap, occupying the center and right OG. The left DT rushes the B gap, taking on the OG and OT. The left OT eventually picks him up and the OG tries to fill the open A gap that is being rushed by the twisting backer, but can't get there in time.

Ba_stan_q1_110_drop

"Shade" refers to the position of the defensive lineman with regards to the offensive lineman across the LOS and is typically considered inside (toward the center), outside (away from the center) or head up. There can be number associations with these positions, but we don't yet know how WSU identifies them. In the NFL, a trendy pass rush has been the "Wide-9", meaning the DE lines up outside shade of the tight end, crouches like an Olympic sprinter and gets a wide pass rush.

WSU doesn’t use tight ends, so Stanford modified that tactic to speed rush the offensive tackle. No. 42 lines up severely outside of the left OT and gets an outside speed rush the OT isn’t fast enough to cover. It’s important to note the outside speed rush comes on the quarterback’s blind side and on the opposite side of the running back protection, this is an ideal situation for it. The twist on the other side also works, but No. 42 was faster on his speed rush and gets there first. Tuel looks to get rid of the ball, but all the routes were well covered at that time.

Ba_stan_q1_110_pump

SACK 6

Q2 10:45, Drive 4 play 6
1st and 10, WSU 42
Time before pressure; 4.5 seconds
Time until sack; 6.8 seconds
Formation; 10 personnel, Ace
Defensive front; two down lineman, NT and left DT in B gap. 3 backers up at line showing blitz

Play; The end man on the right of the defensive line rushes to the outside of the left OT. The NT rushes the A gap, driving the center and the left OG. The backer walks up to the line on the right and blitzes the unguarded B gap only to be up-ended by Marcus Mason, who continued to block him after he got up.

Ba_stan_q2_1050_blitz

Tuel rolls to his right, feeling the outside pressure to his left and continues to scan down field. This is a good distinction to make; right-handed quarterbacks see pressure from the right and feel pressure from the left. Not only is there an internal clock that senses how much time has passed, quarterbacks need to have a good feel for how the pocket is developing on the blind side. This is accomplished using a pre-snap read, peripheral vision and most importantly experience.

Ba_stan_q2_1050_scramble

The wide receiver routes are not in frame, but we have to assume this is a coverage "sack". Tuel tucked it after a quick survey of the field and took off. I’m a little hesitant to credit the Stanford defense with a sack on this play, as Tuel seemingly got back to the line of scrimmage.

SACK 7

Q2 05:05, Drive 5 play 7
1st and 10, Stan 41
Time before pressure; 2.5 seconds
Time until sack; 3.4 seconds
Formation; 10 personnel, trips right
Defensive front; NT and left DT, two stand up defensive ends

Play; The left DT works toward the outside of right OT Jacobsen and takes him deep into his drop, then cuts inside. Left OT Gunnar Eklund tries to cut block the outside pass rusher. The Cardinal is able to get up quickly and gets the sack after pressure from the left DE forces Tuel to step up, right into him.

Ba_stan_q2_505_dt_arms

SACK 8

Q4 02:41, Drive 11 play 4
1st and 10, WSU 35
Time before pressure; 2.3 seconds
Time until sack; 5.5 seconds
Formation; 10 personnel, Ace
Defensive front; DE – NT – DE, linebacker at LOS

Play; The linebacker stays at the line of scrimmage, drifting to his right as the play develops. The left defensive end tries a swim move to the outside, the right defensive end tries a spin move. It is the NT that does the most damage, his bull rush drives both the center and OG way back and into Tuel’s drop. Tuel tries to step up in the pocket, then scrambles toward the line where he’s tackled by the linebacker. This was another questionable sack.

The receivers were working screen to the left that was decently set up. Tuel looked that direction, but didn’t like something about it and took off.

Ba_stan_q4_241_scramble

SACK 9

Q4 01:30, Drive11 play 8
2nd and 16, Stan 29
Time before pressure; 2.3 seconds
Time until sack; 3.8 seconds
Formation; 10 personnel, trips left (tight)
Defensive front; DT – DT (B gaps), 2 stand up linebackers, one outside right and one in A gap

Play; Another twist by Stanford. The DTs both drive to the outside of the OTs, opening up the interior line. The backer in the A gap gets a good rip to the inside and is screened by the right OG. The backer on the outside right goes around his two teammates and shoots the open A gap on the opposite side of the ball

The wide receivers are running a complicated mesh out of trips that is just starting to develop when the pressure gets to Tuel. The backer shooting the A gap forces Tuel to step up, right into the other backer. Despite all the crossing, Stanford manages to guard this route combination in man with one linebacker, Shane Skov, sitting in an underneath zone in the middle.

Ba-stan-q4-130-gif

SACK 10

Q4 00:11, Drive 11 play 11
2nd and Goal, Stan 19
Time before pressure; 2.9 seconds
Time until sack; 4.0 seconds
Formation; 10 personnel, Ace
Defensive front; DE – DT – DT – DE

Play; Stanford runs a more convential twist up front to end the game. The left DT rushes to the outside of the right OT and the left DE rips inside. Both are blocked well initially. Bosch at center and the left OG hold up the right DT, who tries to go outside after the stalemate. The outside man on the right tries a hard rush right at the left OT. The left DT eventually gets around right OT Jacobsen and following the sack, the chance of a Cougar upset runs out with the clock.

Ba_stan_q4_0011_scramble

Tuel looked like he wanted to get rid of the ball, and has since said there was a mix-up with wide receiver Marquess Wilson.

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