Inside Out: How Kyle Shanahan Can Neutralize Interior Pass Rush
Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Somewhere in the cavernous depths of San Francisco 49ers' headquarters is the phrase: All position groups are equal, but some are more equal than others.
The 49ers begin the fourth year in the Lynch-Shanahan Era, and again start the season with one of the weakest interior offensive linemen in professional football.
Like any smiley-glad hand, I have a campaign speech in my jacket as to why the interior linemen have been the biggest issue for the 49ers' offense.
Last fall, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo suffered the most hits, hurries, and pressures from defenders running through left guard Laken Tomlinson and right guard Mike Person. Combined, Tomlinson and Person allowed ten hits, 50 hurries, and 64 pressures.
Tomlinson's upside is his ability to stay healthy and working in a system that caters to his skillset. I applaud Tomlinson to show up each day and take nearly every snap – approximately 3,309 during his time in Santa Clara.
Further, the 49ers know what they will get out of Tomlinson each season: he allows 3.6 sacks, 30.2 pressures, 22.2 hurries, and an overall 65.5 grade.
There is no amount of wizardry or coaching that will boost Tomlinson's ability, and that's the bedrock of my frustration with him – he's reached his ceiling as a pro football player, and 49ers seem just fine with that.
Shortly after releasing Person, general manager John Lynch had an opportunity to find a top-tier veteran guard or possibly draft a cornerstone rookie. As usual, Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan went after the lowest rotting fruit on the tree and inked eight-year veteran guard Tom Compton to a one-year deal.
As usual, center Weston Richburg is beginning the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. The silver lining is that veteran Ben Garland was a reliable replacement for Richburg during the final few weeks of last season and into the playoffs.
Garland, an Air Force Academy graduate, played 405 snaps at center and averaged at 65.7 overall grade from Weeks 14 through the Super Bowl. He allowed one sack, one hit, four hurries, and six pressures.
Fortunately, Shanahan's system allows the interior line to get help on certain pass protections to ward off any blitzing linebackers or stunting defensive linemen.
2-3/200-300 Jet Protection
"Jet" is slide protection that sends four offensive linemen away from the call, with the tackle and back protecting the opposite edge. It is Shanahan's primary pass protection and has its origins in the late Bill Walsh's 1982 playbook.
The reads for the offensive line and running backs can change depending on the defensive front.
Even if Shanahan called Jet protection for an entire series, each man's reads and responsibilities could differ depending on each play. A shifted Mike linebacker or defensive lineman in an altered technique changes the flow of Jet protection.
While the protection back usually slides with the tackle, the back's first read is inside-out, starting with the man head up on the center.
Week 2 – 2nd Quarter: 2nd and 20 at the SF 15 (14:15)
Shanahan paired a 300 Jet with his staple "Burner" play at the beginning of the second quarter. 300 Jet told the offensive line to slide to the strong side, leaving tackle Joe Staley and running back Raheem Mostert to pick up the weakside edge.
Cincinnati showed a 42T front, or four defensive linemen and two linebackers. Mostert's read on the play was inside-out, so he looked at the Mike first and the nickel defensive back second.
H2-H3 protection is another one that Shanahan borrowed from his dad but gave a new name. The elder Shanahan used Fox 2/3 while in Denver, and it is nearly identical to his son's H2-H3 seven-man protections.
The protection looks like Jet with the offensive line sliding away from the call and allows a free release for the tight end. However, H2-H3 gives both backs blocking responsibility.
In the 20 series, the backs split to pick up defenders. Rather than split, H2-H3 instructs the backs to work together to pick up pesky defenders.
The fullback's responsibility is the outermost defender, and he can work a "gap" call with the call side guard. The halfback keeps his eyes on the innermost defender from over the center. He also must be alert for a "gap" call from the guard.
A "gap" call is a trade between the halfback and the covered guard to the man side of protection. If the halfback's defender creeps to the line or precisely times the snap, the offensive guard takes that man attempting to shoot the A-gap, while the halfback then has responsibility for the defensive lineman.
Seven-man protections work and are a necessary part of the playbook. Shanahan does not call them often because he can get more out of his play-action or Jet series than he can with a straight seven-man front.
Shanahan's system is not littered with combination blocks, so on most plays, the offensive linemen are in one-on-one situations. Double-team blocks are also risky. If the 49ers' right guard continues to ask for help to halt defensive lineman Aaron Donald, that opens up a gap elsewhere on the line.
Therefore, each man must succeed, or the play fails.
One of the combination blocks is called "Slam" which is a call for the onside guard and tackle to double the defensive tackle. Unfortunately, that leaves the tight end one-on-one with the end and the back to pick up any scraps. The center and opposite guard double the nose tackle.
Another protection term is "Lemon," which tells both sides of the offensive line to squeeze toward the middle. The line calls protection if both linebackers threaten the A-gaps, but it is not something that is employed to fend off a three or four-man rush.
The beauty of pass protection is the microscopic DNA that makes up each play. The average fan rarely sees that beauty unless the line's protection crumbles under a heavy blitz.
My hope for the 49ers' interior is they can again find ways to win most of the trench battles this year and try to cut back on the number of hurries and pressures that seem to flood through the A-gaps.
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