McGinn: Pass protection technique drawing praise

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers thanks his offensive line after a touchdown pass to receiver Randall Cobb in the NFC wild-card game against the Giants.

GREEN BAY – If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, the Green Bay Packers’ offensive linemen and their coach should take a bow.

The ability of the unit to protect Aaron Rodgers for an inordinate amount of time all season long has been more than just noticed across the National Football League.

Two head coaches already have told their offensive line coaches to study how the Packers pass protect and be prepared to implement those techniques next season.

“Our guy told our O-line coach you better teach it or we’re going to find someone who will,” a personnel director for an NFL team said last week. “Green Bay does a hell of a job with it.”

One offensive line coach already took the hint from his club’s head coach and has commenced a study of Green Bay’s pass blocking.

“I’ve been watching the Packers pass protect,” said the coach. “It borders on holding, but they do a nice job.”

In simplistic terms, there are two types of pass protection. The most popular is hands inside. The “it” people are referring to is hands outside, which has become a frequently used technique in Green Bay and piqued the curiosity of some NFL coaches.

Larry Beightol, the Packers’ offensive line coach from 1999-2005, said he always taught the hands inside method. Several players said it’s the dominant style of pass protection in college football, and evidence suggests it remains the most common in the pros.

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In hands inside, the blocker’s first move is a straight-ahead punch and grab toward the middle of the pass rusher’s chest. The breast-plate aiming point has been pre-eminent since 1978, when offensive linemen were first permitted to extend their hands in pass protection.

In hands outside, the blocker’s first move is the outward thrust of the hands toward the outside of his opponent’s shoulders.

“The Packers throw their hands on the sides of everybody’s shoulders,” said an NFL offensive line coach. “It looks like they just clamp their hands on the outside. You’re not grabbing the jersey. It doesn’t look like it’s truly holding. They just get in front of you. They’re good at it.”

After the Packers defeated the Seahawks, 38-10, on Dec. 11, defensive end Michael Bennett made a thoughtful albeit emotional response when I asked him about the proficiency of Green Bay’s pass blocking.

“The whole game they were on top of our shoulders,” said Bennett, a two-time Pro Bowl selection. “You can’t do anything. You can’t get off. How could I possibly get off when he (left tackle David Bakhtiari) is holding the back of my pads? Try to spin when he’s doing that.

“They were holding all the time. You look at people’s jerseys, they were torn up. There were some missed calls.”

Bennett didn’t have a single pressure in what was one of seven outstanding performances by the Packers’ offensive line in the last eight games.

The Packers have allowed nine sacks in the last three games but most of those were charged to Rodgers. After yielding 13 sacks in the first eight games, the offensive line has been charged with just seven in the last 10 games.

Last year, the unit was responsible for 34 sacks after allowing merely 16½ in 2014. From 2008-’13, the offensive line’s average yield was 27.6 sacks. The high-water mark for a line under McCarthy was 12 sacks in ’07.

Those great offensive lines under Beightol gave up merely five sacks in 2003 and nine in ’04.

“I think they’ve done a hell of a job,” said Beightol, who watches every Packers game from his home in Arkansas. “Would I like to see them be more forceful and have more sustain in the run game? Yes. But they’ve been terrific in pass pro.”

Opponents are sick and tired of watching Rodgers have the proverbial “all day” as he scans the field from between the hashmarks. Much of the time, he extends plays just to extend plays, not because of pressure.

“First thing they do is they grab,” said an NFC personnel director. “They have great timing with it. Their hands are outside, they know when to hold and they know when to let go.

“They teach it. We don’t. We’re going to teach it.”

Packers offensive line coach James Campen began his NFL coaching career under Beightol. He learned how to play the hands inside method as a player from 1987-’93 and then under Beightol for two years and Joe Philbin for one.

As his 10-year run directing the unit has unfolded, Campen appears to have become more than just receptive of hands outside. In fact, he allowed left guard Lane Taylor to be a hands outside protector in his four seasons as a Packer just as he was during his career at Oklahoma State.

“He has his way of doing things the way he wants it done but he understands not everyone is the same, not everyone’s built the same, not everyone bends the same,” Taylor said. “We have a standard that he tries to teach but he will adjust.

“Personally, I feel that’s probably the best trait about him.”

Right tackle Bryan Bulaga and Taylor are the unit’s hands outside protectors. T.J. Lang, the right guard, is hands inside all the way. Center Corey Linsley and Bakhtiari blend the two techniques.

“The best thing is (Campen) doesn’t coach one thing,” said Linsley. “It’s not like he lets you do whatever you want. But he understands there’s no one way to skin a cat.”

Hands inside has been the NFL way for one reason: It’s much easier to stop a bull rush.

“Just think about pushing a car,” one offensive line coach said. “If you put both hands centered on the back of the car, you can push it. You put one hand to the left and one to the right, you can’t push that car very far.”

The hands outside method has worked for Taylor (two sacks allowed), according to the coach, because he has the girth to anchor even with his hands wide.

“If you’re thick enough and can keep from getting bull-rushed, it’s really a pretty good idea,” said the assistant. “Because you’re basically not allowing the guy to get an edge on you. If you’re not thick enough, they can compress the pocket really quick.”

Mark Tauscher, the Packers’ former right tackle, was another wide body that was effective using a lot of hands outside.

“That used to be a way fat guys blocked,” one line coach said. “When you’re really wide and broad-shouldered and thick through the chest, it’s sometimes harder to pull your elbows tight to your body and punch.”

Linsley will use more hands outside if, in his film study, he determines a nose tackle swats aside hands that are aimed for his chest.

“It’s all about understanding what their rush is,” said Linsley. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be the first move, but you always want to end up with your hands inside.

“If we have our hands outside we always work on drills how to end up getting them inside by getting one hand underneath and regaining that leverage. They’ll inevitably turn toward that bull rush because that’s what’s going to beat you.”

Theoretically, hands outside appears more at risk for holding penalties than hands inside because first contact is more visible for the umpire and referee. But just because Bennett said Bakhtiari, Bulaga and others had hands clamped on his shoulders initially doesn’t mean holding.

“You judge it as an official not by the position of the hands,” said Mike Pereira, the head of NFL officials from 1998-2009. “It’s more judging by what it keeps a defender from doing.”

In his role as an analyst for Fox, Pereira says the Packers linemen have impressed him by staying square and keeping rushers at a standstill.

If a blocker is powerful enough to resist bull rushes, hands outside keeps him in better balance to prevent losing on the edge. It’s part of the reason why the Packers rarely whiff.

When a blocker does allow penetration to one side or the other, he must either move his feet fast enough to regain leverage or release his hands. The Packers have been praised for letting go at the precise time.

“We always said, ‘Show me something,’ ” Pereira said. “If (the rusher) tries to get away and he’s turned because the (blocker) has got his hands outside the edge of the shoulder pad, then you have the potential for holding. If he ain’t doing nothing, you ain’t got nothing.”

Based on holding penalties that were accepted, the Packers have 13 (Bakhtiari leads with three). They averaged 16.7 the previous three seasons.

The head coach for an NFL team talked to the officials about what he regarded as the Packers’ tendency to hold before a game this season. A scout for that team said of Bakhtiari, “Everybody holds, but he is so good at it. He’s got a magical way of holding, and he doesn’t get caught.”

In Campen’s meeting room, it’s often said that “once your feet are beat, that’s holding.”

“I’ve coached offensive lines for a long time,” said an assistant. “I always tell them, ‘Win the first 1.5 seconds and you win the rush.’

“Looks to me like the Packers understand that. ‘I’m going to play a little outside the rules here on the first initial contact.’ The point is, they win the first 1.5.”

One line coach for a team that has never coached hands outside is reluctant to commit fully and make the change for 2017. He worries that the NFL Competition Committee might take up the issue if enough coaches register complaints.

“He’s right,” Pereira said. “I’m not in the league office (now) so I don’t know. But they could make a point of emphasis and say if your hands get to be outside you’ve got to immediately bring them back in.”

The Packers, brimming with what coach Mike McCarthy on Friday called “unlimited” confidence, will pit their prized pass blockers Sunday against the Falcons’ unheralded pass rushers that overran Seattle’s porous offensive line a week ago.

One thing is near certain: Every head coach and offensive line coach in the league will be watching to see just what methods the Packers are employing to protect their quarterback so well now and for so many games.

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