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Coach’s View: Explaining pass protection adjustments and the Patriots’ mike calls

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(Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

In today’s NFL, there's no doubt that for any organization to have sustained success, they must have an elite quarterback. When they do find that guy, they must then keep him healthy. On offense, you can have the best skill players in the league and the best quarterback. But if you can’t protect for him, none of the talent matters.

Playing and coaching the offensive line is very unique. The position requires a tremendous amount of technique, communication, and teamwork. But when it comes down to keeping the quarterback upright, what are some of the more effective elements of pass protection?

As offenses have evolved over the years, the one part that has remained basically the same is how you protect the quarterback. Of course, there are numerous ways to protect the quarterback, but for purposes of this story, I'll discuss a concept that is considered "mike" protection. This scheme is the foundation protection for virtually every NFL organization.

In its unadjusted form, this protection starts out in a six-man protection set, with three offensive linemen on one side and two on the other, joined by a running back. Thus, three-by-three protection.

This form of protection does adjust based on whether it is utilized against an odd or even front. Let's presume we're facing an even, four-down front.

In general, one of the key concepts of pass protection is to get your big guys on the defensive big guys. Ideally, you want your offensive linemen to handle the defensive linemen. You want to avoid putting running backs on defensive ends or defensive tackles as much as possible.

When I consider pass protection, I think of potential threats on two levels: One, there are first-level threats. Those are defenders on the line of scrimmage. Two, there are second-level threats, or any defenders coming from distance or not on the line of scrimmage. In considering this, it's critical that all first level threats closest to the quarterback are handled first.

The term "mike" -- in "mike protection" -- is referring to what actually sets the protection. As I explained earlier, this is a balanced three-by-three protection in its core alignment. In order to properly set the protection, the middle linebacker (the mike) must be identified pre-snap. Once the mike is identified, the center knows which direction he is going to work. It also tells the running back which way he will initially work. Most offenses have the quarterback identify the mike (That's what you hear frequently on the broadcast when you listen for Tom Brady, pre-snap). However, others will allow the center to do so (like the Packers).

This protection is set as an inside-out protection, meaning the most dangerous threats are handled first, and then the offensive players in protection work out from there. Terms such as "head on a swivel" and "scan inside out" refer to the thought process once the initial responsibility is cleared.

In purest form, this is a relatively simple protection. From a defensive perspective, the objective is to create blitzes that attack protections. In order to do so, the defense must figure out how to overload or bring one more than the protection can handle.

This ultimately becomes a cat-and-mouse game. The key to a successful blitz is in the disguise. The key to picking up a blitz is in uncovering the disguise and effectively adjusting protection.

In today's NFL, blitzes have gotten quite intricate. In order to handle them, it's critical to have tremendous communication. Everyone needs to be on the same page. In most cases, the offensive line can handle calls at the line of scrimmage that adjust the protection to handle the most dangerous threats first. The quarterback is the one that adjusts the protection when the blitz is uncovered by the alignment of the secondary.

Here are some of the most commonly used protection adjusters:

KICK IT

This is a call made to the slide side, or the side the center works to (the mike call side). This is used when you have a walked-up edge rusher outside of the defensive end, or inside of the defensive end. This is similar to a "fan" call in the run game. When the blitzer is aligned outside of the defensive end, the tackle will kick out to the blitzer. The guard will kick to the end (who is most likely stunting to the B bap). And the center will kick to the defensive tackle. When the blitzer is aligned inside of the defensive end, the tackle will stay "big on big," which means he has the defensive end. The guard will take the walked-up blitzer and the center will take the defensive tackle.

GAP

This is a call made when you have a walked-up blitzer away from the mike call side, or the side that the running back works. As I mentioned earlier, one of the key principals of this protection is to handle the most immediate, dangerous threats. The objective is to handle these threats with the offensive line. It's very challenging to handle a first-level threat with a running back from distance.

For this example, let's assume we have a "mike right" call. There is a one-technique on the left guard and a five-technique on the left tackle. Mid-snap, the "will" linebacker walks up in the B gap between the left guard and left tackle. In this scenario, the left tackle would make a gap call. This call needs to be heard by the running back and must be communicated to him immediately. The left tackle would power step down to the blitzing will linebacker in the B gap, the guard would handle the one technique, and the running back would now have to handle the defensive end.

(Note: If the quarterback or center saw this in time, they could re-designate the "mike" as the "will." This would be the most advantageous adjustment but is not easily done.)

MAX

Often times, you'll see the quarterback adjust a protection and bring the tight end in from an off or split alignment. This takes place when a "max" call takes place. This simply adds one more offensive player to the protection. With this adjustment, you now have a seven-man protection.

The base rules for this adjustment have the running back going to the side of the tight end and the center works away from the tight end side. The "max" side guard and tackle now handle the three-technique to the mike (the tackle will post the three, clear blitz, and then work to help the tight end). The tight end and running back handle the defensive end to anything outside of that. The backside tackle is "big on big" with the end. The center and backside guard handle the nose to the will to anything outside.

BIG

A "big" call is used to create "four-by-two" protection. This tells the running back to work to the side the center is sliding to, as opposed to the opposite direction. This is a very common check used to handle overload blitzes. A call in this scenario would be "mike right big." The running back handles the widest blitzer and the center, guard and tackle work to the mike. Typically there is movement from the defensive line -- this type of blitz needs to be zoned off.

With that, let's take a look at a couple examples of how this protection applies from the Patriots game against the Buffalo Bills (BSJ member content — Join today!):