Pass Protection a Team Priority

Posted Sep 29, 2011

In a week in which the Rams, by their own admission, have a number of things to fix, there is perhaps nothing of greater importance than finding a way to keep quarterback Sam Bradford protected on a better, more consistent basis.

“It’s pretty much No. 1,” left tackle Rodger Saffold said. “The pounding keeps affecting the quarterback and you don’t know how he feels in the pocket anymore, you don’t know what’s going on in his head. Being able to keep him clean keeps him calm and collected and then he doesn’t have to feel pressure to do anything and make mistakes.”

Through the first three weeks, Bradford has been sacked 12 times. For point of comparison, through three games last year, Bradford had been dropped for a loss on six occasions.

Against Baltimore last week, things came to a head as Bradford was sacked five times and hit about a dozen more. After that game, he said it was beat up as he’s been in a while.

Quite obviously, the Rams know they need to get better at protecting Bradford.

While that’s a job that falls on everyone, including Bradford himself, it clearly starts with the five starting offensive linemen.

“That’s a prideful group,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “Nobody is in here working harder than that group of O-linemen and (Offensive Line) Coach (Steve) Loney. And along with Sam and the backs, the tight ends, pass protection is everybody. I tell the receivers in there too, it’s everybody. Everybody that understands football knows that in those situations it’s not always just the o-line. It’s not always just one guy. It’s usually a number of things, so we’re trying to get them all ironed out and play better football in that regard.”

More so than any unit or group on a football team, continuity is key for an offensive line. Saffold, center Jason Brown, right tackle Jason Smith and guards Jacob Bell and Harvey Dahl have made no excuses for their early season struggles.

But there’s no denying that there are a few factors that they have had to overcome that are beyond their control.

At the top of the list is a limited offseason program and a condensed training camp. Yes, four fifths of that group played together last year but their responsibilities changed quite a bit with the addition of new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

“Of course, the short training camp and not having the luxury of an entire offseason but we cannot have any excuses,” Brown said. “I’m not trying to make any excuses for our performance because these games, it’s not the preseason anymore. These games count.”

Last year, the Rams had one of the most consistent and durable lines in the league, dropping their total allowed from 44 in 2009 to 34. They were also 12th in the league in sacks per pass play at 5.76 percent, a big upgrade from the 8.1 percent they allowed in 2009.

With a rookie at tackle in Saffold and quarterback in Bradford, the Rams took steps to protect both of them. In addition, former coordinator Pat Shurmur favored the West Coast offense which centers on three step drops and getting the ball out quick.

In other words, the pass protection didn’t have to last for too long before the ball was out of Bradford’s hand.

McDaniels prefers to attack down the field more regularly, which means the line must protect for longer periods of time.

That also swings some of the onus to Bradford, who has been harsh in his critique of himself for the occasional inability to get the ball out quickly or hit a check down to a running back when the opportunity presents itself.

When reviewing the tape from the loss to Baltimore, Bradford found himself frustrated by some of his missed reads.

“There were a couple times, especially in the first half, that I tried to escape the pocket and there was definitely a lane where I could have stepped up and maybe found a check down to get the ball to,” Bradford said. “I think that was one of the biggest things I saw in the film too was there looked like times where our down-the-field routes were covered, but our check downs were open. I’ve got to do a better job of finding those check downs and getting the ball out of my hand.”

The somewhat dramatic shift in offensive philosophy has made for a steeper learning curve in a short period of time as well. Bradford says the longer he gets to make those reads and grow accustomed to the scheme, the better he’ll be.

“I don’t know if it’s trying too hard or it’s just not getting there quick enough,” Bradford said. “I think sometimes by the time I was getting there I either was having to escape the pocket or getting tackled. I think it’s just got to come. The more I play in this offense, the more we run the same plays over, the better feel I’ll get and the quicker it will come.”

The line, meanwhile, is not taking this start to the season lightly. A number of linemen spent extra time after practice working on blocking techniques and communications on Wednesday and Thursday.
“There are a few things here and there that we definitely have to clean up on,” Brown said. “We are making sure they get done because Sam, we love that kid. Anytime we see him on the ground, it’s painful. We take it to heart. It’s something that is more than just our job. It’s personal.”

Things won’t get any easier for the linemen, tight ends and running backs in protecting Bradford this week. Much like the Ravens, the Redskins boast an attacking 3-4 defense that is led by coordinator Jim Haslett and his blitz-happy scheme.

Those blitzes have been particularly effective on third down, as the Redskins lead the league in third down defense.

With talented pass rushers like Brian Orakpo and rookie Ryan Kerrigan at his disposal, Haslett is undoubtedly licking his chops to get after Bradford this week.

“They blitz when they can, every opportunity,” Saffold said. “They just do a good job on third down and keep you away from getting first downs. They blitz every play, it can short yardage, third and long, it’s something we have to continue to look at. All in all this is another defense, another test for us and we’ll have to do our jobs.”

As the line works to find that continuity and communication, Bradford focuses on making quicker reads and getting the ball out fast and the running backs and tight ends work on their blitz pickups and help, it’s also up to the wide receivers to get open and create separation.

Like anything else in the game, pass protection is a team effort. And the Rams will only improve in that area when everyone on the offense raises his level of play.

 “I expect more out of our offense as a whole,” Bradford said. “I’m not sure I would single those guys out as a group. I expect more out of myself. I expect more out of our wide receivers. I expect more out of everyone. I think if you look at our production on offense, it’s definitely been way lower than what it should be. I think it’s just on all of us to elevate our levels of play and get this offense rolling.”