Football is a much more complicated game than we often give it credit for. There are several give-take arenas of gamesmanship that go entirely unnoticed by the naked eye. One such area is the mental battle between the offensive pass protection and the defensive coordinator. Often, the center and quarterback take up the task of outsmarting grizzled defensive coaches. On Sunday, when Pete Carroll would dream up a pressure, Kirk Cousins and Garrett Bradbury had to figure it out on the fly.
Carroll admitted after Sunday’s game that he “threw everything at [the Vikings] defensively.” That includes coverage wrinkles, blitzes, simulated pressures, twists, and more. Bradbury, and by proxy Cousins, handled these challenges deftly en route to a score on all but two of their possessions.
The system through which a center calls offensive line protections is complicated. Cousins has divulged some of how that works internally for our benefit. This is mostly Garrett Bradbury’s responsibility. He has to identify the defensive front and any blitzers and communicate what happens if he guesses wrong. If Cousins is dissatisfied with any of Bradbury’s calls, he reserves the right to overrule them. He has admitted that he rarely pulls this lever.
So how does Bradbury handle this job? For now, forget everything that happens after the snap — blocking, anchoring, pulling, reaching, and so on. Let’s focus on the pre-snap gamesmanship between a defensive pass rush and the guy in charge of untangling it.
The first thing Bradbury has to do is identify the front. Ask 100 coaches how they do this, and you’ll get 101 answers, so we’ll pull from this clinic by Elliott Wratten and Jason Phillips, coaches at Alcorn State. That should give us a sense of the universal elements.
Wratten teaches his offensive protections to have two halves: a “wall” side and a “man” side. The wall does what it sounds like: It creates a wall of offensive linemen. If you’re on the left side of the wall, you can fully commit your pass set to the outside, knowing that if you get beat inside, there’s another man there to pick him up. The man side plays more man-to-man. That means less help but more range. This isn’t universal inside Alcorn State, let alone the Vikings, but the idea of walls or man-to-man blocks is helpful to organize this.
Bradbury has to identify where he wants to focus that wall to tell the rest of the offensive line who does what. He’ll say “lucky” for left or “ringo” for right (get it?) and then identify any off-ball players who need to be included as well. So “Lucky 54” against the Vikings defense would mean the wall side is responsible for every defensive lineman on the left side and Eric Kendricks. Count up those players, and that’s how big the wall needs to be. The wall usually counts from that side over. In a “ringo” call, the wall starts at the right tackle and counts leftward until there are enough players. Everyone remaining is in man to man. Good luck.
(Forgive my misnomer, No. 52 is Darrell Taylor, a defensive end. In my defense, I would outlaw 4-3 ends from wearing numbers in the 50s.)
It’s easier to be on the wall side than the man-to-man side, but someone has to take the more challenging job. Bradbury makes the correct choice here, and the Vikings pick up the blitz. Alexander Mattison just has to win the block.
There are a few adjustments Bradbury can make from there. What if they send more rushers than you have blockers? There are some options if you don’t want to bring an extra blocker out of the passing concept. Say they bring six rushers, and you have five blockers. You can have your five blockers block man-to-man (walls be damned, it’s an emergency). The quarterback himself is responsible for that sixth man. Ask who will get to the quarterback the slowest, and make the quarterback accountable for that guy.
In this example, the Vikings look possibly outnumbered if either linebacker blitzes. Bradbury makes a man-to-man call, and Cody Barton (No. 57) becomes the “hot” read. If he comes at Cousins, he’s leaving someone uncovered. If he doesn’t, Tyler Conklin‘s matchup looks un-loseable.
All this pulls together into a dynamic, fluid system that can morph in an instant. If the defensive look changes, Bradbury or Cousins will change the protection call, and everyone has to know what their new job is. While they’ve only started three games together, it is undoubtedly helpful that all five starting offensive linemen have been in the same building for at least a year before this one.
When it goes right
Sometimes a blitzing player will tip their hand. This can be thanks to a hard count like it is here, or something the defense does for their own reasons, but it tells you who is rushing and who isn’t. That allows you to adjust the protection call on the fly and be confident that you can throw the pass you mean to.
Oli Udoh hasn’t played next to Bradbury that much. However, they’ve been together in the building since they were drafted together in 2019. That familiarity makes these sorts of split-second adjustments much smoother. Udoh re-directs Jamal Adams past Cousins, who fires a laser to convert.
The Seahawks have a staple blitz call, which they dialed up in the first clip of this article. They try it again here, but with a different formation, and the call is much more complex.
Perhaps Bradbury could have flipped this call. If he called “Lucky 54 57,” meaning a wall on the left that is responsible for both blitzing linebackers, that would have changed the blocks to leave an unblocked player coming from the right. That player would have likely been Robert Nkemdiche, though, who has a 100 lb. advantage over Ameer Abdullah. Should Bradbury make Abdullah work across the formation and find whoever blitzes or have a shorter path to a bigger guy? They’ve probably discussed this beforehand, but there’s merit to both arguments.
The real advantage of all of this complicated nonsense is how it can help the leverage of the offensive linemen. We are all worried about Rashod Hill at left tackle. Put him at the end of a wall, and his job gets a lot easier.
Pass protectors rely on each other and feed off of each other. Part of what makes Brian O’Neill so good is how he understands what the play needs. A true superstar will help Udoh without taking a pancake on the chin, but, given the choice, it is nice that he made the right one. The best players sacrifice more to make things easier for the worst players. The most efficient way to hide a struggling player is to ask more of an excellent one.
When it goes wrong
The Vikings’ next opponent racked up nine sacks against Justin Fields and the Chicago Bears. Having a backup center against the Cleveland Browns’ star-studded offensive line is obviously not too helpful. There is a cost to helping out the lesser players on your line, and good defensive linemen will collect that cost.
Considering how Cleveland bullied Chicago and Minnesota’s success against Seattle, this matchup should be iron against iron. Before even thinking about how to handle Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney, Malik McDowell, and so on, the Vikings have to make sure nobody is unblocked. That system is incredibly complicated. If Bradbury and Cousins can solve the puzzle throughout the week, they can catch the Browns in depleted coverages with time to throw game-changing plays.