Inside LSU’s pass protection problems against Texas A&M and how they’ll fix it for Alabama

Texas A&M overcrowded the line of scrimmage with potential pass rushers on Saturday, and, according to LSU coach Ed Orgeron, the Tigers offensive line didn’t block the Aggies the right way.

Immediately after LSU’s 20-7 loss in Kyle Field, Orgeron was critical about the ineffective blocking scheme that surrendered three sacks and constantly put true freshman quarterbacks TJ Finley and Max Johnson under intense pressure.

Orgeron said it wasn’t the quarterback’s fault that he was “running for his life all day.”

“I think we’ve gotta have a better plan,” he said Saturday night. “I was really disappointed in our plan, disappointed in our execution.”

In the days since, Orgeron and members of the offensive line were more specific about what went wrong. Instead of individually identifying the pass rushers they intended to block, the LSU offensive line slid in one direction in an attempt to wall off the space where there were the most defenders lined up before the snap.

Problem was, many of those defenders — sometimes linebackers, sometimes safeties — dropped back in coverage instead of blitzing, and another defender, away from where LSU’s offensive line slid, rushed freely into the backfield to force a sack, a hit on the quarterback or to force a quick throw.

Time and again, Texas A&M had a blitzer rushing free. It gave the illusion that LSU was being overwhelmed, that they didn’t have enough people back there blocking. That, as offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger did in 2018, LSU needed to use extra players — a tight end, a running back, a fullback — to assist in protecting the quarterback.

Orgeron insisted this wasn’t the case. They’d already solved the 2018 protection issues in their commitment to the spread offense. Ensminger and former passing game coordinator Joe Brady shared the seemingly paradoxical philosophy that if you block with less, you’ll actually give up less sacks. By sending more players out on routes, you’ll have more passing options, and the defense will be forced to defend them.

“We like the spread,” Orgeron said Monday. “We like to keep one back in for protection. We also like to empty it out because you get rid of the ball quick.”

“What happened in this game wasn’t the amount of people that were blocking, it was how we were blocking,” he added. “They were overloading one side. We turned away from it and those guys came. That’s just scheme. It’s something that we can fix.”

Specifically, what LSU used is called a slide protection scheme. The name makes the concept pretty self-explanatory: the offensive line slides toward where the defense’s pass rushers are most concentrated.

LSU center Liam Shanahan said that, in the week leading up to the game, it looked like this protection scheme would work against what Texas A&M’s defense had shown on film.

Typically, Shanahan said, when Texas A&M had six defenders on the line of scrimmage, they always were bringing pressure from one side. But Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko switched things up against LSU.

“We tried to slide our protection that way,” Shanahan said. “They figured it out. They started coming the other way.”

Take an example from LSU’s first drive of the game. On third-and-9 at the Texas A&M 43 (sequence shown right), the Aggies indeed showed pressure with six defenders along the line of scrimmage. The defensive alignment leaned right, with three defensive players lined up right of the ball and middle linebacker Buddy Johnson on the left shoulder of Shanahan. So, the LSU offensive line slid to the right.

Only, Johnson didn’t rush. Neither did “Will” linebacker Aaron Hansford, who was lined up to the right shoulder of right guard Chasen Hines. The two linebackers dropped back in coverage, while the remaining four defenders rushed.

Here’s the tricky part: Elko sent a seventh defender. Safety Demani Richardson (blue arrow) was hidden, lined up nearly 10 yards off the line when the play began. But, before the snap, he walked up to the left edge and rushed upon the snap.

Since left guard Ed Ingram slid to the right, along with the scheme of the protection, left tackle Dare Rosenthal was left alone to block three rushers. One rusher, Andre White (circled red), came free and hit Finley as he was throwing. Finley managed to complete the pass to Koy Moore, but the pressure altered the throw enough that Moore had to leap for the catch and fell short of the first down.

Shanahan said he’s always in contact with offensive line coach James Cregg during the game, and, on Saturday, the Harvard graduate center said it was definitely “frustrating” finding a way to adjust in the middle of the game.

Usually when opponents bring successful pressure, Shanahan said, the LSU offensive line would switch to a “5-0” blocking scheme, where, essentially, someone on the field makes a call that tells the offensive line that they’re responsible for the five defenders in front of them.

Since Texas A&M was bringing six, LSU also had to get the running back involved in protection to pick up the extra defender.

This didn’t work either. Remember that tricky seventh defender in the previous example? Well, a seventh gummed up the next one we’ll talk about.

On the first drive of the second half, LSU faced another third-and-9 at their own 26 (sequence shown right). Texas A&M, once again, showed pressure with six defenders along the line of scrimmage. The alignment, once again, leaned right. Four defenders lined up to the right of the ball. Once again, Johnson dropped in coverage.

This time, Ty Davis-Price helped pick up a rusher on the left side. Still, Elko sent a seventh defender from the left. Safety Leon ONeal blitzed through an open gap and hit Finley as he threw, forcing an incomplete pass.

“By the time we made the adjustments, it was too little too late,” Shanahan said.

It’s the second time this season that Orgeron has been critical of his staff’s inability to adjust the gameplan in the middle of a game. Orgeron wasn’t pleased with defensive coordinator Bo Pelini’s commitment to man coverage with a depleted secondary that gave up a Southeastern Conference single-game record 623 passing yards in the season-opening loss to Mississippi State.

This one is also notable because Orgeron praised Cregg throughout the offseason for the improvements the offensive line coach made during the 2019 season. Cregg also received a 35% raise in a contract extension that pays him $657,000 this year and expires after the 2021 season.

There’s already pressure on Orgeron and his staff during an underwhelming championship defense in which LSU already has a 3-4 record. Cregg will be expected to have answers with LSU’s pass protection, especially with the Tigers facing two teams — No. 1 Alabama, No. 6 Florida — in the next two weeks that effectively rush the passer.

Ingram told reporters Tuesday that they certainly expect Alabama to use some of Texas A&M’s schemes, since “this is a copycat league” and the Aggies caused havoc.

But the offensive line and coaching staff are confident that they can solve this problem.

“The way we turned the protection, the way we protect, those things can be fixed easily,” Orgeron said. “(They’re) things that we have done before.”

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