Main Takeaway: A team could improve its pass protection in obvious passing situations by ensuring that its best pass blockers, whether they are starters or not, are on the field.
Situational pass rushing appears as common in today’s NFL as a Joe Thomas tirade against Roger Goodell. Since the Giants brought the concept back into vogue with their vaunted Nascar Package, teams have keyed in on the advantages of matching up rested pass rushers against fatigued offensive linemen in crucial passing situations. Although the former are typically of lesser overall ability than the latter, the strategy relies on defensive players’ freshness and high-level rushing ability to tip the competitive balance in their favor. More broadly, it allows teams to simultaneously maximize their on-field pass rushing ability and rest their exerted run stoppers. Pernell McPhee, the patron saint of situational pass rushers, is a testament to the role not only benefiting teams, but also players.
Thinking about this phenomenon recently, a question came to mind: why have teams not transferred this thinking to the offensive side of the ball and begun using situational pass blockers?
In obvious passing situations (where trotting out your best pass blockers would not tip your play selection to the opponent), offensive teams should logically field offensive lines that maximize their pass blocking to counter defensive teams that clearly maximize their pass rushing.
A few potential drivers of this substitution asymmetry include the following:
I) Teams have concerns about the abilities of “cold” offensive linemen who enter the game for a handful of spaced out plays. However, this “cold” phenomenon applies equally to situational pass rushers, who are frequently used by NFL teams.
II) With the prevalence of passing in the modern game, it is entirely possible that a team’s starting line could also feature its best pass blockers, thus leading to an absence of situational pass blockers. That being said, it is very hard to believe that this scenario holds true for all 32 teams in the NFL.
III) A much more collective action than rushing, pass blocking requires significant cohesion between linemen and teams are concerned that situational pass blockers may disrupt it. Assigning a single offensive line position to a situational pass blocker (e.g. RT), and devoting a certain amount of team practice snaps to the “optimal pass blocking line” so that it can develop cohesion, appear to offer remedies to this important issue.
IV) Teams believe that it is more efficient to protect their quarterback by supplementing their starting line with a blocking running back or tight end than by substituting in situational pass blockers. Despite this line of thinking initially appearing to hold significant weight, one must keep in mind the following: doesn’t sacrificing one to two potential receivers in a long-distance passing situation represent a very high cost to bear?
While this analysis clearly represents an elementary exploration of the issue, teams would definitely benefit from experimenting with situational pass blockers.