It’s third-and-long for Missouri’s offense last fall.
Quarterback Drew Lock claps his hands, the ball is snapped, and three wide receivers lurch into routes.
If that doesn’t sound like enough receivers in the pattern, it’s because it isn’t ideal.
But with an inexperienced offensive line and a new system, the Tigers felt seven-man protections provided the best chance for success — even if it limited Lock’s options.
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By offensive coordinator Josh Heupel’s estimate, Mizzou used seven-man protections — generally with the tight end and running back used to block rather than running a route — on half of the team’s passing plays last season.
“We felt that was our best chance to win ballgames and score points with the time we had to put that offense into play,” Lock said. “I think it might change a little bit this year.”
It has to for the offense to gain greater consistency.
Missouri only allowed 36 tackles for loss, which was seven fewer than any other Football Bowl Subdivision team and the fewest since at least 2005.
The Tigers also tied for 11th in the country with only 14 sacks allowed, the third-fewest among Power Five programs (Pittsburgh, 10; Southern California, 12).
Deservedly so, the offensive line received a lot of credit for those gaudy figures, but Lock’s ability to deliver the ball quickly and the blocking contributions from tight ends and backs played a massive role in that success.
“That’s a reasonable statement, for sure,” Tigers offensive line coach Glen Elarbee said. “Numbers-wise, we probably had a good year, but, at the same time, when you look at it, man, the backs and tight ends were always protecting and always helping us out. … Hopefully, this year, we can pay them all back a little bit.”
It’s a simple numbers game.
If Missouri’s offensive line can handle more five- and six-man protections, the offense becomes exponentially harder to defend.
“We’ll be different, because we can be different,” Heupel said. “There’s some certain situations it’s going to help you, in particular, third downs. Being able to get people out on routes, the windows are different and you’re able to work high-lows and all those things will help us.”
It also will provide more safety valves when the downfield coverage doesn’t allow deeper throws, giving Lock the option to dump a pass to a tight end over the middle or find a back in the flats to perhaps make a play and sustain a drive.
“It’s just the evolution of Coach Heup’s offense and finding trust in us,” junior left guard Kevin Pendleton said. “Last year was kind of a proving ground on what we could do and where we want to go. … If we can give Drew more options, but we’re still able to give him time, and even more time this year, then the sky’s the limit for this offense.”
The difference in 2017 already shows up at practice.
“When we are in walk-throughs and (Heupel’s) not having to redo the play because we get it right off the bat — make the right call or sliding to the right place, squeezing down when you get the blitz, and knowing where you’re supposed to go when you get a blitz — we’ve earned that trust,” senior left tackle Tyler Howell said.
Heupel will be able to dig deeper into the playbook, especially in critical situations, by utilizing fewer seven-man protections.
“We allow our playmakers to be playmakers at that point,” Pendleton said. “Our tight end group is a special group. Our running backs, when they’re able to get out in space and catch the ball, are a special group. Whenever those wide receivers have less guys to cover them, special group. We know if we take a little more responsibility, man up, and knock it out that we’ll be able to make a lot more plays. It opens up our playbook and gives us so many more weapons.”
That doesn’t mean Mizzou, which set a school record by averaging 500.5 yards per game last season, won’t use any seven-man protections during the season.
Each week, the opposing defense — its pressure packages, personnel, and coverage principles — will dictate how the Tigers operate.
“With the numbers we put up last year and the amount of time we were able to find open guys or get a one-on-one matchup we liked even when we were doing seven-man protections, I imagine it’s going to be that much harder for defenses if we can get more guys out there,” Lock said. “It will be different looks to adjust to and harder to scout us on from last year.”