Blanket Coverage: What do top NFL teams all have in common? Strong offensive lines

1:07 | NFL
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Thursday December 22nd, 2016

While crunching the numbers to determine which quarterbacks have the best overall supporting casts, one theme became abundantly clear: you can’t really go wrong investing in the offensive line. The most successful teams to this point in the season have, largely, had the best offensive line play, and conversely, teams that have disappointed haven’t performed as well on the line as they have in the past.

When evaluating offensive line play, I took the ProFootballFocus.com pass-blocking efficiency rankings, and averaged them with FootballOutsiders.com’s adjusted line yards, which effectively evaluates a team’s run blocking. These rankings are as such: New Orleans, Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Oakland, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, New England, Green Bay, Atlanta, Kansas City, Arizona, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Baltimore, N.Y. Jets, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, Houston, Carolina, Buffalo, N.Y. Giants, Denver, Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, Minnesota, San Diego, Seattle, San Francisco.

Of the top 12 offensive lines, nine—Titans, Steelers, Cowboys, Raiders, Redskins, Patriots, Packers, Falcons, Chiefs—are either in line for or battling for a playoff spot, and five are division leaders. The only outliers rounding out the top 12 are the Saints (terrible defense), Bears (three starting QBs) and Eagles (bad weapons, rookie QB). 

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The Broncos, Cardinals, Bengals, Jets, Panthers and Vikings rank among the worst offensive lines; those teams have regressed this season or failed to live up to expectations, and a combination of injuries and poor investments with their offensive linemen has been at the root of the many problems. Of course, there are outliers in this group as well. The Seahawks (great defense, mobile QB), Dolphins (solid unit but injuries have been an issue), and Giants (defense, receivers) have found a way to play winning football without consistent play on the offensive line.

Still, there’s little question that this season has shown us that a team’s chances at a successful season are better if the line is well stocked with talent that is executing. Let’s take a closer look at the good and bad along the offensive line this season:

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Improved offensive line play:

No. 2—Titans (offensive-line coach Russ Grimm): They picked up RG Josh Kline from the Patriots and signed C Ben Jones from the Texans as a free agent to go with bookend first-round tackles (Taylor Lewan, Jack Conklin).

No. 3—Steelers (Mike Munchak): They have two first-round picks (C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David DeCastro) and a second-rounder (RT Marcus Gilbert). LT Alejandro Villanueva has gone from street free agent to every-game starter this season.

No. 4—Cowboys (Frank Pollack): Dallas invested three first-round picks (LT Tyron Smith, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin) in its line, which has paved the way for star rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.

No. 5—Raiders (Mike Tice): Oakland invested heavily in free agency with LT Donald Penn, LG Kelechi Osemele, C Rodney Hudson and RT Austin Howard.

No. 8—Redskins (Bill Callahan): They have first-round picks at LT (Trent Willams) and RG (Brandon Scherff) and three third-round picks. Washington also lured Callahan away from the Cowboys.

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No. 9—Patriots (Dante Scarnecchia): LT Nate Solder was a first-round pick, and 2016 third-rounder Joe Thuney starts at LG, but the real investment was getting Scarnecchia to return from retirement.

No. 10—Packers (James Campen): GM Ted Thompson loves to scrimp on the draft, so RT Bryan Bulaga (first round) is the only starter taken above the fourth round. Campen has had to do some work.

No. 11—Falcons (Chris Morgan): Atlanta took LT Jake Matthews with the sixth overall pick in 2014 and traded for LG Andy Levitre in ’15. Free agent C Alex Mack was a big haul in the ’16 off-season.

No. 12—Chiefs (Andy Heck): LT Eric Fisher (first round), C Mitch Morse (second round) and RT Mitchell Swartz (free agent, Browns) have all worked out for Kansas City.

Regressed on the offensive line:

No. 13—Cardinals: Arizona had one of the better offensive lines in the league, but losing LT Jared Veldheer and RG Evan Mathis to injury have had big trickle-down effects. The run blocking has been fine, but the pass protection has spelled disaster for Carson Palmer and the passing game. With coach Bruce Arians’s scheme, this unit should be in the top 8. It hasn’t been this year.

No. 14—Bengals: A perennial top-five unit has not been the same in 2016. RTs Cedric Ogbuehi (first round) and Jake Fisher (second) haven’t been able to hold a starting spot.  

No. 17—Jets: The Jets have invested just one pick in the first two rounds (Vlad Ducasse, 2nd round, 2010) since taking the now-retired LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson and C Nick Mangold (who’ll be 33 years old next season) 1-2 in 2006. And Ducasse turned out to be terrible. This unit needs something close to a complete overhaul.

No. 21—Panthers: It was a bad idea to keep the status quo with LT Michael Oher and RT Mike Remmers, but the interior is a strength. Look for Panthers to invest in the tackle spots.

No. 24—Broncos: From Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson to Ty Sambrailo (the only real investment in second round), Denver has been a disaster at both tackle spots.

No. 29—Vikings: Even before injuries killed the tackle spots, the investments in LT Matt Kalil (fourth overall pick in ’14) and RT Andre Smith (free agent, Bengals) were not paying off.

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Blanket Report

Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing NFL storylines this week:

Go crazy, folks

Saints’ Jordan is the biggest Pro Bowl snub: Seahawks DE Michael Bennett is a great player, no doubt about it. But talk about getting into the Pro Bowl on reputation, Bennett has only played nine games this season and has three sacks. Cameron Jordan has been one of the most consistent leaders in quarterback pressure this season. It shouldn’t be held against him that the rest of the Saints’ defense is terrible.

Newton has a right to be upset: The NFL officiating department again looks like a joke when VP of officiating Dean Blandino said the referees didn’t think the blow to the head of Panthers QB Cam Newton by Redskins OLB Trent Murphy was “forcible contact.” Come on, if that was Drew Brees or Tom Brady, they get that call. Newton never gets the benefit of the doubt that other QBs do.

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Slow your roll

The Bills shouldn’t fire Rex: I’m sure the progress hasn’t come as fast as Bills owner Terry Pegula wanted (after going 9–7 under Doug Marrone in 2014, Bills have gone 8–8 and 7–7 under head coach Rex Ryan), but firing Ryan isn’t the answer. The Bills have made some improvements in Ryan’s second year (moreso on offense), and coaches need at least three years to get the program going the way they want it. Pegula needs to be careful or he’s going to wind up being a punchline like Browns owner Jimmy Haslam. The better question to be asked is why is Ryan rumored to be out, yet GM Doug Whaley is staying? He’s the one who traded up for WR Sammy Watkins, who hasn’t lived up to his lofty draft status. And Whaley also drafted Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland to be Day One starters, and neither has done much this season (Ragland’s missed the entire year). When your three first-round picks over the past four years (QB E.J. Manuel, Watkins, Lawson) don’t contribute, it's hard for any coach to look good.

Broncos defenders picked a fight with the wrong person: Members of the Broncos’ defense reportedly got into it with members of the offense after their 16–3 loss to the Patriots on Sunday. Aqib Talib can get all huffy with LT Russell Okung if he wants, but the person Talib should be miffed at is team president John Elway. The problem with the Broncos is that their offensive line, outside of C Matt Paradis, has not been good enough, and the tackle spots have been a disaster. That’s not the fault of Okung or Donald Stephenson or Ty Sambrailo. Elway was the one that decided his offensive line was good enough, and it’s been terrible. Coach Gary Kubiak needs a good offensive line and a running game to run his offense. The Broncos have neither, and that’s Elway’s fault.

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10 thoughts on Week 16

1. There are only three matchups between teams with winning records this week, and they’re the last three games off the weekend: Ravens at Steelers and Broncos at Chiefs on Christmas Day, and Lions at Cowboys on Monday night. Three teams with .500 records are playing teams with winning records (Dolphins at Bills, Vikings at Packers, Colts at Raiders), but all three of the 7–7 teams are all but out of the playoff race.

2. Playing at Buffalo is dangerous spot for the Dolphins as they try to secure a playoff spot. Miami needs to run the ball well in this game to keep the heat off QB Matt Moore, and Buffalo should be better this time around (Jay Ajayi had 214 yards the first time around) with the pairing of Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. Throwing against the Bills will be much more difficult for Moore, especially on the road.

3. The Panthers would probably love to dent the Falcons’ division hopes, but in order to do it, RG-turned-RT Trai Turner is going to have to slow down Atlanta OLB Vic Beasley, who has been on a tear. Beasley’s speed is a bad matchup for the brutish Turner, who has had to play out of position due to injuries.

4. The Saints would probably like to do the same to the Bucs, but to do that they’re going to have to find a way to keep the heat off of their QB Drew Brees. Two weeks ago, Brees threw three interceptions at Tampa. And while there wasn’t much pressure on plays where Brees was picked off, the Bucs kept Brees uncomfortable much of the game. The Bucs’ three top linemen, Robert Ayers, Gerald McCoy and Noah Spence, were able to get at Brees the entire game. Saints OTs Andrus Peat and Zach Strief must do a better job this time around.

5. Cardinals DE Chandler Jones hasn’t had a sack since Nov. 20. He needs to end his four-game drought if Arizona is going to upset the Seahawks, who have big issues in pass protection.

6. The Ravens can run on the Steelers, and they need to in order for them to take this must-win game. And the Ravens also have to be aggressive down the field in the pass game. QB Joe Flacco can’t just take the underneath stuff against Pittsburgh. That’s where they are best.

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7. Broncos QB Trevor Siemian must start taking shots down the middle of the field or else Denver is going to continue to struggle with moving the ball. Siemian is asking for trouble by keeping to the outside against Chiefs CBs Marcus Peters and Terrance Mitchell.

8. Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott could go for over 200 yards against the Lions. Detroit had a string of five-straight games not allowing 100 yards rushing, but the Giants got to 114 rather easily. That’s not a good sign against the Dallas line and Elliott.

9. Apropos of nothing: Josh Kline, the Titans’ RG who played for the Patriots last season, is the 20th-ranked guard by ProFootballFocus.com. Shaq Mason, who moved from LG to RG for New England after Kline was waived, is ranked No. 21.

10. According to FootballOutsiders.com, Rams P Johnny Hekker and Ravens K Justin Tucker are both on pace to set records for the formula FO uses to measure how much a kicker is better than the average player at the position.

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