Lance Zierlein

The Smash Mouth

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Good Lines, Bad Lines

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Many of you won’t recognize the names of offensive linemen or offensive line coaches, which is why I want to discuss some of them in this week’s article.

Offensive linemen get almost all of the blame for sacks and low rushing yardage, and almost no credit for well-protected, prolific passing attacks and strong rushing games. It has always been like that and will always be like that. Aside from offensive and defensive coordinators, offensive line coaches are usually on the short list of most important coaches on a staff as they are usually key components in running game coordination and installing different protections.

I’ve been lucky enough to watch an offensive line coach prepare for the chess match that goes on during NFL games. The amount of contingencies that they have to prepare for and teach to their linemen is overwhelming. If you don’t have a line coach who is good at preparing running games and pass protection against various blitz packages, you won’t have much of a chance. And even if he is good at that element, if he can’t properly impart that information to his players or teach technique, the rest of it usually won’t matter much either.

There were very few offensive line units whom I thought would struggle more than the San Diego Chargers this season, but that simply hasn’t been the case. Line coach Joe D’Alessandris has been able to get substantially more from left tackle King Dunlap than anyone thought possible, and left guard Chad Rinehart is turning into a very solid run blocker. Rookie right tackle D.J. Fluker has added more power to that offensive line and D’Alessandris has the unit improved in the running game and pass protection.

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Offensive Line Shout-outs

* Rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari was one of my favorite draft values when the Green Bay Packers grabbed him in the fourth round. I had a second-round grade on Bakhtiari and loved his long arms, good feet and ability to pass protect. According to STATS ICE, the rookie left tackle has given up just 5.5 sacks and 15 total pressures (hurries and QB knockdowns) with two games to play. Last season, Marshall Newhouse gave up 10 sacks and 32 pressures at that same position for the Packers. Bakhtiari has been more consistent in pass protection than Eric Fisher, Lane Johnson and D.J. Fluker, who were all drafted ahead of him.

* The Detroit Lions had just 9 explosive rushes (15 yards or more) last year and 18 this year. Reggie Bush has helped a great deal on that front, but the Lions' offensive line has held its own on the ground and might be an even better pass protection unit than last year’s veteran unit. Rookie right guard Larry Warford is a mauler and will be a Pro Bowler as soon as next year.

* Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles running game has taken off as expected, however, what has impressed me the most is that the results aren’t based just on tempo, but rather on scheme and play-calling. Most teams run their zone plays (outside and inside) from behind the quarterback, and the running back’s first step indicates whether it is an outside or inside zone play. Kelly runs his zone plays out of the shotgun with an offset back, which allows the running back to have the same first two steps whether it is inside or outside zone. By disguising this footwork, Kelly is able to use his inside zone calls as a counter when teams start flowing too hard to the outside to stop LeSean McCoy. It looks like the play will flow outside and then BAM - McCoy cuts inside where the Eagles are setting up the inside zone play.

* Sometimes we are ready to count veterans out and then they surprise us with strong seasons to prove they still have something left in the tank. Pro personnel people told me that Jake Long “has fallen off badly” before the season started, but what I’ve seen in-season is a guy who is still a solid pass blocker and an outstanding run blocker who helped get the St. Louis Rams' running game going. Willie Colon has fought through injuries for a few years now but has turned in a strong effort at right guard for the New York Jets. Manuel Ramirez and Nick Hardwick may be getting older, but the Broncos and Chargers sure are happy to have them opening holes for a couple of running games that really struggled last season.

* It is the offensive line coaches' job to prepare for various blitz packages, teach proper technique, help coordinate running games and get the most out of players who are often less physically gifted than the players across from them on the defensive side. In his first year as offensive line coach, Jeremiah Washburn of the Detroit Lions has done a great job of growing as a coach and getting the most out of all of his new starters. I remember watching him work with o-linemen at the Senior Bowl and there were some salty, older line coaches taking shots at some of his methods from the stands. I would say that Washburn has proven himself thus far. Harold Goodwin deserves credit for the job he’s done with the Arizona Cardinals. Goodwin has helped to drastically improve the pass protection and run-game blocking. A look at “clean yards per carry” (yards gained before contact) shows that Arizona has increased from 1.66 to 2.23 ypc, which is a jump from 29th in the league to 15th.

Top 5, Bottom 5 Offensive Lines

Obviously these rankings could change by the end of the year, but let’s take a look at who the best and worst offensive lines are right now. To give you an idea of how I’m coming up with my opinion, I’m ranking them based on how they are playing as a unit in the running game and with pass protection. I’m also considering whether or not they are playing up to, below or beyond their talent level.

* Data compliments of STATS ICE

Quality Rush % - A rush must gain a certain % of yardage needed for first down (per down) to be considered “quality”.
Stuff % - Percentage of carries that result in 0 to negative yardage gained.
Clean Yards Per Attempt - I created this metric to show how many yards are gained pre-contact per rush attempt.

Top Five

  Quality Rush % Stuff % Clean Yds per AttemptSacks/Attempt
SD Chargers   49.1   12.1   2.04 19.3
DEN Broncos   47.8   15.2   2.02 36.1
DET Lions   47.3   18.1   2.14 35.0
CIN Bengals   46.9   15.5   1.84 18.0
PHI Eagles   49.8   17.9   2.85 11.7

* The Chargers offensive line is playing up to and likely beyond its physical talent, but they are doing it as a complete unit. The Chargers take care of Philip Rivers and they are an integral part of an offense that leads the league in time of possession.

* The Broncos benefit from having a quarterback who is one of the all-time greats and gets rid of the ball quickly, but they are doing an excellent job of getting push in the running game and helping to turn Denver into a well-balanced offense.

* The Lions are asked to protect their quarterbacks more than most offensive lines, but they do a very good job of it while also playing with power in their running game. The Lions still need to improve in the running game, but this unit should be a big strength as they head into next season.

* The Bengals and Eagles are two very different offensive lines. The Eagles are sleek, athletic and able to beat defenders to the spot no matter how wide they have to run. The Bengals are all about power and are comfortable with grinding it out, where they are usually effective at getting tough yards in small spaces. Granted, the sack numbers are still a problem in Philadelphia, but Nick Foles has definitely had enough time to become a very dangerous quarterback in this offense, while the Bengals offensive line has been consistent in allowing Andy Dalton time to throw. Two different units, but two cohesive units.

Honorable Mention: The Kansas City Chiefs have been solid once again and easily could have made the list, but they’ve been a little inconsistent at times. Still, a winning offensive line. The New Orleans Saints are getting much better play from guard to guard than we saw earlier in the year and they could be a much better running team if the Saints would commit to it a little more.

Bottom Five

  Quality Rush % Stuff % Clean Yds per AttemptSacks/Attempt
BAL Ravens   36.8   26.3   1.55 11.9
JAX Jaguars   38.1   24.6   1.48 11.8
PIT Steelers   44.0   21.7   1.52 12.5
OAK Raiders   43.3   15.0   2.69 9.9
TB Buccaneers   37.2   19.0   1.76 12.1

* The Ravens have been an unmitigated disaster up front and have single-handedly ruined the fantasy value of Ray Rice. The loss of Matt Birk hurt worse than the Ravens expected, Kelechi Osemele played hurt for too long, and Bryant McKinnie turned back into a pumpkin before being traded.

* The Jaguars offensive line may not have very much talent and they certainly struggled badly for much of the year, but I give them credit for continuing to play hard and actually getting better as the season has progressed. Do your thing, J-ville.

* The Steelers. Wow. There isn’t an offensive line that is more jinxed due to injuries than the Steelers (I see you over there, Packers), but that isn’t any excuse for their lack of production this year. Le’Veon Bell has had to work exceptionally hard for his yards (second worst clean yards per attempt for the Steeler line) and I’m not sure they are ever going to get their tackle position fixed.

* The Buccaneers would have been much better if Carl Nicks had been healthy, but one man shouldn’t control the destiny of an entire offensive line, and the Bucs were bad for much of the season despite improving over the second half of the year. As for the Raiders, you better hit the next draft and hit it hard, Reggie McKenzie.

Dishonorable Mention: The San Francisco 49ers' offensive line has performed well under expectations and below its talent level. Their QR% has dropped 10 full points, their stuff% is up, they are giving up a ton of sacks and their clean yards are down a full yard per carry with the zone read being taken away for the most part. As for the Jets and Giants, I don’t know what you’re looking at because you could have easily hit this list as well.

Lance Zierlein is sports talk show host on KMBE 790 AM in Houston, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @lancezierlein.
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