Imperiled Kings: The Offensive Line's Endgame

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Sep 25, 2013



By Justin Henry
Cold Hard Football Facts' Dr. Death (@jrhwriting)

Protected leaders have comfort knowing
Their safeguards keep action flowing

Producing claps of victorious thunder
But the line prone to collapse
Withers their man on every snap
As threads of glory drift asunder

Without sheath or shield, the dexterous man with the sharpest weapon remains vulnerable.

Even jousters, no matter how proficient they are with a lance, or how skilled a horseman they may be, still wear armor and carry a shield. Their surest of lunges could still be beaten to the punch.

After all, it takes just a miscommunication, missed block, or simple case of an average lineman being overmatched by a world class defender, for an offense to sputter to a halt in panoramic darkness.

Offensive linemen don't get to spike footballs, high step into the end zone, or make horrifically bad commercials for State Farm Insurance, but there they are: the five-pronged glaive that wards off the enemy, and cuts into their attack, all for the benefit of the offense's 'skill players'.

In theory, anyway.

You will see otherwise elite quarterbacks perish early. Teams that acquired so-called brilliant playmakers in the draft, raising the optimism levels of their acolytic onlookers, won't deliver at those dreamscraped projections, thanks to cracks in the foundation.

Fans that purchased factory-fresh replica jerseys and predicted a worst-to-first revival during the sunny summer will wince at the repeating rut. As temperatures drop, the laments rise.

"Why can't we win" is the mournful echo, excommunicating your team attire deep into the recesses of the befouled's closets.

More often than not, my coroner's report confirms the departed was merely too thin-skinned to stand up in battle. Yes, you can throw a punch, but as overpaid skeleton James Carville once offered, "It's hard for somebody to hit you when you've got your fist in their face."

Here at the Cold Hard Crematorium, we use a metric to outline the efficiency of an offensive line's output. The Offensive Hog Index, or OHI, is a measurement of three categories that the lines have a hand in aiding.

RUSHING YARDS PER ATTEMPT: very simple, the amount of yards gained on the average rushing attempt. Even our friend Brian Billick couldn't turn this explanation into War and Peace. Certainly, the line of five has a hand (ten of them) in maximizing ground gains.

NEGATIVE PASS PLAY PERCENTAGE: on passing attempts, the percent of said plays that end with a sack or interception. The quarterback gets rushed, and so he may be fangoriously felled by the pursuit, or surrender a costly pick. Some mistakes are on the quarterback, but it's up to the line to provide him the burdenless bubble he needs.

THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE: how often the team converts on the 'money down'. When it's third down, the defense smells blood. The line has a vital role: leave those appetites unquenched.

Together, these pieces interlock. Brought to a simmer, they reveal an offense's true state.

A gander at the OHI board provides some expected perspective. Cellar-dwelling in the bottom four are a quartet of condemned clods. Combined, their record is 1-11, and that one win comes from beating a winless team with zero defensive drive.

Let's examine these seemingly doomed dirt-gaggers, shall we?

CLEVELAND BROWNS (29th on OHI)
Rushing YPA: 4.30 (11th)
Negative Pass Play %: 12.58 (26th)
3rd Down %: 25.00 (32nd)
OHI Rating (Avg Ranking): 23.00

The Browns have endured 14 sacks in just three games, with Brandon Weeden getting planted 11 times in two starts. Brian Hoyer fared a little better, eating the turf three times in his surprise victory.

Trent Richardson averaged only 3.39 YPA before being couriered to Indianapolis. Running the ball isn't high on the Browns' priorities either way; with 50 runs (31 from Richardson), only one team has run the ball less (and we'll get to them).

The Browns runners have been tackled behind the line on nearly a quarter of their attempts (22 percent, per FootballOutsiders). Even then, it's their pass blocking that drains the battery. Still being so early in the season, it remains to be seen just how much of that is on a remarkably unpolished Weeden.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (30th on OHI)
Rushing YPA: 2.98 (28th)
Negative Pass Play %: 11.57 (24th)
3rd Down %: 27.78 (31st)
OHI Rating (Avg Ranking): 27.67

The loss of Maurkice Pouncey on opening day took an already embattled offensive line and expelled their strongest link. Smart defenses like Cincinnati and Chicago were able to force hasty throws with deceiving zone coverage, while Tennessee simply opted to pulverize Ben Roethlisberger to the tune of five sacks.

Le'Veon Bell's preseason foot injury has robbed the Steelers so far of their most promising back. With the decidedly-Steel City-ish runner (230 lbs) nursing his wheel, afterthoughts like Jonathan Dwyer (3.15 YPA) and Isaac Redman (1.20 YPA) have conjured up images of the horrors of 2012.

Runs through the middle (where Pouncey has been supplanted by Fernando Velasco) average 2.40 YPA, lowest in the NFL. With no flow to this one-dimensional offense, it's no wonder defenses with a brain can pounce with ease.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (31st on OHI)
Rushing YPA: 2.36 (32nd)
Negative Pass Play %: 14.39 (31st)
3rd Down %: 32.00 (26th)
OHI Rating (Avg Ranking): 29.67

A team averages 9.3 points per game, and isn't dead last? A little extra salt for the rock bottom resident, surely.

Blaine Gabbert being sacked six times in the opening game, and throwing a chortle-worthy pick-six to Tamba Hali, did a number on, well, these numbers. Chad Henne's inability to play better than any NFL quarterback besides Gabbert (and maybe Christian Ponder) isn't helping much either. They, combined with Denard Robinson, have taken a league-leading 15 sacks.

Can't blame all of this on the quarterbacks; formerly heralded running back Maurice Jones-Drew is averaging 2.61 yards per each of his 44 rushing attempts. He's also the only running back to have more than 20 yards. The Jaguars simply can't run anywhere but Luke Joeckel's right side of the line, and that kills any semblance of spontaniety.

NEW YORK GIANTS (32nd on OHI)
Rushing YPA: 2.71 (30th)
Negative Pass Play %: 15.50 (32nd)
3rd Down %: 29.41 (29th)
OHI Rating (Avg Ranking): 30.33

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. An 0-3 record with Eli Manning surrendering eight INTs (a ninth from understudy Curtis Painter), as well as a tidal wave of 11 sacks, have us straining to remember the days of Tom Coughlin's disciplined, confident offense.

The Giants have only run the ball 49 times, in part thanks to David Wilson's butterfingers, and Andre Brown's potentially season-ending injury. The only lineman playing with any continuity in the run is William Beatty at left tackle. Rookie right tackle Justin Pugh lacks the power and drive to be as effective, and it shows.

Without a competent run to begin games, the Giants are finding themselves playing catchup, making up for undisciplined turnovers, and forcing themselves to take risks with little windfall. As a result, Manning's playing the worst football of his life.

(Special thanks to FootballOutsiders.com for statistics that aided in completing this article)


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