In this two part series, we explore the reasons behind improved NFL line play in recent years. In the second article we will explore how a team can build a championship-worthy offensive line.
CHANGES IN PERCEPTION
Super Bowl LV (55 for the rest of us) demonstrated that even the most talented skill position players cannot win the ultimate prize without a rock-solid offensive line. What they are lacking in fantasy points, lineman make up for in time and space. Time for your most important asset to make decisions and execute, and space for your skill positions to operate in. The best lines in the league over the past five decades have been able to do both extremely well. I cannot say whether they had the highest PFF stats in the game (sigh) but the old Packers lines of the 60’s, the 70’s Steelers, the Cowboys lines of the 90’s, the Chiefs lines of the 2000’s – they were groups that worked hard, kicked ass, and loved doing both. Sure, the passing game has improved in the league from decade to decade, but the foundation of championship football was running the ball and stopping the run.
Then something happened. Fantasy football changed the way the casual fan appreciates the game. Playing Madden became the way to learn the sport; you could now become a master in deciphering formations and personnel groupings with putting the cleats on or smelling the grass. The rules changed to accommodate the passing game and increase offensive statistics, all in the name of ‘progress.’
This resulted in an upswing in passing attempts; I have always thought the turning point was with Andy Reid’s Eagles teams who substituted the hitch or quick slant for a running game. Perhaps more importantly to the story; teams changed priorities with personnel groupings and type of athletes. Tight ends became oversized wide receivers, linebackers dropped down to safety sized speedsters…playing a six in the box defense to protect the backend should have resulted in an increase in running the ball, but it didn’t. The running game became more and more a tolerance rather than an opportunity. Less time was spent perfecting the running game so that coordinators could improve on what is the fastest way to get the ball downfield.
When the spread became popular, when the quick game started to replace the running game, when the scheme turned into an oversimplified model of necessity; the technical ability and overall demeanor of the average offensive line changed. Trends in athletics swing like a pendulum. We were heavy ground game for awhile, and then the passing game became the staple of NFL offenses. As a result, for a number of years the requirements of being a dominant offensive line had changed.
But physical football is making a comeback. The pendulum is slowly returning to middle ground. Run the ball, stop the run. That is what championship football is starting to look like again in the 2021-2022 season and beyond. Old heads like me couldn’t be more thrilled, because the dominating the ground means dominating your opponent, enforcing your will on your opponent. It is the reason we get into sports in the first place; to win our individual matchups.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
We can look to two events that have changed the narrative in recent years. The first event is the incredible play of the Cleveland Browns offensive line, leading a team with an average passing game to a playoff win. Led by OL coach Bill Callahan and technical master Scott Peters, the Cleveland line had four All-Pro worthy players in 2020, and dominated the trenches in a manner that hasn't been seen in years.
The Browns in 2020 were arguably the best running and passing offensive line in all of football. In a division know for tough nosed, physical football; the Browns offense relied on skill and execution over trickery in order to dominate the trenches. As a smaller market team, for the Cleveland line to receive the admiration and accolades they deserved the performance had to be exceptional. This is not an organization with the same cache or public following as a Jerry Jones football team.
Cleveland is the most old-school, adaptable, detailed line I have seen play in years. They are exceptionally coached, they are technically sound, and they all play with high football intelligence. While there are other high functioning offensive lines in the league (Tampa and Indy come to mind), the performance the Browns line had in 2020 was something I had not seen since the great Chiefs lines with Brian Waters and Willie Roaf.
Cleveland lineman understand the geometry of the game. They understand the simple idea that a defensive lineman wants to smell your breath before he chops your hands, so it is of great benefit that OLs keep them at an extended reach. They understand that the first two steps you take into contact are going to largely determine how good a player you can become. We often set our ceilings too low by not paying attention to the details of the sport; the Browns offensive lineman are setting their ceilings as high as possible through their preparation.
While I am not a fan of reactionary statistics that often lack contextual intelligence; give credit to companies like PFF who have created lineman and line statistics that, while inaccurate, engaged the casual fan like never before. We have seen the effect stats have on American fans. Applying stats to offensive lineman has dramatically improved their individual fan bases, and the awareness of their unit dominance.
Bottom line with the Cleveland Browns lineman; they are not satisfied with just being in the NFL. They are of the mindset that preparing to be your best is a reward in itself and can be celebrated every Sunday afternoon. This might come as a surprise to readers, but not everyone in the NFL dreams of becoming their best. That is true for players and the coaching staf. The Browns players and the line coaches are a rare room in the league now, but things are headed the right direction.
The second narrative changing event took place in the 2018 draft a few years before, but has completely changed the perception of the offensive line as a whole. When Quenton Nelson was drafted with the sixth overall pick out of Notre Dame, a lot of the ‘experts’ questioned whether a guard was worth the asking price. As it turns out, he might be the most impactful player in the top ten that year.
5. Bradley Chubb
7. Josh Allen
8. R. Smith
We can argue Josh Allen, but aside from an MVP-caliber quarterback, no other player has had nearly the impact on his team, or the way the position is thought of, as Big Q. He is the most celebrated physical lineman since Larry Allen. We cannot put him in that category yet, but I would love to have heard John Madden on the call of a recent Colts game!
Before shotgun formations became commonplace, the depth and width of the pocket was called ‘the cup’ for short, because the QB was supposed to stand in the middle of what was essentially a collapsing cup. That meant that the tackles had to deal with edge rushers that could take a full head of steam into contact and reach out for a QB that did not have a great deal of space to maneuver. That job has been deemed to be the most dangerous, and so tackles have been much more highly valued than guards, and rightly so, for decades.
The other reality is the tackles have always had to face a defender every down, while there are traditionally two defenders for the three interior offensive lineman. Tackles are effectively dealing with a pass rusher in passing situations 50% more of the time than their counterpart to the inside. Less individual matchups, less value on the interior; or at least that has been the perception.
Times have changed, instead of the pocket being set at 7-8 yards with a quick step-up hitch, now many shotgun-based pockets are set as deep as 11 yards, even more. This changes the geometry of the game. The edge rushers are now rushing to a deeper angle, but the QB also has the ability to step up…if the center and guards can maintain their depth. Depth has become as important and width, perhaps even more so when we look at the kryptonite of the best QBs in the world.
Tom Brady, among others, would prefer the rush not come from directly head on. As the leader in QB footwork, Brady can get to his drop point and step into a throw seamlessly. He is a master and stepping up in the pocket if feeling pressure from the edges. But if pressure finds its way through the guards and center…that has been the most effective way to stop his momentum. For teams that have ‘rush plans’ for the opposing quarterback, these nuances are critical to managing the game plan.
Another change has been in the way pressures are drawn up on the defensive side. Elaborate pressure packages are targeting overload situations that force a quick decision from the QB. The ability to identify and pass off different levels of defenders is a job that falls largely on the interior of the line. Tackles can be involved in these switches, but guards and centers are now often asked to pass off two or three rusher on one snap, while the tackle can effectively take a play off against a drop end or safety edge rush. The critical success factor in these instances is to maintain gap integrity at the line of scrimmage so that the passer has a clear window to his first or second option.
But maybe most importantly, the edge defenders on the whole are not the size they used to be. They are built to create angles in the passing game. The onus to create space in the run game falls heavily on the ability of the interior line to win at the line of scrimmage against their larger counterparts and rise to the second level to defeat athletic linebackers. If you remove a handful of names from the conversation, most notably San Fran’s star tackle Trent Williams; most offensive tackles are satisfied with a stale mate against their smaller counterparts.
The speed of the second level dictates that downhill running is to the offenses advantage, if they can move the interior. Players like Nelson, Zach Martin, and Corey Lindsey have seen their value increase because they are able to get consistent push and rise to the second level. Combined with the scarcity of well-rounded tight ends now in the league, running the ball to the strengths of your interior line now makes the most sense for coaching staffs.
Add to that dynamic, Nelson brought back something that we really haven’t seen in the NFL for years – physical presence. Or should I say a celebration of physical presence. We have a lot of basketball players playing offensive line now. They are incredible athletes, but they don’t all have that killer instinct that compels one to push their opponent over a pile, or bury him off screen. Nelson has this in spades. Others have it as well, but the spotlight shone bright on the sixth pick in the draft, and he delivered.
The physical aspect of the game has been celebrated by television announcers in a way that we haven’t really seen since the late John Madden retired. The domination blocks, the double teams, pancaking a linebacker…we as a viewing public are beginning to reimagine our teams with dominant offensive lines again.
Both the Browns’ line and Nelson are able to accomplish their work at higher levels than most of their peer group for one simple reason; they are technically superior players. All NFL athletes are talented, all are physical; the difference in talent is not as great in the NFL as we would like to imagine. There are outliers, but rarely do they all end up on the same team. There are physical specimens, but rarely are they the most consistent with their initial footwork.
IMPROVED TECHNIQUE = IMPROVED DECISION MAKING = INCREASED EXECUTION OF SCHEME
In any confrontational sport, the ability to make the correct decisions and execute on those decisions determines how effective any one individual will be. The more you are able to automate your technique, the more resources you can spend on reading the environment and reacting to what you see. Read and react requires that you bypass the HOW in your internal process.
Add to that the dynamic of five plus humans operating as one unit, and you can see why having great initial footwork, having targeted hand placement, and understanding the leverage points of your opponent are more vital to your overall success as a group than anything else you can bring to the table. More games are won and lost because of technique than scheme. For every bad read, there is a poor tackling, poor blocking, and poor route running. At the margins the difference between winning and losing is a matter of inches…in footwork and hand placement.
And that is why there is such a gap between great offensive lines in this league and their average counterparts. Some lines are being coached to become master technicians so they can execute scheme at the highest level possible. Others are spending a minimum time on technique so they can spend more time on scheme.
Expectations in every building are different, the systems that are run have different stress points, and the man under center varies greatly in this league. When we discuss the process of becoming a master of your craft, athletes can only focus on those things within their control. How they prepare, their behaviors, their commitment to the cause. Athletes cannot control the scheme, the quarterback, or the opponent. But if as athletes we master the basics of the position, and we create a process to earn the right to play well every time out; success will find our doorstep.
The more we celebrate the details of the sport, the more emphasis the sport will put on the details. In the next segment we will identify how to build an offensive line that can become the foundation for your offense.