NFL Offensive Line Overview: Championship Edition

From pass protection to run blocking, every aspect of the modern NFL offense runs through the O-line. Aside from skill position players themselves, nothing has a larger impact on the outcome of a play call than the battle up front. In the Offensive Line Overview series, we look at which of the league’s 32 offensive lines are trending up and down.

It’s win or go home, all or nothing: the fantasy championship begins this Saturday. Let’s cut to the chase, and discuss the state of offensive lines around the league.

Risers:

Tennessee Titans

For a second consecutive week, the Titans top our list of rising offensive lines. Worries of regression following the placement of star right tackle Jack Conklin on IR have been all but buried, following an outstanding performance by plug-in starter Ryan Kelly — who didn’t allow a single pressure during Sunday’s 17-0 win over the G-Men, and opened up gaping holes in the running game. The Titans’ O-line as a whole didn’t give up a single sack or QB hit, and allowed just two pressures in what was their best performance of the season. The result? On a day where quarterback Marcus Mariota put up just 88 passing yards and looked utterly bewildered, Tennessee’s trenches were able to pave an efficient path to victory. Behind this O-line the Titans have averaged about 240 rushing yards per game in the last two weeks — double their average over the season’s first 12 games (112.7) — and propelled Derrick Henry into the fantasy superstar club. Henry carried the rock 33 times for 170 yards and two touchdowns in Week 15, and finally living up to his draft hype. The Titans’ line is picking up steam at exactly the right time, and should make any defensive front in the league scared to face them.

What to Watch: Dion Lewis served as a solid flex RB earlier in the season, but has now taken a definitive backseat to Henry. In his last five games, Lewis has not exceeded 10 carries or 40 rushing yards. The 28-year-old is not a trustworthy fantasy option for Championship Weekend.

 

Indianapolis Colts:

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A 23-0 shutout win over the Cowboys seems to bode well for Indianapolis’ playoff hopes, especially coming against what appeared to be a strong contender. The Colts’ offensive line managed to do something we haven’t seen much of this season during the Week 15 win — consistently win against Dallas up front. The unit allowed five pressures against the imposing Cowboys’ pass rush, but managed to consistently open huge holes in the run game. Marlon Mack took advantage of the opportunity before him with 27 carries for 139 yards and two touchdowns. His carries and yards were a career high. Even on a day in which Andrew Luck threw for only 192 yards without a touchdown, the Colts were grounded well enough by a strong O-line to find an alternative avenue to victory.

What to Watch:  Sunday’s down performance is fresh in our minds, but don’t sleep on Luck during championship weekend. Luck is averaging well above 20 fantasy points per game, and has excelled against shoddy defenses. Heading into a matchup against the Giants, Luck is a preferable start to similarly-ranked quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Kirk Cousins or Matt Ryan.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers:

The strength of Pittsburgh’s O-line has been talked to death by this point in the season, but it still warrants repeating: this is the best unit in the league. Rookie running back Jaylen Samuels became the most recent ballcarrier to look like a star behind the Steelers’ offensive front, gashing the Patriots for 172 total yards (142 yards rushing) during the Week 15 win. In addition to opening up holes for Samuels, the O-line did not allow a single sack during the win. The unit’s MVP in Week 15 may very well have been RG David DeCastro, but LG Ramon Foster (who hasn’t given up a sack since Week 2) and C Maurkice Pouncey (who hasn’t allowed a sack since Week 1) can’t be forgotten either.

What to Watch: The Steelers ran the ball on 41 percent of snaps during their win over the Patriots, after having been one of the most pass-heavy offenses in the league through the first 14 weeks. This philosophical shift in approach should make Samuels a solid RB2 against the Saints on Sunday, even if James Conner does return to the starting lineup.

 

Atlanta Falcons:

While the Falcons’ line still remains well outside the league’s top-10, they’ve far improved from being one of the worst units in the league earlier this season. That’s in spite of relying on players at right tackle, right guard and left guard who were backups to open the season. The result of this improved line play can be seen clearly: Atlanta dropped a 40-point bomb for the first time in 2018, broke their five-game losing streak, and the O-line allowed only five pressures. Center Alex Mack didn’t allow a single pressure. One notable takeaway here is that Jake Matthews — whose injury-plagued 2017 rookie season had him written off as a bust by many — has developed on track for what should be remembered is a difficult position to acclimate to on the NFL level. Just a year following that terrible season, Matthews looks like one of the best LTs in the NFL.

What to Watch: During last week’s win over the Cardinals, Tevin Coleman eclipsed 100 rushing yards (145) for the first time since Week 2. He also managed to score over 20 fantasy points for only the second time this season, and did so without catching a single pass. Set to become an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, Coleman will have every bit of motivation to log another strong outing against the Panthers in Week 16.

 

Fallers:

New Orleans Saints:

The Saints’ recent offensive woes have stemmed from a number of sources, but an overall decrease in offensive line play pops out foremost among them. New Orleans’ front trenches dominated the league earlier in the season, and were undeniably a top-3 unit for much of the year, and now seem more comfortably nestled between the 8-12 spot. The absence of Terron Armstead, who’s missed the last five games, is a big reason for that. Armstead was arguably the best LT in the NFL this season before being injured — he was the best run-blocker on the Saints’ roster, and allowed only nine pressures during nine starts. With fill-in starter Jermon Bushrod nursing a hamstring injury, left tackle could be a strong position of weakness during Sunday’s tilt against the Steelers.

What to Watch: Drew Brees has had a notable three-game fantasy slump. The veteran (now strongly pushing 40) has scored less than 10 fantasy points in two of those contest, and barely eclipsed 15 points during the other. While it may be hard to trust Brees in championship lineups during such a slump, don’t overlook one common factor connecting the last three weeks — all those games were on the road. The Saints will return to their comfortable dome Week 16 against the Steelers, and Brees will likely need to play to his usual level to edge out a win.