NFL Offensive Line Overview: Enter The Crucible

From pass protection to run blocking, every aspect of the modern NFL offence 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.

Entering Week 11 of the NFL season, a number of teams — including the Colts, Packers, Titans and Chargers — have entered the crucible. Their chances of salvaging the season hinge entirely on stellar performance going forward, with little room for error. The same holds true for many fantasy teams, with playoff standings close to being determined. Without further ado, let’s check in on which offensive lines are rising and falling around the league. . . and what that means for the playoffs, in fantasy and NFL realms.

Risers:

Pittsburgh Steelers

Calling the Steelers “risers” is a bit of a misnomer, given that Pittsburgh’s O-line has been the best unit in the league for a few weeks now. They made that evidently aware during a Thursday Night Football trouncing of the Panthers last week, during which Big Ben threw five TDs and 328 yards with a perfect passer rating and James Conner averaged five yards per carry and ran in a touchdown of his own. The Steelers’ offensive unit allowed only three pressures without a sack Week 10, and that brand of stellar pass protection is exactly what Ben Roethlisberger needs to dominant every week.

What to Watch: It’s official. Le’veon Bell will not suit up this season, meaning that James Conner will remain the workhorse back in Pittsburgh. Conner is on track to remain an RB1 rest of season, and is has cleared the league’s concussion protocol in time to play against Jacksonville on Sunday.

 

Indianapolis Colts

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The sentiment that the Colts have a bad O-line is deeply ingrained in the minds of many people: their offensive line has been terrible for years, and was one of the worst in the league early this season — but that corner has been turned. Indianapolis’ offensive line has not allowed a sack in four straight games, paving the way for an Andrew Luck-led passing attack that’s seemingly capable of carving up any secondary in the way. The unit’s run blocking has improved as well, allowing Marlon Mack sizeable and consistent holes to run through. Indianapolis faces a tough Titans defense Week 11, the O-line appears up to the task in a must-win game.

What to Watch: Even after putting up only 36 total yards last week, Marlon Mack is averaging 94 rushing yards per game over the last four weeks with three TDs over that stretch. He’s a matchup-dependent RB2 with upside, and should remain so for the rest of the season if healthy. Bonus: Eric Ebron already has 10 touchdowns on the season, despite limited snaps. His TD-efficiency may seem unsustainable, but his fantasy production makes a strong argument for considering him as a top-5 option a the tight end position.

 

Titans

Throughout their first seven games, the Titans averaged only an abyssal 15 points. They’ve now scored a season-high 34 points last week in a win over the Patriots, and 28 points the week before during primetime. Two major factors seem to have played into the Titan’s resurgence coming off their bye: quarterback Marcus Mariota’s recovery (he didn’t regain full feeling in his hand until late October) and the offensive line’s return to health. Taylor Lewan and Ben Jones have performed like two of the league’s most dominant lineman through two straight games, and Jack Conklin is progressing through the concussion protocol and appears to have a good shot at suiting up Week 11.

What to Watch: The Titans have averaged 148 yards rushing through the last three weeks through a combination of Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis. It’s difficult to predict which of the two RBs will go off any given week, with Lewis having doubled Henry’s touches last week but Henry having scored two TDs. Both Titans RBs warrant RB2 consideration this week against a mediocre Colts defense.

 

Packers

Packers fans and fantasy owners alike have called for an uptick in Aaron Jones’ snaps all season, and got what they were looking for Week 10. Jones (42 snaps) outsnapped fellow running back Jamaal Williams (14 snaps), rushing 15 times for 145 yards and two touchdowns — very nearly 10 yards per carry. Perhaps even more impressive is that 102 of Jones’ 145 yards came before contact, according to Pro Football Focus. The Packers’ O-line recorded easily their best run blocking performance of the year, and also performed admirably in pass protection against the Dolphins’ defensive front. If the line can carve out great lanes on a weekly basis, Jones will be a prime fantasy target for teams hoping to make a playoff push.

What to Watch: The Packers offense appears to have settled on a formula that works: heavily featuring their most explosive playmakers in Aaron Jones and Davante Adams, and relying on Aaron Rodgers to make key throws rather than dialing up consistently conservative playcalling. At 4-4-1 and 3rd in the NFC North, the Packers’ season has already entered must-win territory. For an Aaron Rodgers-led team, that usually signifies strong offensive showings and fantasy points to go around.

 

Fallers:

Los Angeles Chargers

The line has yet to surface as a true liability for the Chargers, who’ve won six straight games and have a good shot at making the playoffs. But it’s worrying when your team can’t block the Raiders’ pitiful defensive line, who sacked veteran quarterback Philip Rivers one during the Week 10 contest, and had another sack revoked by penalty.  For context, the last time that Oakland recorded a sack was Week 6. With the Broncos, Cardinals and Steelers (all stalwart pass rushing units) up next, the Chargers’ lackluster pass protection will need to put the last few weeks behind them and step up.  At 7-2, the difference between the Chargers and other competitors around the league may come down to O-line play if improvements aren’t made.

What to Watch: Though the Chargers’ pass protection has struggled over the last three weeks, the running game has done anything but buckle under pressure. Melvin Gordon has averaged over 100 yards rushing throughout Los Angeles’ last three games, with four touchdowns in that time. Expect Gordon to continue being featured heavily, likely still at the expense of star wideout Keenan Allen — whose two touchdowns on the season have disappointed fantasy managers thus far, despite his consistent yardage.

 

Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals have appeared in the “fallers” list of this column many times this season, and it’s not difficult to tell why: Arizona’s offense has consistently been one of the most underwhelming attacks in the NFL across 10 weeks, and that doesn’t seem likely to change despite David Johnson’s seeming resurgence. It’s not all due to middling playcalling or quarterback struggles (whether Sam Bradford or rookie Josh Rosen has been under center) either: the offensive line, consisting of four former first-round picks and a rookie center, hasn’t managed to play at an average level all season. To make matters worse, RG Justin Pugh was placed on IR earlier this week due to an injured MCL. It’s worrying that Arizona will likely have to rely on backup Jeremy Vujnovich as a starter going forward, especially after he allowed three sacks while filling in during Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs.

What to Watch:

Despite a defense that’s coming on down the stretch, it’s hard to picture this Cardinals team picking up steam at any point this season. The O-line simply isn’t able to offer Rosen the protection he requires to surmount his rookie hurdles, and it may be that the best scenario for Rosen’s development this year is to not regress. David Johnson carried 21 times for 98 yards last week (only his second game of the season with at least 20 carries), and accounted for both of the offense’s touchdowns. The 26-year-old RB could see a nice uptick in usage to end the season, as it seems likely that Arizona’s best gameplan going forward will simply be to give David Johnson the ball in space and hope he can turn something into nothing.