NFL Offensive Line Overview: Week 4 Edition

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, the ebb and flow of all 32 offensive line groups around the NFL is analyzed and relevant fantasy implications are uncovered.

Last week was defined by shocking upsets — the Bills trounced the Vikings, Detroit felled New England, and an injured Marcus Mariota led the Titans to a win over the lauded Jaguars defense. To decipher out whether such results were anomalies or whether the status quo is truly in flux, let’s take a look at the foundations of key offenses around the league heading into Week 4:

 

Risers:

Detroit Lions

It’s been the same story for years with this team: “Matthew Stafford doesn’t receive adequate protection, there’s no running game to get off the ground, and as a result the offense just can’t move consistently.”  But after a questionable start to the 2018 season, Detroit seems to have finally shifted the narrative; the team’s offense is actually defined by consistency up front.  Considering the amount of questions surrounding the Lions’ O-line heading into the season, the group’s performance is nothing short of shocking. That Detroit hadn’t had a 100-yard rusher in 70 games (until rookie Kerryon Johnson ended the drought last week) is one of the most bandied about stats of recent times, but even that doesn’t come close to exemplifying just how well this offensive front has played. In 138 pass attempts over the last three games, the O-line has allowed Stafford to be sacked only three times — making them the best pass protection group in the NFL thus far. While it should be considered that Detroit has yet to face a top-end pass rush, the improvements surrounding the protection can’t be ignored: for the first time in years, this team’s offensive line is a strength and not a weakness.

What to watch: Despite a marked improvement in run-blocking, neither Kerryon Johnson or LeGarrette Blount has scored a touchdown this season. That could change after Sunday’s tilt against the Cowboys.

Minnesota Vikings

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Minnesota’s offensive line logged one of its worst performances in recent memory, allowing quarterback Kirk Cousins to be pressured on more than half of his 60 dropbacks. Center Brett Jones and RT Rashod Hill were consistently overpowered throughout the game and looked gassed midway through the second quarter, but weren’t even the biggest problem area for the Vikings’ O-line — considering that between LT Reilly Reiff and RG Mike Remmers, an astonishing 20 pressures on Cousins were allowed. Given all this, why do the Vikings reside in this week’s Risers  category?– because reinforcements have arrived, and there’s nowhere to go but up. Pat Elflein took limited snaps against Buffalo, and will make his first start of the season against the Rams on Thursday Night Football.  The starting center’s return stands to finally secure the line’s foundational position, and it also seems likely that rookie Brian O’Neill — a top-graded prospect — could replace Hill in the starting lineup and inject some much-needed juice. The revitalized Minnesota line will face an immediate test of strength on Thursday, facing down one of the league’s top defensive fronts led by Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers — but could also benefit from the return of running back Dalvin Cook to the starting lineup.

What to Watch: Adam Thielen has accumulated at least 100 yards in three straight games, and quickly proven to be Cousins’ favorite target. If the O-line can protect Cousins adequately, Thielen looks primed for a big game against a Rams’ secondary missing Aqib Talib.

 

Washington Redskins

Despite a multitude of injuries, Washington’s O-line stood strong and led the way to a victory over Green Bay. The team entered Week 3 without starting LG Shawn Lauvao (sidelined due to a calf injury) and lost starting RT Morgan Moses to a concussion in the second quarter. The Redskins adapted without blinking, moving center Chase Roullier to the left guard position, slotting backup Tony Bergstrom in at center and replacing Moses with backup Ty Nsekhe. Normally, such drastic last minute changes would create a unit of linemen that struggles to create synergy — but Washington, largely due to the experience of both veteran backups, continued to hold off Green Bay’s defensive front and created ample holes for running back Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns (and didn’t look a day older than 30). The strong performance was a good sign for Washington’s offensive front going forward, who expect Lauvao and Moses to return in the near future, if not for Monday’s game against the Saints.

What to Watch: Adrian Peterson averaged 6.3 YPC during the team’s Week 3 win against the Packers, and has proven that he can put up RB1 numbers when gamescript allows it — but the Saints’ offensive attack could conceivably force Washington to move towards the passing attack and abandon the run early on Sunday.

 

Fallers:

Oakland Raiders

With three weeks of tape to look back on, it’s become blindingly obvious that Oakland’s line is failing the team — having allowed five sacks and ten quarterback hits thus far in the season. Veteran Donald Penn has struggled mightily in his transition to right tackle, allowing two sacks, two hits and four hurries alone. The 3x Pro Bowler looks like one of the worst pass-blockers in the league, and one has to wonder whether he’ll see a positional change sometime in the future. Though it’s undeniable that the team’s O-line has floundered, it’s worth considering who the Raiders have played: the Rams, Broncos and Dolphins each boast top defensive fronts, and would serve as tough matchups for an O-line of any caliber. It’s possible that the team’s abysmal performance is in part a product of who they’ve faced, but they won’t receive a break against the Browns this Sunday.

What to Watch: Quarterback Derek Carr has quietly averaged 312 yards per game and a 76.6 percent completion percentage over the first three games of the season,  but only achieved a 1:1 touchdown to interception ratio. The 27-year-old has played better than his fantasy numbers would indicate, and could be a solid play in the future if Oakland’s O-line manages to improve.

Houston Texans

With an O-line that’s allowed ten sacks over three games and pressure on over 40 percent of dropbacks, it’s no surprise that the Texans currently sit at 0-3. The team’s issues began when Seantrel Henderson suffered a broken ankle during the team’s season opener against the Patriots. Julien Davenport had to be moved to right tackle, and backup Martinas Rankin entered the starting lineup — Davenport had never started at the right tackle position, whether in college or the NFL, and Rankin has struggled mightily to adapt to a starter’s workload after missing all of training camp with a broken foot. Pro Football Focus ranks Rankin as their worst-graded starting left tackle of the season across three games, and Davenport doesn’t grade much higher. The interior of the line has performed adequately, but haven’t been able to make up for the deficiencies of the outmatched tackles on either end. The positional talent necessary to bail the Texans’ line out simply isn’t there, and unless coach Bill O’Brien is able to scheme up a miracle or Watson is able to recapture the magic of his rookie season, it’s difficult to imagine where improvement could come from.

What to Watch: Running back Lamar Miller averaged only 1.0 YPC against the Giants in Week 3 after showing well during the first two weeks of the season — but caught five passes, including a touchdown. Expect Miller to face an easier defense to run on this Sunday against the Colts.