It all starts in the trenches, as the abilities of an offensive line often dictate what an NFL offense can and can’t do, and the execution of its assignments often dictates the success of said offense on any given play — run or pass. Some units around the league, such as those from the Eagles, Saints and Titans, have lived up to the hype many of us thrust upon them during the offseason. Others, like the Raiders and Falcons, have not. Let’s dive in to learn which O-lines are trending up and down entering Week 6.
First, stud guard Andrew Norwell left in free agency this offseason. Then starting right tackle Daryl Williams tore an MCL during training camp. After that, starting left tackle Matt Kalil required arthroscopic knee surgery in late August. Both of the latter two currently reside on IR. However, the preseason worries many had about this offensive line have been silenced after five weeks, as the Panthers have allowed the second-least quarterback hits (16) and fourth-least sacks (7) while Carolina running backs are averaging the third-most rushing yards per attempt (5.0). The secret seems to be the emergence of right tackle Taylor Moton, who’s replaced Williams in the starting lineup and has only allowed three quarterback hurries all season.
What to watch:
Cam Newton is currently throwing at a career-high 65 percent completion rate while Christian McCaffrey is averaging 5.2 YPC despite seeing 15.8 carries per game. There’s been nothing to suggest McCaffrey can’t sustain this efficiency, and there’s seemingly only room for improvement for Cam if the quarterback can start connecting with his receivers on intermediate- and long-range passes. The impending return of Greg Olsen from a fractured foot should help matters, as will the continued integration of both a healthy Curtis Samuel and the up-and-coming first-round pick, D.J. Moore.
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San Francisco 49ers
They’ve been far from perfect in pass protection, but the 49ers look like one of the best running teams in the NFL. Not only has No. 9 overall pick Mike McGlinchey been paving massive holes for Matt Breida and Co., but offseason-acquisition Weston Richburg has performed as advertised at center while longtime left tackle Joe Staley continues his solid play at left tackle. Add it all up and San Francisco is producing just under 5.0 yards per carry while ranking as Football Outsiders’ fourth-most effective unit in getting to the second level of the defense.
What to watch:
When healthy, Matt Breida. In the meantime, Alfred Morris. There simply may not be a backfield in the league with a better short-term outlook than that of the 49ers. Seriously. As mentioned above, San Francisco has been one of the best run-blocking teams in the league, and there’s a high likelihood the team will continue to use the run game to take pressure off of a young and inexperienced signal caller in C.J. Beathard. The icing on the cake is San Fran’s drool-worthy schedule over the next five weeks. After traveling to Green Bay this weekend to take on a Packers team that has allowed 4.2 yards per carry this season, the Niners then get the Rams (5.0 YPC) in Week 7, the Cardinals (4.1 YPC) in Week 8, the Raiders (4.9 YPC) in Week 9, and the Giants (4.6 YPC) in Week 10. Breida is the one I’m most excited about considering he’s pacing all running backs (45 carry minimum) with a 7.5-yard rushing average, but the second-year runner is dealing with an ankle injury that seems likely to keep him sidelined for at least one game. That’s where Morris — who’s seen at least 12 carries in four of five games this season — steps in, especially after earning 18 carries last week against Arizona when Breida went down.
The Lions arguably have one of the best offensive lines this season, but the unit is now without top guard T.J. Lang indefinitely while the lineman works through the sixth known concussion of his career. Without Lang, it’s hard to be confident in Detroit continuing to average a stellar 5.3 YPC — second-highest in the league — or not regress in pass protection after allowing just 19 QB hits through five games.
What to watch:
If Lang can bounce back and play sooner than later, Detroit shouldn’t be in too much trouble. The concern is how long they could potentially depend on Rick Wagner — as good as he’s been — to hold down the right side of the line.
Outside of Jake Matthews, whose play this year has easily justified the monster contract extension he signed this offseason, the Falcons offensive line is among the most underperforming units in the land. Hopefully, last week’s showing against the Steelers is the worst we’re going to see from it after Atlanta allowed six sacks while producing just 3.3 yards per rushing attempt. After five weeks, Atlanta has now allowed the third-most quarterback hits (40) and the eighth-most sacks (16) across the league while producing just 3.9 yards per rushing attempt. If there’s anything redeeming about this situation, it’s that this team has had one of the toughest schedules in terms of the defensive fronts they’ve faced (Eagles, Panthers, Saints, Bengals, Steelers).
What to watch:
I’m skeptical about the prospects of both Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman the rest of the way. Not only does each runner eat into the upside of the other, but they don’t appear to be seeing many open holes. Each in the duo has popped for a pair of big plays on defensive miscues in 2018, but take those plays out and the Freeman-Coleman tandem is running for only 2.7 YPC combined.
The cream of the crop in 2016, the Raiders offensive line undoubtedly took a step back in 2017, and they’ve backpedaled a few more times since. Injuries have played a huge role, as Oakland is now without star left tackle Donald Penn, who was placed on IR last week with a leg injury, while guard Kelechi Osemele works through a knee injury that prevented him from suiting up in Week 5. Center Rodney Hudson and guard Gabe Jackson are still around to help solidify the interior, but outside of them, the Raiders are counting on a pair of rookies and the backup-caliber Jon Feliciano to keep the ship afloat.
What to watch:
In his first game without Penn, running back Marshawn Lynch got bottled up by a middling Chargers run defense to the tune of 3.4 YPC. That makes it four of five games in which the veteran has failed to clear 3.7 YPC. A heavy workload — particularly in the red zone, where Lynch has seen the fourth-most carries league-wide (15) — has buoyed Beast Mode’s fantasy stock thus far, but it’s fair to be concerned with how many more weeks he can produce behind an increasingly-questionable offensive line.