The offensive line is the backbone of any NFL team’s success.
It is always a treat to watch the play in the trenches on film and evaluate units that don’t get a lot of publicity. It is no coincidence that most of the Super Bowl contenders are solid in the trenches on the offensive side of the ball, and several of them are coached by guys who were excellent players (some with Hall of Fame resumes), or at least with decorated coaching backgrounds.
Let’s take a look at these elite groups.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers – They are big, physical and more athletic than you would think. They block in space, they have a great feel for blocking angles, and they open holes for the most patient back in the NFL, Le’Veon Bell, who is terrific at letting his blocks form before he hits the hole. Led by Hall of Fame coach Mike Munchak, this is a group with a great work ethic and they are helped by a ball-out-quick passing game that gives them a big assist in pass pro.
2. Dallas Cowboys – They are the most talented line in the NFL. The Cowboys established elite production up front by drafting guys high and letting them grow and improve. They have been a run-heavy group with Ezekiel Elliott, and even with him suspended for six games that will likely not change. They can man or zone block, but they really excel when they can pull and trap and win one-on-one battles. They do not have quite the depth that we have seen, but they are smart and well-coached by Frank Pollack. Remember, Bill Callahan (elite line coach now at Washington) coached these guys when they came into the league and he knows how to develop linemen as well as any coach in the NFL.
3. Oakland Raiders – They are the most physical offensive line in the NFL and they look a lot like what we see in Dallas under Scott Linehan, who is Oakland coordinator Todd Downing’s mentor. They love to man block and win one-on-one battles, and they will go to “heavy” personnel packages almost 50 percent of the snaps, which makes them even more physical in the run game. As powerful as they are, they are also underrated in pass pro. They led the NFL a year ago with only 18 sacks given up. They are coached by Mike Tice, who is an accomplished teacher and no-nonsense tough guy, and if Marshawn Lynch has any gas left in the tank, this run game could be very interesting.
4. Tennessee Titans – They are solid inside but not well-known, but when you get to tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin, they really shine. And they even have solid depth behind the starters. They lead the way for a dominating run game and, as good as they are attacking inside, we see more edge runs because of the elite tackles and more two-tight end sets. They call their attack “exotic smash mouth” and they have simplified their schemes to allow them to play with more cohesiveness. It is no coincidence that they are led by head coach Mike Mularkey and Hall of Famer Russ Grimm. These two guys know how to build and develop a young offensive line that will be good for years.
5. New England Patriots – This is not the most talented group in the NFL, but they have an elite coach in Dante Scarnecchia, they function as the ultimate team unit, they play smart with limited mistakes, and in 2016 they stayed healthy. In 2015, while Scarnecchia was retired, this line went thru 39 different combinations, but in 2016 that number dropped to nine. Tom Brady’s ball-out-quick passing game really helps them in pass pro, their athleticism serves them well with all of their bubble screens and when they are asked to block in space, and their intelligence allows them to adjust to the ever-changing New England offensive game plans. They don’t dazzle you in any particular area, but they show up every week and give you a solid performance.
Best of the rest
Atlanta Falcons – This is the only line that all five starters started all 16 regular-season games last season. They are an athletic zone-blocking unit which blocks well in space and leads an excellent power run game. Their best asset may be their underrated stability.
Green Bay Packers – It seems like they lose quality players every year in free agency, but they always find a new guy to plug in. Playing on the offensive line for the Packers is not an easy task. No run game means that defenses often load up in the box and give them smaller blocking angles, and Aaron Rodgers’ tendency to hold on to the ball until his receivers separate forces them to hold their blocks longer, but they seem to always get it done.
Washington Redskins – Being coached by offensive line guru Bill Callahan is an excellent recipe for success for this unit and a good starting point. They may not have great depth, but all five starters are back and these guys are fundamentally sound, led by left tackle Trent Williams. It is a shame that they don’t have an elite back because they are wasting a potentially good unit that could dominate in the run game.
New Orleans Saints – They are not an overly talented group, but their production is really good because they play in front of Drew Brees and his ball-out-quick passing game. They can block zone and power, but they also have to be athletic enough to get out and block in space. They are not flashy, but they just seem to get the job done and Brees makes them look better.
As we know, continuity is especially important when you are dealing with offensive line play. These units stayed fairly healthy in 2016 and that usually means cohesiveness and consistency. When the same five guys can play most of the snaps, it’s going to lead to solid play.