As we reach the quarter pole of the 2011 season, it only makes sense for a column titled “Off Tackle” to revisit the preseason offensive line rankings—and yes, some of you have actually requested this, which warms my big-fella-loving heart. Here's a rundown of the top 16 from the preseason rankings; the bottom 16 will be covered next week.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
PREVIOUS RANK: 1; REVISED RANK: 1
How does Tom Brady do it? It certainly helps that he’s hit on fewer passing attempts than any quarterback except Jason Campbell—just 11% of his dropbacks. And the RBBC works because the run blocking is also solid, averaging 4.8 yards per carry—fifth in the league. The Patriots were able to pull this off because they were prepared for adversity; Brian Waters, a Pro Bowler last year who was kicked to the curb by the Chiefs, stepped in at right guard for the injured Dan Koppen and first-round pick Nate Solder has filled in when Sebastian Vollmer’s back flares up.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
PREVIOUS RANK: 2; REVISED RANK: 3
Despite drilling down into their depth at tackle the Saints have kept on keepin’ on. Drew Brees has taken a larger-than-usual number of sacks—nine—but including the hits he’s only bee touched on 14% of his dropbacks; that ranks ninth in the NFL. The multi-faced ground game is averaging 4.5 yards per carry.
NEW YORK GIANTS
PREVIOUS RANK: 3; REVISED RANK: 4
We expected more from this group; they’ve been okay, but there’s too much talent here to just be okay. The left side, where Will Beatty is breaking in at tackle and David Diehl has kicked inside to guard, needs to give Eli Manning better protection. Center David Baas was nicked in the last game; Kevin Boothe would step in if need be, adding another wrinkle for this line to deal with.
NEW YORK JETS
PREVIOUS RANK: 4; REVISED RANK: 13
If you saw the Sunday night game you have an idea of how critical center Nick Mangold is to this unit. Backup Rob Turner broke his leg in the preseason, so when Mangold went down the Jets had to turn to Colin Baxter, an undrafted rookie free agent who hadn’t even spent training camp with the team. The results, as you saw against the Ravens, were not pretty. Mangold’s absence has exposed other cracks as well: guards Matt Slauson and Brandon Moore have been okay in pass protection but subpar in the running game and right tackle Wayne Hunter has been downright awful stepping in for the retired Damian Woody. The Jets’ return to “ground & pound” won’t work unless Mangold returns and everyone else steps up their game.
PREVIOUS RANK: 5; REVISED RANK: 2
This group has done essentially everything asked of it; now, with Andre Johnson down for three weeks or so, they’ll need to buy Matt Schaub a little extra time. Having Arian Foster back to hit their holes in the ground game will certainly help.
PREVIOUS RANK: 6; REVISED RANK: 14
All kinds of performance issues for a unit that was expected to be a strength. An injury to center Todd McClure set the team back initially, and they haven’t really adjusted to being a passing team—which, in turn, has thrown off their run blocking. Garrett Reynolds has stepped in nicely at right guard for departed free agent Harvey Dahl, but left tackle Sam Baker has been a disaster: no tackle has surrendered more pressure.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
PREVIOUS RANK: 7; REVISED RANK: 6
There have been no issues in protecting Philip Rivers, who’s been pressured or hit on just 13 percent of his dropbacks. However, this unit should be much better in the running game, where they’re averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. Not to point fingers, but right tackle Jeromey Clarey grades out near the bottom of all tackles in both run blocking and pass protection.
PREVIOUS RANK: 8; REVISED RANK: 5
Jeff Otah has been in and out of the lineup, which may be why the run blocking has been somewhat less than its stellar self. But even with a mobile quarterback like Cam Newton the Panthers have provided outstanding protection; Newton has been sacked or pressured on just 13 percent of dropbacks, giving him ample time to go downfield to Steve Smith.
PREVIOUS RANK: 9; REVISED RANK: 10
No matter your measuring stick, the Titans’ run blocking has underachieved mightily. They’re averaging a league-last 2.8 yards per carry, and according to Pro Football Focus no line grades out worse in their run blocking. Considering what essentially this same unit has done in the past, you have to believe they’ll get it going for Chris Johnson—hopefully sooner rather than later. Matt Hasselbeck, conversely, has no concerns; he’s been sacked only four times and hit on just 12 percent of his dropbacks.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
PREVIOUS RANK: 10; REVISED RANK: 11
The talent was there, but this line had been underachieving. That appears to be changing, with the Bucs averaging a solid 4.4 yards per carry and keeping Josh Freeman relatively clean with just six sacks and 14 QB hits in 148 dropbacks. Jeremy Trueblood struggled with Robert Mathis on Monday night, but many tackles do.
PREVIOUS RANK: 11; REVISED RANK: 7
The pickups of castaways Bryant McKinnie and Andre Gurode drew the most attention, but Baltimore’s decision to retain right guard Marshal Yanda was the smartest move of the offseason. Matt Birk holds this line together; did the Vikings really think he was done two years ago when they failed to re-sign him? No wonder they’re 0-4. Tackles McKinnie and Michael Oher haven’t played up to their potential yet; when they do, Baltimore may be unstoppable.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
PREVIOUS RANK: 12: REVISED RANK: 26
The decision to sign free agent Harvey Dahl has helped upgrade the run blocking, at least a little bit, but the pass protection stats tell the story why this offense is struggling so mightily. No quarterback has been sacked (19) or hit (41) more than Sam Bradford; that’s contact with the quarterback on 38 percent of his dropbacks. Left tackle Rodger Saffold has held up in the running game but surrendered a league-high seven sacks; right tackle Jason Smith has been an even bigger underachiever: according to Pro Football Focus, he grades out as the 50th-best pass-blocking tackle and the 56th-best run blocker at his position. That’s out of 64, boys and girls, for a guy who was the second overall pick in the 2009 draft.
PREVIOUS RANK: 13; REVISED RANK: 8
The Bengals have held their own in front of rookie Andy Dalton, and now they’ll get right guard Bobbie Williams back from his four-game suspension. While rookie Clint Boling has been okay in Williams’ place, the return of the veteran should help Cedric Benson and the Bengals improve on their 4.4 yards per carry average. And I’ll never miss an opportunity to direct a shout out at Andrew Whitworth, the most underrated left tackle in the game; Anthony Munoz would be proud of the way Whitworth mans the position in Cincy.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
This line has held up better than expected sans Jamaal Charles; there’s just not much offensive talent to work with. Even with Thomas Jones dragging the average down the Chiefs are averaging 4.3 yards per carry. Matt Cassel has been sacked eight times despite just 112 dropbacks—third-fewest in the league—but he has enough time to locate Dwayne Bowe and maybe even once in a while Steve Breaston.
PREVIOUS RANK: 14; REVISED RANK: 21
The Browns haven’t exactly been blowing open holes for the running game, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry, and it could get worse. Pro Bowl center Alex Mack played through appendicitis in Week 4 and had an emergency appendectomy on Monday. Cleveland is on the bye this week and Mack intends to play in Week 6, but you have to think it’ll be a couple weeks before he’s back to full go.
PREVIOUS RANK: 15; REVISED RANK: 25
PREVIOUS RANK: 16; REVISED RANK: 18
Dallas opted to go with a full-on youth movement up front, and while the run blocking has been less than stellar in averaging just 3.4 yards per carry the pass protection has been solid. Bill Nagy is still a work in progress at left guard, but right tackle Tyron Smith deserves rookie-of-the-year consideration for his standout work; he’s allowed just one sack thus far in his pro career.