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2009 Offensive Line Review and Ratings - AFC North
John Tuvey
Updated: August 26, 2009
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AFC North AFC South AFC East AFC West NFC North NFC South NFC East NFC West
Baltimore Houston Buffalo Denver Chicago Atlanta Dallas Arizona
Cincinnati Indianapolis Miami Kansas City Detroit Carolina New York St. Louis
Cleveland Jacksonville New England Oakland Green Bay New Orleans Philadelphia San Francisco
Pittsburgh Tennessee New York San Diego Minnesota Tampa Bay Washington Seattle

Baltimore Ravens

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2006 17 2 1,637 102.3 25 3.4 31
2007 39 21 1,623 101.0 16 4.0 17
2008 33 18 2,084 130.3 6 4.0 23

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
2006 J.Ogden* E.Mulitalo M.Flynn K.Vincent T.Pashos
2007 J.Ogden* J.Brown M.Flynn C.Chester A.Terry
2008 J.Gaither B.Grubbs J.Brown M.Yanda A.Terry
2009 J.Gaither B.Grubbs M.Birk M.Yanda/C.Chester M.Oher (r)
* Pro Bowler, (r) Rookie

The Ravens enter the third year of the post-Jonathan Ogden era, and while they’re still giving up almost twice as many sacks as they did when Ogden locked down the left side this is an up-and-coming line. Jared Gaither ranked sixth in the league among left tackles, surrendering just three sacks last year. Along with guard Ben Grubbs, the Ravens have their left side locked down for the foreseeable future. Good thing, too; Baltimore was one of the more left-handed teams in the league last year, running 10% more of their running plays behind Gaither and Grubbs.

In the middle, the Ravens lost one of the NFL’s better young centers in Jason Brown via free agency; they rebounded nicely by bringing Matt Birk from Minnesota. After 11 years in the NFL trenches Birk may no longer play at a Pro Bowl level, but his intelligence and technique should solidify a young line; in other words, despite losing Brown the Ravens didn’t regress at the position.

Right guard Marshall Yanda’s 2008 season ended prematurely due to a knee injury, and he may not be ready for the start of this season. Chris Chester filled in admirably when Yanda went down last year and should be a more than capable placeholder if Yanda is at all delayed. Rookie Michael Oher is not only transitioning from college to the pros but also from the left side to the right; if his learning curve is steeper than hoped Adam Terry has experience and could hold down the starting gig for one more year.

Baltimore’s gaudy rushing stats come more as a result of quantity than quality; their backs averaged an ordinary 4.0 yards per carry, and their 4.17 adjusted line yards (a Football Outsiders stat that attempts to discern how much of the rushing yards can be attributed to the blocking) ranked 11th. But Birk’s veteran presence will steady a group that, if Oher starts, will have four starters drafted in 2007 or later.

RUN BLOCKING: B
PASS BLOCKING: B-
DEPTH: B
OVERALL GRADE: B

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Cincinnati Bengals

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2006 36 19 1,629 101.8 26 3.7 26
2007 17 2 1,468 92.0 25 3.9 26
2008 51 30 1,103 68.9 31 3.2 32

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
2006 L.Jones E.Steinbach R.Braham B.Williams W.Anderson*
2007 A.Whitworth S.Andrews E.Ghiaciuc B.Williams W.Anderson
2008 L.Jones A.Whitworth E.Ghiaciuc B.Williams W.Anderson
2009 A.Whitworth N.Livings K.Cook/J.Luigs (r) B.Williams A.Smith (r)
* Pro Bowler, (r) Rookie

It all went horribly awry for the Bengals last season, starting with injuries and ineptitude at the skill positions and trickling right on down to the line. When the dust had settled, Cincy had followed up a season in which they allowed just 17 sacks by surrendering 51; the running game was no better, averaging just 69 running back rushing yards per game at a pathetic 3.2 yards per carry.

So the fact that only one starter will return in the same position in 2009 is actually good news. Versatile Andrew Whitworth is expected to take over at left tackle for the departed Levi Jones. A starter at left guard prior to an injury late last season, Whitworth has 13 games of experience at left tackle and should transition smoothly back to the outside. The key will be whether Nate Livings can establish himself as Whitworth’s replacement at left guard. Livings filled in there last year when Whitworth went down, but the smarter move might be leaving Whitworth inside and developing Anthony Collins—who started six games after Jones was hurt—as their left tackle of the future. That Marvin Lewis has opted for the beefier Whitworth/Livings left side suggests he’s serious about running the football more in 2009.

Right guard Bobbie Williams, the only returner at the same spot from last year’s debacle, wil likely be breaking in rookie tackle Andre Smith on his outside—assuming the first-round pick gets his contract signed and can transition from left to right. Like Cincy’s other starters, both Williams and Smith have tremendous size and should fare well in the ground game; both are solid in pass protect, as the Outland Awardl-winning Smith surrendered just one sack as Alabama’s left tackle last year.

Cincy still has questions at center where Kyle Cook, an undrafted free agent in 2007, is the favorite to start over 2007 seventh-rounder Dan Santucci and 2009 fourth-rounder Jonathan Luigs; the trio has a combined seven games of NFL experience and zero pro starts. Cincy may be able to cover for their center’s inexperience, as only seven teams ran up the middle less frequently than the Bengals. So while there are still gaps up front, Carson Palmer shouldn’t have to run for his life and Cedric Benson may actually find some room to move.

RUN BLOCKING: B-
PASS BLOCKING: C-
DEPTH: B-
OVERALL GRADE: C

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Cleveland Browns

Year Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2006 54 30 1,335 83.4 31 3.6 29
2007 19 3 1,766 110.0 8 4.5 8
2008 24 8 1,364 85.3 27 3.9 25

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
2006 K.Shaffer J.Andruzzi H.Fraley C.Coleman R.Tucker
2007 J.Thomas* E.Steinbach H.Fraley S.McKinney K.Shaffer
2008 J.Thomas* E.Steinbach H.Fraley R.Hadnot K.Shaffer
2009 J.Thomas E.Steinbach A.Mack (r) F.Womack/R.Tucker R.Tucker/G.Foster
* Pro Bowler, (r) Rookie

In retrospect, the Browns’ decision to take center Alex Mack once they finally stopped trading down with their first round pick wasn’t all that surprising. Only the Patriots ran outside the tackles less frequently than the Browns, and only three teams ran inside the guards more than Cleveland. Hank Fraley’s play declined last season and with new coach Eric Mangini a big proponent of the power running game, the middle needed to be addressed. And if Mack isn’t quite NFL-ready, Fraley remains as insurance.

Cleveland’s left side is set with tackle Joe Thomas—the only Pro Bowl lineman in the AFC North—and guard Eric Steinbach. Mangini reportedly asked Steinbach to get bigger, but talk of the guard being released borders on insanity. What Cleveland really needs is for Steinbach to be fully healthy after battling shoulder and rib injuries much of last season. When they’re on their game the Thomas/Steinbach duo is as good as any left side in the NFL and should help Brady Quinn enjoy at least a modicum of security in the pocket; after all, the Browns gave up just 24 sacks last season and ranked seventh in adjusted sack rate (another Football Outsiders stat that takes into account how much a team throws as well as how many sacks it surrenders).

On the right, the only certainty is that Ryan Tucker will hold down one of the two spots. If former Seattle backup Floyd “Pork Chop” Womack can stay healthy he’ll likely play guard while Tucker plays tackle; other combinations include last year’s starter Rex Hadnot or Tucker at guard, with ex-Bear John St. Clair or former Bronco and Lion George Foster at tackle. The common thread: beef, as Tucker (at 315) is the only option in the rotation checking in under 320 pounds.

There’s no question Mangini wants to run the ball, and he’ll put the muscle on the right side to do so; a healthy Steinbach and an upgrade at center should help the rest of the line. Cleveland ranked fifth in fewest carries that were stuffed at the line of scrimmage, so they’re heading in the right direction. And that direction might just lead to the same type of rejuvenation for Jamal Lewis that Thomas Jones had behind the rebuilt Jets’ line last year.

RUN BLOCKING: B-
PASS BLOCKING: B
DEPTH: B
OVERALL GRADE: B

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Pittsburgh Steelers

Year

Sacks Allowed Sacked Rank RB Rush Yards Rush Yards Per Game Per Game Rush Rank Per Carry Average Per Carry Rank
2006 49 28 1,992 124.5 10 4.2 12
2007 47 26 1,906 119.0 5 4.2 13
2008 49 29 1,552 97.0 20 3.8 29

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
2006 M.Smith A.Faneca* J.Hartings K.Simmons M.Starks
2007 M.Smith A.Faneca* S.Mahan K.Simmons W.Colon
2008 M.Smith C.Kemoeatu J.Hartwig K.Simmons W.Colon
2009 M.Starks C.Kemoeatu J.Hartwig D.Stapleton/K.Urbik (r) W.Colon
* Pro Bowler, (r) Rookie

Every rule has an exception, and last year’s Steelers were the exception to the rule about how it all starts up front. Statistically, Pittsburgh’s offensive line was awful; they allowed 49 sacks for the second time in three seasons (after giving up just 47 in 2007), averaged a very un-Steeler-like 97 RB rushing yards per game, and their backs posted a meager 3.8 yards per carry—29th in the league. It actually got worse in the playoffs, as no team allowed more sacks in the postseason and only one-and-dones Miami and Atlanta averaged less than Pittsburgh’s brutal 2.9 yards per carry.

And yet there were the Steelers, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Thank a dominant defense and a quarterback big enough and tough enough to withstand the beating Ben Roethlisberger took. And evidently Pittsburgh thinks their defense and quarterback are up to the task again, because they did little to address their needs along the line. Max Starks will be overpaid to play a slightly above average left tackle for the next four years, and next to him Chris Kemoeatu won’t make anyone forget Alan Faneca. The upside to this duo is that at a combined 685 pounds they can be dominant in the ground game, as evidenced by top-10 rankings in adjusted line yards per carry running to the left. The downside is Steeler backs getting stopped for zero or negative yardage on 22% of their carries last season; only the Lions and Bengals were worse.

The other bright spot in Pittsburgh may be third round selection Kraig Urbik, a converted Big 10 tackle who at 330 pounds fits the Steelers’ road grader mold. He’ll compete for the right guard gig with Darnell Stapleton, who replaced an injured Kendall Simmons one month into last season. Justin Hartwig was an upgrade over Sean Mahan, but he’s hardly in the same league as the proud tradition of Steeler centers that preceded Mahan. Pittsburgh ranked 23rd in adjusted line yards per carry running up the middle, and Hartwig ranked last among starting centers with 6.5 sacks allowed. Willie Colon returns at right tackle after another unremarkable campaign.

The Steelers’ defense is still dominant, and Roethlisberger is still resilient, mobile, and just plain big enough to shrug off at least some of the constant pressure he’s facing. But Pittsburgh is playing with fire hoping to get away with another season of sub-par line play. In a best-case scenario the big fellas pave the way for Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall to dictate the tempo of the game, while Big Ben and the defense take care of the rest. Worst-case, the cumulative effect of 153 sacks over the last 50 games (including playoffs) catches up with Roethlisberger—and that’s a scenario Steeler fans don’t even want to think about.

RUN BLOCKING: B-
PASS BLOCKING: D+
DEPTH: C-
OVERALL GRADE: C-

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