Offensive Line Pass Protection And Teams That About-Faced

Next in the series on team statistics and teams to watch I look at offensive line pass protection statistics. For this I used the sacks and quarterback hits stats at nfl.com. To account for both sacks and hits giving each equal weight I used a formula of:

Sum Sacks + Hits = Sacks + (Hits / Average(Hits/Sacks))

As in the series we will look at the three teams most improved in this statistic from 2017 to 2018 and the three teams most declined. At the end of the article I will give the running total table of the 3 best and worst teams for each statistic we have looked at. I also added a running total table of simply the best and worst teams for each statistic. So starting with the three most improved team.

1. Indianapolis Colts

2017 – Rank: 30, Sacks + Adjusted Hits: 102
2018 – Rank: 3, Sacks + Adjusted Hits: 51

The Colts went from the bottom three teams in 2017 to the top three teams in 2018. Their franchise quarterback did not play in 2017 due to injury. He had been getting pummeled. Since starting for the Colts as a rookie in 2012, the Colts have ranked 31, 30, 29, 31 and 31 in quarterback hits. They have had over 100 quarterback hits every season.  In 2016 they had their worst of the five year stretch with 128 quarterback hits when the league average was 87. They finally took drastic action.

Coming off the 2017 season the Colts already had two of their first round picks playing on the line – center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Anthony Castonzo. Both players have overall played well.

They claimed right guard Mark Glowinski in December 2017 after he was waived by the Seahawks.  Glowinski was a fourth round pick by the Seahawks in the 2015 draft.  His draft profile on nfl.com talks of a gym rat with great competitiveness and toughness. Since coming to the Colts Glowinski was on track in November 2018 to have a career high pass blocking grade by Pro Football Focus.

In the 2018 draft the Colts selected guard Quenton Nelson with the sixth overall pick. Going into the 2018 draft Nelson was regarded as a generational talent and a “gold jacket” prospect.  He had five total quarterback pressure in his senior college year in 2018. That was tied for second fewest among draft prospect guards. His senior year Nelson was a unanimous All American. In his rookie NFL year in 2018 Nelson made the NFL 2018 All rookie team, the Pro Bowl and was a First Team All Pro selection.

In round two they stayed with the  offensive line and selected right tackle Braden Smith. In his senior year in college Smith made the AP, ESPN, CBS and Athlon All American teams. In Smith’s senior year as a guard in 2017, he allowed three sacks, no hits and three hurries on 445 pass-blocking snaps. Smith was penalized only once over his last two college seasons. In his NFL rookie year Smith made the 2018 NFL All Rookie Team.

The O-Line is solid now for the Colts. In spite of that they did draft offensive tackle Jackson Barton in the seventh round. Barton made All Conference Pac-12 First Team in 2018. Barton has started every game for the last two seasons at left tackle. Barton uses his arm length effectively to redirect targets. According to his draft profile at nfl.com he delivers blocks with some initial pop, shows good upper body power and has a finishers demeanor. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said the Bartons (Jackson & Cody Barton) are very conscious about everything they do and praised them for having phenomenal work ethics.

The Colts have built a home grown offensive line from their own day one and day two draft picks. Our second most improved team went a different route.  The Browns built a line composed of more free agents, late drafted or undrafted players and a potential bust that they took a flier on.

2. Cleveland Browns

2017 – Rank: 32, Sacks + Adjusted Hits: 103
2018 – Rank: 10, Sacks + Adjusted Hits: 68

The Browns offensive line really improved in the second half of the season. They allowed 61 quarterback hits thru the first 8 weeks and then finished the season with a total of only 71 hits which was sixth best in the league.  They gave up 33 sacks the first 8 weeks and then allowed only five sacks the last 8 weeks. They didn’t allow a sack in five of team’s final seven games. They had the fewest sacks allowed in the NFL during weeks 10-17.

The Browns were working on nailing down the left tackle position after Joe Thomas announced his retirement in March 2018.

As an aside it is interesting to note that Joe Thomas holds the NFL unofficial record in consecutive snaps with 10,363.  He became a starter from his first game of his rookie season in 2007 and hadn’t missed a snap in his career until a torn tricep in October 2017 ended his season. Once  the Browns were up big in a game. Joe’s replacement was sent into the game and came into the huddle to remove Joe, and Joe told him to get lost. Joe continued to play. In 2017 Joe Thomas played in only seven games due to the injury.

The Browns started the season with undrafted free agent rookie Desmond Harrison starting at left tackle. He started eight games and though he did surprisingly well for an UDFA rookie, he did struggle in pass protection and allowed 4 sacks.   Harrison was replaced due to illness by tackle Greg Robinson in week 9 and Robinson stayed as the starter. As reported by Pro Football Focus Greg Robinson had the best year of his five year career at pass protection in 2018 which ranked 56th among tackles. Robinson allowed zero sacks in 2018. Robinson was the number two overall pick in the 2014 draft by the Rams. The Browns is his third team in five years.

Right tackle Chris Hubbard was signed by the Steelers as an undrafted free agent following the 2013 draft. In 2017 he started 10 games for the Steelers, had 780 snaps and allowed 4 sacks. He signed with the Browns in March 2018.  In 2018 he started 16 games for the Browns at right tackle and played all offensive snaps. Hubbard allowed 8.5 sacks in 2018.

The strength of their line is the interior offensive line with guards Bitonio and Zeitler and center Tretter.

Center J.C. Tretter was a fourth round draft pick by the Packers in the 2013 draft. He signed as a free agent by the Browns in March 2017. In 2018 Tretter played on all 1,091 offensive snaps and allowed just three sacks. In his senior year in college as a left tackle in 2012 Tretter was credited by his coaches with 120 knockdowns, 13 touchdown-resulting blocks and zero sacks allowed . He was a unanimous All-Ivy League First Team selection.

Left guard Joel Bitonio was selected by the Browns in the second round of the 2014 draft.  He made the 2014 NFL All Rookie Team.  In 2018 he made the Pro Bowl and was a Second Team All Pro selection. In 2018 he played on all 1,091 offensive snaps and allowed just one sack. Among guards with 250+ snaps Bitonio is third in pressure rate allowed allowing a pressure on just 2.3% of his passing snaps as reported by Pro Football Focus.

Right Guard Kevin Zeitler was a first round pick by the Bengals in the 2012 draft.  In March 2017 Zeitler signed with the Browns making him the highest paid guard in the NFL. In 2018 Zeitler played on all 1,091 offensive snaps and allowed only two sacks. Among guards with 250+ snaps Zeitler is first in pressure rate allowed allowing a pressure on just 1.7% of his passing snaps. In 2019 Zeitler was traded to the Giants in trades that included Jabrill Peppers in exchange for Odell Beckham and Olivier Vernon.

Credit also has to be given to quarterback Baker Mayfield. His ability to move around, avoid pressure and a quick release helps to make the offensive line statistics better. Mayfield has the ability to avoid sacks and quarterback hits. Pro Football Focus had Mayfield’s quarterback rating under pressure as the best among qualified quarterbacks each of his last three seasons. “When we get in bad positions, he helps us out a lot,” left tackle Greg Robinson said . “We appreciate it because some guys can’t get out of the pocket. They just have to stay there, so you have to block longer.”

Who will replace guard Kevin Zeitler is one of the big questions to be worked out this preseason. The likely successor is their second round draft pick from 2018, tackle Austin Corbett.  Corbett was a three year captain at Nevada. He was a former walk-on that wound up starting in 48 consecutive games. Corbett was one of 10 semi-finalists for the Burlsworth Trophy which is given to the most outstanding football player in America who began his career as a walk-on. He is a competitive, hard-working and plays with a uncharacteristic violence.

While our top two most improved offensive lines had some draft round one and two picks, our third most improved line presents another portrait.  Their offensive line has only day three draft picks and one undrafted free agent.

3. New England Patriots

2017 – Rank: 16, Sacks + Adjusted Hits: 69
2018 – Rank: 2, Sacks + Adjusted Hits: 50

While the 2017 Patriots’s offensive line was not bad (ranked 16th in hits & sacks) it showed signs of needing  improvement. Through the first four weeks of 2017 the line allowed the eighth most hits in the NFL (20) . Through the first half of the year they allowed 21 sacks. that was on track to rank 22nd in the final 2017 sacks allowed. They allowed 6.6 hits per game in the playoffs. That rate would match the 26th ranked team rate in the regular season. Their Super Bowl dream ended with a strip sack.

Going into 2018 they lose their sole high draft pick on the offensive line, left tackle Nate Solder, in free agency. First round draft  pick tackle Isaiah Wynn suffered a torn Achilles and was out for his rookie season.

The left tackle spot was manned by Trent Brown.  Brown was a seventh round draft pick by the 49ers in 2015. He started 28 games at right tackle. When Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller was asked which blocker gives him the most trouble he replied Trent Brown. In a later interview Von Miller said “”He’s the best right tackle in the National Football League! And he may even be a top-five tackle, period, in the National Football League.” After being placed on IR by the 49ers at the end of 2017, Brown was traded to the Patriots in 2018. He started all 16 games at left tackle.  Brown allowed 3.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits and 39 total pressures in 97% of the offensive snaps. He signed as a free agent with the Raiders in 2019 making him the highest-paid offensive lineman in the NFL.

Right tackle Marcus Cannon was a Patriots fifth round pick in 2011.  He started 13 games in 2018 and allowed just two sacks on 835 snaps. At 6’6″ and 335 lbs Cannon is arguably the biggest player on the Patriots. Cannon has a strong work ethic. He worked his way up from starting 6 or less games his first three years to starting 15 in 2016 and getting selected to the AP and PFF All Pro Second Team that year.  He started at right tackle on two winning Super Bowl teams. Pro Football Focus gave Cannon the third-highest-graded Super Bowl performance (89.8) by an offensive lineman in the PFF era (since 2006) in their 2017 Super Bowl victory over the Falcons.

Left guard Joe Thuney was a  two star prospect coming out of high school and ranked as the 129th offensive tackle for the class of 2011. He went to NC State where in his senior year he was selected to the AP All American Second Team and the USA Today All American First team. Thuney was selected by the Patriots in round three of the 2016 draft. He made the 2016 NFL All Rookie Team. His strong work ethic and coachability eventually led to Thuney being the first player ever to start in a Super Bowl each of his first three years. In the last Super Bowl Thuney played every offensive snap for the team and was able to contain the Defensive player of the year Aaron Donald. In the 2018 regular season Thuney played every offensive snap and allowed zero sacks.

Right guard Shaq Mason was a fourth round pick by the Patriots in the 2015 draft. Mason played in 85% of the offensive snaps in 2018 and allowed zero sacks. He started in 11 post season games since drafted, including three Super Bowls, and has given up zero sacks in all of them. Shaq made the 2018 Pro Football Focus All-Pro First Team and was selected as their best guard in 2018. Mason has a very strong work ethic and the benefits of that show in his on-field performance.

Center David Andrews was named as one of six finalists for the Rimington Trophy in his senior year. The Rimington Trophy is awarded to the nation’s best center in college football. The Patriots signed Andrews as an undrafted free agent following the 2015 draft.  Andrews started week one of his rookie year due to injury to the starter. However Andrews performed well and remained the starter to the current day. He is one of only six undrafted free agents since 2015 that started 8+ games their rookie year and were still starters in 2018. Andrews started in a total of nine post-season games, including three Super Bowls, and surrendered zero sacks in those games. In 2018 Andrews played in 99% of the offensive snaps and allowed only one sack. Over his 4 year career and 66 starts Andrews has allowed only 4.5 sacks.

Credit for the line also has to be given to offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. He has been an offensive line coach for the Patriots for 18 seasons. He has worked with first rounders. late round draft picks, free agents and waived players. many of whom went on to be highly paid offensive linemen. Scarnecchia works to get the line to work as one unit. “Dante’s greatest strength is his ability to get the entire line — and that sometimes includes tight ends, fullbacks, running backs, and occasionally the quarterbacks — to think together, to see things consistently in the same manner, so we can all operate as a team’’ Belichick said.

Credit also goes to quarterback Tom Brady who had the seventh fastest time to throw in the league in 2018.

In 2018 the Patriots allowed the lowest pressure rate in the NFL (17.3 percent) and just 21 sacks, the third lowest total in the NFL.  In the Patriots’ three playoff games, the offensive line only allowed one sack and seven QB hits.

With the loss of Trent Cannon in free agency the unofficial depth chart shows 2018 first round draft pick tackle Isaiah Wynn as starting left tackle.  Wynn was out his rookie season due to a torn Achilles. In college Wynn played left tackle his final year and made All Sec First Team.  At the team awards Wynn was awarded one of the team captains, one of two offensive “Up Front Award” for play in the trenches, and the Frank Sinkwich Award for toughness. Before his senior year Wynn started two years at guard.

In the 2019 draft the Patriots selected offensive  tackle Yodny Cajuste in the third round. Cajuste made All Big 12 First Team and was selected one of three Big 12 Offensive Linemen of the Year. He made my list of five toughest draft prospects at each position. Cajuste is a tough aggressive lineman that plays with power. He had the fourth best bench press (32) among offensive linemen. Cajuste was a Big 12 Co-Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2018 along with Risner and Samia. As reported by Pro Football Focus, Cajuste allowed only 11 pressures on 414 pass-blocking attempts last year.

Another one from my list of five toughest players by position, tight end Andrew Beck, was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Patriots. Beck is recognized as a good blocking tight end. He will be competing against 2017 seventh round pick Ryan Izzo for a blocking tight end role.

The three teams that most declined in pass protection as measured by sacks and quarterback hits are as follows.

30. Dallas Cowboys

2017 – Rank : 13, Sacks + Adjusted Hits: 65
2018 – Rank: 31, Sacks + Adjusted Hits: 101

In 2018 the Cowboys gave up the second most sacks (56) and tied for the 26th most quarterback hits (107). You have to go back to 1986 to have a season where the Cowboys gave up more sacks (60). Steve Pelluer and Danny White were the quarterbacks.

Trying to determine the a cause or trend for the sacks is difficult. “What you do is evaluate each play and you see who ultimately was responsible for the sack,” head coach Jason Garrett. “Sometimes it’s a combination of factors within a play, but I think you evaluate it play by play and try to notice any sort of trend.” “A combination of factors, I think, is the trend,” Garrett.

Are the receivers not getting open? Is Dak Prescott taking too long to throw Are there breakdowns on the offensive line? Probably some combination of all those. The sum of sacks attributed to individual linemen totals to 22.  The sacks allowed attributed to linemen shown in the following table.

Player Position Games Played Games Started Snap % Sacks Allowed
Joe Looney C 16 16 100.0% 1
La’el Collins RT 16 16 99.9% 5
Zack Martin RG 14 14 81.5% 3
Tyron Smith LT 13 13 78.9% 0
Connor Williams LG 13 10 63.9% 4.5
Xavier Su’a-Filo LG 8 8 45.9% 6
Cameron Fleming LT 14 3 21.6% 1.5
Adam Redmond G/C 10 0 8.9% 1

 

Quarterback Dak Prescott had the 25th ranked time to throw from snap to throw among 32 starting quarterbacks. He had an average of 2.82 seconds.  This even though he is not pushing the ball further downfield.  His average pass attempt in yards was ranked 21st at 7.6 yards.  Jason Lisk of TheBigLead did a study that looked at quarterbacks that changed teams and teams that changed quarterbacks. He found that sack rate was one of the most consistent things when a quarterback changes teams. It is one of the least consistent things when a team changes quarterbacks. He drew the conclusion that quarterbacks play a larger role in sacks than most people think.

The Cowboys drafted center/guard Connor McGovern in round three of the draft. In 2017 McGovern played starting center for all 13 games and in 2018 he was starting guard for 12 games and one game at center. He is a three year starter having started nine games as a true freshman at guard in 2016. In November 2018, Mel Kiper Jr. listed McGovern as the best offensive guard in the 2019 class. McGovern will probably compete with Connor Williams for the left guard position.

31. Oakland Raiders

2017 – Rank: 2, Sacks + Adjusted Hits: 45
2018 – Rank: 24, Sacks + Adjusted Hits: 90

Whereas the Cowboys have a solid offensive line and the reasons for their plummet is hard to discern, the Raiders are a different story.

After making the Pro Bowl in both 2016 and 2017, left tackle Donald Penn was placed on injured reserve in December 2017 for foot surgery. The Raiders drafted tackle Kolton Miller in the first round of the 2018 draft to play left tackle. In 2018 Penn was moved to right tackle to start four games before a groin injury ended his season. Before the 2018 draft the Raiders released right tackle Marshall Newhouse and drafted tackle Brandon Parker in the third round.

In 2018 rookie left tackle Kolton Miller played in 96.7% of the offensive snaps and allowed 13 sacks. Rookie right tackle Brandon Parker played in 74.9% of the offensive snaps and allowed 8.5 sacks. The full offensive line for the 2018 season is shown in the following table. Players with strike-through are no longer with the team in 2019.

Player Position Games Played Games Started Snap % Sacks Allowed
Rodney Hudson C 16 16 100.0% 1.0
Kolton Miller LT 16 16 96.7% 13.0
Gabe Jackson RG 13 13 82.1% 3.5
Brandon Parker RT 15 12 74.9% 8.5
Kelechi Osemele LG 11 11 70.5% 4.0
Jon Feliciano G 13 4 21.8% 0.0
Donald Penn T 4 4 18.0% 3.0
Denzelle Good T 4 3 18.0% 0.0
Chaz Green G 4 1 5.7% 3.0
T.J. Clemmings T 4 0 5.6% 1.0
Justin Murray T 2 0 4.8% 2.0
Ian Silberman G 2 0 2.9% 1.0
David Sharpe T 8 0 1.7% 0.0
      Totals 502.6% 40.0

Going into 2019 the Raiders traded two time Pro Bowler left guard Kelechi Osemele to the Jets for an exchange of late round draft picks. The Raiders signed free agent tackle Trent Brown from the Patriots making him the highest paid offensive lineman in the league. Head coach Jon Gruden announced that Brown would play right tackle with Kolton Miller remaining at left tackle. In the draft the Raiders selected tight end Foster Moreau in the fourth round. Moreau is good at blocking and was often left in for pass protection. He is on my list of the five toughest draft prospects at each position.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars

2017 – Rank: 6, Sacks + Adjusted Hits: 56
2018 – Rank: 29, Sacks + Adjusted Hits:  100

In 2018 the Jaguars had the third most offensive quarterback sacks (53) and quarterback hits (111).  In 2018 they were hit hard on the offensive line by injuries.

Their offensive line in 2018 was the same for center and the right side as it was in 2017. Left guard Patrick Omamheh was replaced by free agent signing Andrew Norwell. When Norwell signed in the spring of 2018 it made him the highest paid guard in the league at that time. In 2017 the Jaguars started rookie second round pick Cam Robinson at left tackle. He started 15 games, played in 79% of the offensive snaps that year and allowed only two sacks.

In the second week of the 2018 season Robinson suffered a torn ACL and was lost for the season. Andre Norwell suffered an ankle injury in week 11 and was lost for the season. After starting left tackle Josh Wells  suffered a groin injury in week five, the Jaguars signed Ereck Flowers. Flowers was named the  starting left tackle in week 11 and for the rest of the season. The Jaguars started 12 offensive linemen in 2018 including four at left tackle and three at right tackle. The 2018 offensive line and sacks allowed are shown in the following table. Players no longer with the team in 2019 have strike-through.

 

Player Position Games Played Games Started Snap % Sacks Allowed
A.J. Cann RG 15 15 89.8% 6.5
Jermey Parnell RT 13 13 83.6% 4.5
Andrew Norwell LG 11 11 69.8% 2.0
Tyler Shatley C 16 7 52.2% 2.0
Brandon Linder C 9 9 48.9% 1.0
Ereck Flowers LT 8 7 43.2% 1.0
Josh Wells T 7 5 29.4% 0.0
Patrick Omameh LG 7 5 28.4% 3.0
Josh Walker LT 5 4 28.2% 2.0
Chris Reed RG 9 1 17.1% 3.0
Cam Robinson LT 2 2 11.4% 0.0
Corey Robinson RT 4 1 0.0% 1.5
      Totals 501.9% 26.5

 

The Jaguars drafted tackle Jawaan Taylor in the second round of the 2019 draft. Taylor could probably start day one at right tackle.He is regarded as one of the top offensive tackles coming out of the draft.

The Jaguars signed undrafted free agent guard Bunchy Stallings. Stallings was SEC All Conference First Team in 2018. He was selected as an All American by the Associate Press and by the Athletic. Stallings was responsible for only one-half quarterback sack all year in 2018.

The Jaguars signed free agent quarterback Nick Foles and released Blake Bortles in 2019. Bortles is the more mobile of the two having a rushing yards per attempt of 6.3 over the last five seasons compared to Foles’s 1.8 yards per attempt. However when it come to sacks the edge is with Foles.  Foles sack % index over the last five seasons is 118% and eighth best for that time-frame.  A 100% is considered average with higher being better as defined at Pro-Football-Reference.com. Bortles has a below average rating of 95% which is 42nd out of 60 quarterbacks that played in 2018.

The Jaguars drafted Washington State quarterback Garner Minshew in round six of the 2019 draft. In 2018 Minshew threw for 4,779 yards and 38 TDs on 662 attempts and was only sacked 13 times. The year prior at Washington State Luke Falk threw for 3,593 yards on on 534 attempts and was sacked 39 times. Minshew made my list of the five toughest draft prospects at each position.

In Conclusion

The data for sacks and hits on all teams is available here – Offense HIts and Sacks .  It is sorted by the computed sacks plus adjusted hits for 2018. The teams that had the biggest change from 2017 to 2018 are highlighted.  The first group of columns is 2018 and the second group is 2017. At the last column is the change in rank for the team.

Here is a file containing running total of the teams that shows the teams that changed the most from 2017 to 2018. Then the next table is simply the 2018 top three teams and bottom three teams in each category.  The file is running totals.

 

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