We’ve reached the midpoint of the 2018 NFL season, so why not take a look at who’s been the best in the trenches so far?
Let’s go Behind the O Line to find the league’s top five offensive lines midway through 2018. And before we dive in, consider this: Each of the teams mentioned below rank eighth or better in the NFL in terms of pressures allowed.
Let’s get into it!
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
One need not look further than the play of James Conner.
Le’Veon Bell who? Conner has more than adequately replaced Bell in the Pittsburgh backfield, rushing for 706 yards and nine touchdowns in just eight games. But completely filling the Bell role requires pass-catching. Conner has done that too, catching 38 passes for 379 yards and another score, becoming the first Steeler ever to score 10 touchdowns in the first eight games of a season.
The second-year back can get the spotlight, but the guys up front deserve credit. Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert make one of the league’s most formidable front fives in both the run and pass games.
And what about protecting Big Ben? The No. 5 passer in the NFL has been sacked just 11 times this season — and five of those have come against the Myles Garrett-led Browns.
"We’re nothing without those guys up front," Roethlisberger said after Pittsburgh’s big win over Carolina. "They’ve been playing really, really good football."
As the Steelers continue to rise from the depths of early-season doubt, their line is the group clearing their path.
4. Indianapolis Colts
This one might be a surprise, but the Colts have been night-and-day different from last season’s team that trudged through the majority of the season, necessitating a coaching change. With Frank Reich also came rookies Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith, who now constitute two-fifths of the Colts’ line and, along with fourth-year guard Mark Glowinski, have patched the once-gaping holes up front.
The result has been a pleasure to witness. Indianapolis has suddenly established a powerful ground attack, feeding carries to Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines. Indianapolis ranks first in team grades on outside zone running concepts, according to Pro Football Focus. As a result, Andrew Luck has been given plenty of time to work. It has quickly turned the Colts offense around from a dumpster fire to a balanced, measured attack that has been on full display in the last two weeks.
The proof is in the numbers for the horseshoe-helmeted fellas: Indianapolis has allowed the second-fewest sacks in the league — just 10! — a year after finishing with the most in the NFL.
I expect a strong second half from the Colts up front. It might not translate to wins, but the position group is no longer a weakness and packs plenty of promise moving forward.
3. New England Patriots
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No Nate Solder? No problem.
New England’s offense is flying high with its ninth-ranked offense in terms of yards per game, thanks to balance in the passing and running games that starts with the group up front.
An offensive line isn’t defined by one player, but if there was a star of this group, it’s guard Shaq Mason. Mason is a square, powerful guard, a human brick of strength and swiftness. He’s relentless, constantly looking to hit second-level defenders after establishing a seal or finishing off an opponent at the first level. No distance is too far for him to aspire to reach.
As a group, they’ve allowed just 13 sacks to this point in the season. Mason is the No. 3 guard in the NFL, and as a group, they’re the No. 4 offensive line in football, according to Pro Football Focus. They’re also the No. 3 team in the league in terms of grades in man on man run concepts.
Combine that with the likes of Tom Brady and a bevy of weapons? Sheesh. Watch out for these Patriots.
2. New Orleans Saints
This is a line that’s quickly earning a reputation as a mainstay on these lists.
Terron Armstead is in the conversation for the game’s best left tackle, and Ryan Ramczyk on the other end makes this the best tackle combination in football. The interior isn’t too shabby, either, with Larry Warford and Andrus Peat bookending veteran center Max Unger to form one of the most reliable offensive lines in the game.
It’s no wonder, then, that Drew Brees has been sacked the least in football. Nor is it a surprise that Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram have been shredding defenses on the ground for well over a year now.
The only threat to this group, right now, is the injury bug — and Father Time, in the case of Brees. The quarterback isn’t showing many signs of aging, though, and the Saints are well positioned to make a run at a title — with their big fellas up front clearing the way.
1. Los Angeles Rams
There might not be a more important free agent signing in the last two years than that of Andrew Whitworth, who moved west in search of glory and has found plenty of success as a Ram. When paired with Rodger Saffold, the duo serves as the best left side of a line in the NFL, clearing the way for Todd Gurley. They’re about as effective in the passing game, too, giving Jared Goff time to throw and putting the fear of a thousand touchdowns into the hearts of opposing defenses.
The result has been Gurley running against the lowest percentage of loaded boxes in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats, at less than 10 percent of his carries. Fewer defenders in the box means fewer to block for a line that is already good. It’s like using the class notes while taking the test.
And when they do face the rush, they’re excellent at slowing it. Among qualified passers, Goff has been pressured on just 22.3 percent of attempts, sixth-lowest in the NFL. As a group, the Rams OL ranks No. 1 in PFF’s grading.
The best part about the Rams? Their least-heralded lineman is playing about as well as any of them. Austin Blythe ranks second in the NFL’s guards, according to PFF, and among all offensive linemen, he’s 10th. Two of his teammates are in the top five: Whitworth and right tackle Rob Havenstein. It doesn’t get much better than this, folks.
Just missing the cut
A few close misses who could have made this list include the Packers, who are doing their part in keeping Aaron Rodgers upright and get the running game going; the Eagles, who are slowly putting things together offensively but are dealing with some changes; and the Redskins, who would have made the top five but lost 40 percent of their line for the season in Week 9 alone.
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