It’s time to write about my favorite subject as we head into the second half of the NFL season — the offensive line! The engine that motors the vehicle. I’ll get into the biggest surprises and disappointments in the first half and look forward to the storylines in the second half of the season.
Let’s start with surprises, because those are always so fun.
The biggest surprise is easily the Rams offensive line
It’s not a surprise when you look at the talent on the line: Andrew Whitworth, Rodger Saffold, John Sullivan, Jamon Brown and Rob Havenstein. You won’t find many lines with that many resources used to build the unit. The Rams need to be praised for signing Whitworth, despite his age, 35. They watched film and properly evaluated him.
Here’s Rams head coach Sean McVay talking about Whitworth’s age:
“When you look back at the history of the league, it's kind of a little bit different based on finding a tackle with his amount of experience, but I think it's also important to consider what does the tape look like, what is the production down-in and down-out, how does he take care of himself.
"He's played at a Pro Bowl-caliber level for the last couple of years and been extremely efficient, extremely productive. He takes great care of himself. I think that's why you see him kind of as the outlier for those tackles that you go pay them the amount of money that you do. He's certainly making us right on that decision right now."
So bravo to the Rams for snagging Whitworth. Along with his mates and McVay’s run schemes, the running game has taken off. Last season, the Rams averaged a poor 3.3 yards per carry and 78.2 yards a game. This season it’s 4.2 yards a carry and 127.6 yards a game. Also, they are on pace to cut their sacks by more than half. Last season, 49 sacks and this season, only 10 in eight weeks.
Consolation prize for most surprising line goes to the Saints.
The biggest disappointment is the Raiders offensive line
It’s not because the line isn’t any good. The guys up front are killers. They are physical, they finish guys and want to work for the extra yards. I’m putting this on the offensive coordinator.
The Raiders brought in a new OC for the 2017 season: one who wants to run outside zone. The Raiders offensive line is built to run straight ahead, which it has done for years. It’s been a struggle at times trying to make the switch. The Raiders are averaging seven fewer rushing attempts each week and only 88 yards per game.
The seven fewer attempts could be a function of their record and being behind in games. Nevertheless, it’s not the same production for this offense. Last season, it had 19 runs of 20-plus yards; this season, only three. That’s scheme, production upfront and the lack of an explosive running back. It all goes together
For the second half of the season, the clear storyline for offensive line units is health
Health for big ticket players teams are counting on. We have lost Joe Thomas, Jason Peters, Marshal Yanda, Jack Mewhort. Ryan Kalil has been out most of the season; Trent Williams has a bum knee. Tyron Smith’s back is hurting him. Kyle Long has missed time as well. Injuries are part of this game — I know that well — but it feels like more injuries than usual for the big dogs this season.
From that list, there are three who concern me the most, and all three happen to be in the same division. The Eagles are 7-1, and their offensive line has been outstanding. Having Lane Johnson back has been positive. Stefen Wisniewski has done well at left guard, and then of course Peters, Brandon Brooks and Jason Kelce have played well.
But Peters is now out for the season, and Halapoulivaati Vaitai has taken over at left tackle. I love that Doug Pederson and staff decided to keep Lane Johnson at RT; he’s been fantastic this season. If you move Lane, then you weaken two spots along the line.
With Vaitai at left tackle, the Eagles can scheme up ways to get him help. In his first start for Peters, Sunday against the 49ers, he predictably had his ups and downs but held his own. Most of his mistakes were mental — ones that can be fixed just by playing more. I hope the Eagles offense can still flourish with him. It is fun to watch.
Smith, the Cowboys left tackle, is a generational talent. It’s been quietly reported that he’s had a bad back for a few years now. He doesn’t practice during the week, which isn’t unique for some veterans, but when you watch him play, he’s just not the same player.
This segues to a broader topic of the Cowboys line without Ezekiel Elliott for six games. Zeke is special because he can turn a 3- or 4-yard run into a 8- or 9-yard run. His vision, burst, and acceleration all make him special. The Cowboys will miss that over these six weeks.
Williams has been the anchor of Washington’s offensive line for years. The line has to play well, and stay upright, for that offense to move along. So Williams being hampered is an issue. So is right guard Brandon Scherff, who’s beat up right now. Washington doesn’t have enough playmakers on the outside to just chuck it around to help an offensive line that has trouble with run blocking or pass protecting.
More random notes about offensive lines
I have no idea why the Panthers can’t run the ball without Kalil. They have excellent powerful guards, and even Larson in the middle isn’t bad. Matt Kalil on the left and Daryl Williams on the right can run block, so it makes no sense why they can’t run the ball better.
It’s possible that teams are playing the Panthers differently, i.e. extra box defenders, because Cam isn’t a big threat to run anymore. Also, the Panthers passing game leaves something to be desired. Jonathan Stewart is getting older, and Christian McCaffrey hasn’t been as advertised between the tackles.
The Saints are fun to watch. Their offensive line has jelled, and their young players have improved. If you get a chance, watch them on Sundays.
The Chiefs offensive line was playing at a high level before injuries wrecked it. The Chiefs are starting to get healthy now. Center Mitch Morse was back on Monday night, and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif should be back soon from a knee injury. Look for the Chiefs offense to continue to roll as they get these guys back.
Duane Brown in Seattle. I LOVE this. He’s going to improve that run game and give Wilson time to throw the ball. The Seahawks offense, which can be fantastic at times, and infuriating as well, should be able to stabilize with Brown in there.
Will Taylor Decker be back this season for the Lions? The Lions have been riddled with injuries and could use Decker back at full strength.
If I missed your favorite offensive line, you can tweet me at @geoffschwartz. I’ll answer your question.