Poor offensive line play has drawn plenty of attention during the 2015 season, but good quarterbacks have helped several teams mask those issues and get in position to go to the playoffs anyway. Still, those teams struggling to protect their passers most could be in trouble when the postseason rolls around.
The Minnesota Vikings are one of those teams that have managed to find wins despite lackluster pass protection, but their offensive flaws were exposed last week in a 38-7 blowout at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was sacked four times by the Seahawks front and has been pressured on an NFL-most 47.4 percent of his dropbacks in 2015, according to Pro Football Focus.
After the game, Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin didn't mince his words about Bridgewater's reaction to the pressure in his face. Via Michael Silver of NFL.com:
"He was so scared," said linebacker Bruce Irvin, who had one of the Seattle sacks. "Teddy's a really good quarterback, and he's going to do some big things in this league. But we had him (rattled)."
While other second-year quarterbacks like Derek Carr and Blake Bortles have taken significant steps forward from their rookie seasons, Bridgewater's numbers have remained close to the same. After completing 64.4 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions as a rookie, Bridgewater has completed 64.8 percent of his passes in 2015 with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions.
But despite the consistent pressure getting to Bridgewater, the Vikings are 8-4 and tied for the NFC North lead thanks to strong defense and Adrian Peterson. Even a couple more losses down the stretch likely wouldn't keep the Vikings out of the postseason.
Also looking to get into the playoffs are the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks who have found success despite struggling to protect their passers. Only the Cleveland Browns have allowed more sacks than the Chiefs, Seahawks and Vikings through 12 games.
Frontrunners like the Carolina Panthers, Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots haven't kept their quarterbacks clean either. Carson Palmer has been hit an NFL-most 13 times while throwing, followed by 11 hits for Cam Newton and nine for Tom Brady. No other passer has let go of more than eight passes while getting hit.
In the AFC, only the top-seeded Cincinnati Bengals have kept their quarterback from being pressured on more than 35 percent of his dropbacks. In addition to keeping Andy Dalton safe, the Bengals are also No. 2 in run blocking on Football Outsiders.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Chiefs haven't kept Alex Smith off the turf. Kansas City is on a hot streak due mostly to Smith's ability to avoid mistakes, but he has also pulled the trigger just once on a throw while being hit. So instead when the pressure gets to Smith on 37.42 percent of his dropbacks, he often resigns himself to take a sack, which is one of the reasons why the Chiefs are 23rd in total offense, although his streak of nine games without an interception has made up for that.
Like Smith, the two most pressured quarterbacks in the NFC are Russell Wilson and Teddy Bridgewater, who are also the two least likely to throw while being hit. While Wilson's evolution into one of the NFL's best quarterbacks has helped the Seahawks bounce back from a rough start to the year, Bridgewater hasn't taken that jump. The next most pressured quarterback is Carson Palmer, but because he has been willing to throw 13 times while taking a hit, the Cardinals have allowed the fourth-fewest sacks in the NFL.
When pressure dials up to another level of intensity in the postseason, teams loaded with pass rushers could have a field day. The Broncos, Patriots and Panthers defenses have racked up the most sacks in the NFL and those fronts have to be licking their chops knowing that playoff matchups against some of the worst offensive lines could be coming in the near future.