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Friday, 4 January 2013

OLR 2012: Ranking the NFLs O-Lines

And so here we have it, the final regular season installment of OLR, and in this roundup of the year so far we reveal who has been the #1 all-round OL unit in the NFL.

If you're a newcomer to OLR, where have you been? Take a look at our original post on the exclusive statistic we've devised that takes into account the OL unit as a whole and their production in both the run and pass game.

Early on in the year it looked like there could only be one winner this season, but with their faltering form late on, some strong contenders emerged from the pack, forcing their way both into the NFL post-season, and into the top spots in the OLR final standings.

Could they catch the team with a Giant lead and steal the #1 spot?

No, they couldn't.

Your 2012 NFL OLR Champions are the New York Giants.

Since early on in the year the Giants have been the pace setters in OLR. Despite a tough week 1 loss to the Cowboys that left the Giants with a negative OLR score, in the weeks that followed they put up big performances against the likes of the Buccaneers, Browns and 49ers and pushed out to an early lead. When we first introduced our Defensive Adjustment to the OLR stat in week 5, taking the strength of the opposition front 7 into account when calculating the OLs weekly score, the Giants extended their lead, and never looked back. Even as the scores have adjusted continually thanks to our retrospective defensive adjustments, the Giants continue to stand out:

Week 2 vs TB 0.666
Week 3 @ CAR 0.108
Week 4 @ PHI 0.322
Week 5 vs CLE 0.945
Week 6 @ SF 0.821

We suggested then that their lead might be unassailable, and so it proved, despite a drop in form over the final weeks of the season. Since week 13, the Giants have failed to score over 0.15 in OLR, despite their offense being involved in some huge scoring games (they put 52 on the Saints in week 14, and 42 on the Eagles in week 17), and it was this run of bad form that almost clawed them back into the hands of the chasing pack, headed towards the end of the season by the Vikings, Seahawks and Patriots.

Close, but no cigar: Seahawks, Patriots and Vikings

The Seahawks finish 2012 as the #2 OL in the NFL, with the Patriots just behind them at #3 and the Vikings coming in at #4. The Broncos round out the top 5 as we saw 4 of our 5 best scorers are playoff bound: 2 NFC Wild Card teams, and 2 teams with a bye through the first playoff games in the AFC. What these four teams have in common is that they all have a consensus "team MVP"- 3 of them QBs and one an RB, all of which have most definitely contributed to their high ranking in the OLR table. What it's important to do, however, is consider the synergy these MVPs have with their OL, and how one most certainly makes the other better.

For our #2 ranked Seahawks, it's all about Russell Wilson. The protection he's received on the left side of the line has been great - Russell Okung deservedly earning himself a spot on the plane to Hawaii; and in the middle, Max Unger is also going to the ProBowl thanks to his great play in all phases of the game (gave up zero sacks all year, and blew numerous DTs away). However, at the Guard position and at RT there has been less success. With John Moffit's injury, JR Sweezy, a rookie and formly Defensive Tackle, has been repping in at Guard, with Paul McQuistan (having arguably his best season in the NFL) taking the other spot. The OG play has been fine, if not standout, and has helped Marshawn Lynch to another 1500yd+ rushing season, but in pass protection there have been some problems down the right. Breno Giacomini has started all 16 games at RT, and has improved throughout the season, but was realistically starting from a long way back. His weakness really showed in week 17 vs the Rams, where he allowed numerous pressures on Russell Wilson whether facing Chris Long or William Hayes, and was even dominated in the run game where he's been most successful. Fortunately for him, and the Seahawks OL in general, they're protecting one elusive SOB. Wilson, for all his success this season, has been most impressive when avoiding pressure. When coming into the NFL, his size was listed as a negative, but it's a lot harder to sack a 5-10 guy running around behind a set of five 6'6 O-Linemen than it is to hit a guy of 6'4 who's standing in there or at most stepping up. The Seahawks' 33 sacks allowed this season (11th in NFL) would have been a lot, lot higher with virtually anyone else in the QB position. Whilst Wilson's footwork and escape ability have bolstered the line's stats this year, pushing them to within one sack of winning the OLR title, Wilson himself has been helped in both run and pass plays (be they designed QB runs, scrambles, or designed passes) by the fact his OL is very balanced, and quick to react, able to adjust to the  decisions of Wilson when a play breaks down. Of course, it's something the young QB is used to coming out of the OL Factory that is Wisconsin, but I strongly doubt he would be in the conversation for rookie of the year were be setting up behind a less accomplished line.

The Patriots OL faced off against the Rams at Wembley in 2012 (P: Mark Fletcher)
It's little surprise to see the Patriots in the top 3 of an OL ranking, year upon year they're able to put together a group of guys that can protect Tom Brady and consistently blow running lanes open. They have a perennial ProBowler in OG Logan Mankins (who even makes it to Hawaii when he only plays in 10 games of the season), and highly drafted talent at OT in Nate Solder and Seb Vollmer. Much like the Seahawks, it's been a strong second half to the season save for one off day that has propelled the Patriots into the top 3 OL scores, but left them just short of taking the overall crown. Since week 11 the Patriots have put the hammer down, winning 6 games of 7 and recording the same number of positive OLR scores, the highlights coming in a week 14 trashing of the Texans (Adjusted OLR=0.688) and a week 17 shutout victory over one of the best defensive front 7s in the NFL, the Dolphins (Adjusted OLR=0.998). The one blip holding the Patriots back was their performance in Jacksonville in week 16, where as we said at the time, their hopes of OLR victory slipped away. Against the league's 31st ranked defensive front 7, the Patriots struggled to move the ball for long periods of the first half, with the impotent Jax pass rush managing to get pressure on Brady and record a total of 9 QB knockdowns, 3 of which were sacks, as well as limiting the Patriots run game to a YPC of just 3.8. An adjusted OLR of -0.836 was the end of their chances, despite grinding out a win. Much like the Seahawks above them, their QB is also to thank for their high score this year. Tom Brady is elite, and has a lightning-fast release, and it was this that really helped the Patriots OLR scores in week 14 and 15 against the Texans and 49ers pass rush. With both teams boasting NFL sack leaders in JJ Watt and Aldon Smith respectively, the Patriots managed to prevent either from recording a single sack, despite LT Nate Solder looking outmatched on a number of snaps. The reason? Brady turned pressures into QB knockdowns rather than QB sacks. His ability to read the field almost instantly and fire the ball off to an "open" receiver (open to him, maybe not any other QB) prevented a number of sacks in both games and pushed the Patriots up the table. On the flip side, Brady is also a good decision maker, and so is far less likely to toss the ball into traffic to avoid a sack when the receiving option isn't viable. Whilst this might give him and the OL a few extra sacks on the year, it certainly isn't as many as he prevents.

In Minnesota, it's a running back the OL have to split credit with, but whilst Adrian Peterson is getting all the plaudits, his hugely underrated OL have shone this season. Rookie LT Matt Kalil has been phenomenal for his first season in the NFL, and looks set to be a pillar of the Vikings offense for a long time - don't be surprised to see multiple Pro-Bowls on his resume, particularly after the way he dealt with Clay Matthews in week 17 to help guide the Vikes to post-season football. Perhaps the biggest help to Kalil in settling in has been continuity, with the Vikings having the luxury of starting the same 5 linemen for all 16 regular season games this season. Another massive, and worryingly overlooked positive for this Vikings line that has certainly helped Kalil is the presence of Centre John Sullivan. Sully has been UN-BE-LIEVABLE in the running game this season, and has been THE difference maker. As ProFootball Focus put it, based on studying tape on every player in every game of the NFL season, the fact Sullivan was not voted to the ProBowl is a crime, and they justly named him starter on their All-Pro team. With Charlie Johnson, Brandon Fusco and Phil Loadholt completing the unit, the line has been able to gel and dominate games, both in terms of running and pass protecting. However, they do have a certain RB to thank. Adrian Peterson is a beast, and his bionic knee hasn't slowed him down. Despite being the #2 rushing team in the NFL this season, a lot of the Vikings yardage has come from 80 yard TD runs from All-Day, and no matter how good the blocking on the 1st and 2nd level is from the OL, it's Peterson elusiveness, speed and dominance that turn a 10 yard power run into an 80 yard home run. There's something to be said for Toby Gerhart, the Vikings #2 RB, recording just 169 yards on 50 attempts (a YPC of 3.4) compared to Peterson's 6.0YPC (2,097yards on 348 carries).

However, despite all their positive production in recent weeks, none of these teams could quite make it make to the level of the Giants. They were #1 in the NFL for sacks allowed (just 20), 7th in YPC (4.6yds, not bad seeing as 3 of the teams above them have "rushing QBs" - SF, SEA, WAS), 5th in rushing TDs, and 5th in total of negative runs in the year. To rank in the top 7 in all of these stats, each vital to OLR calculation, it's no wonder that the Giants come out on top, so congratulations to them. Take a bow Will Beatty, Kevin Boothe, Dave Baas, Chris Snee and Dave Diehl.

In Serious Trouble: Cardinals and Chargers

At the other end of the table we find the worst lines in the NFL, with 2 teams really distancing themselves from the pack by their frankly catastrophic seasons. Below a 30th placed Philadelphia Eagles OL, who were so decimated by injuries it's barely worth considering that unit (aside from saying that quietly, Evan Mathis has had an excellent season as the only healthy starter on that team, he's just been lost amongst shocking backups), are the 31st ranked San Diego Chargers, and our official worst OL in the NFL: The Arizona Cardinals.

The San Diego Chargers have got some problems. Some big problems. Through 16 games they didn't record an OLR score of above 0.22, and only managed 4 positive totals for the whole season. No wonder then that they find themselves down in 31st overall. In sacks they rank 29th (49), but it's in the running game they have been most shocking. Their league worst rushing TD total of 4 is supported by their 31st ranked YPC of 3.6 (only the Cardinals are worse). Where the Chargers have failed on the OL is in finding suitable replacements for Kris Dielman or Marcus McNeill. Between the retired OG and OT they had 6 ProBowl appearances (4 and 2 respectively), as well as 2 All-Pro nominations (both Dielman), and losing both of these key players was a big blow. Of course, Dielman was a scratch for half of 2011 after suffering a seizure on the plane home from a game in New York and missing the rest of the year. His decision to retire based on a head injury is one that can't be criticized in the NFL's current climate where fear of concussion is at the forefront of a lot of minds. Similarly, Marcus McNeill missed much of 2011 with an injury, his neck based, before being released in March 2012 and choosing to retire in August. With a full off-season to address their needs on the OL, the Chargers really failed to plug the gaps. They drafted C David Molk (2011 Rimington Trophy winner for the Best C in college football) from Michigan in the 7th round, a steal here who was only still available due to a tendon injury he picked up in the Sugar Bowl. They also signed Michael Harris out of UCLA as a UDFA tackle, but neither was expected to see much playing time. In total, the two have 29 appearances between them this season, with 9 starts for Harris at Left Tackle, partly due to injury, and partly due to the ineptitude of other linemen on the roster. Stalwarts Nick Hardwick and Louis Vasquez started all 16 games for the unit, but the rest of the line was just a pick-and-mix, and on the whole, awful. Week 16 against the Jets was a shocking low point. They managed to record just 87 yards on 30 carries (YPC of 2.9), no rushing TDs (no surprise) and allowed a total of 4 sacks. Michael Harris was benched midway through the game, and his replacement Kevin Haslem was just as bad. In the end they won the game 27-17, but that was no thanks to the OL at all, and managing to win their last 2 games of the season to finish 7-9 and drop themselves to picking 11th in April's draft, possibly out of contention for what they desperately need: a top offensive tackle in the draft. Whoever takes over HC duties in San Diego will need to address the OL before doing anything else or he might as well not unpack his bags.

The Cardinals were propping up the NFL in OLR for much of 2012, suffering horrible score after horrible score during their shocking 9-game losing streak to collapse from 4-0 to 4-9. Even during the first 4 games, which they won, the Cardinals were horrific in OLR. D-Adjusted scores of -0.074, 0.073, -0.966 and -0.690 are the kind of stat you expect to see on a team that gets thumped by a middle of the road defense. The Cardinals put these up whilst beating people. If it wasn't clear they were riding their defense early on, it should be now. In a 16 game season, the Cardinals put up just 5 OLR scores above 0, and allowed a league high of 58 sacks. Why did they struggle so much? Well some will point to injury. They were forced to start D'Anthony Batiste and rookie Bobbie Massie for much of the season after their usual (I don't want to use the word better, because it doesn't really apply...) starting LT Levi Brown went on IR early with torn triceps. Some will point to the lack of help the OL had, without a consistent QB to protect or RB to block for, there was little chance for the unit to get into any kind of groove. But the truth of the matter is this offense was just terrible on almost every level.

With that said, however, there is some hope in the desert. In the last 7 games of the season, after their week 10 bye, the Cardinals put up 3 of their 5 positive OLR scores. The difference was Nate Potter. The rookie OT from Boisie State was put in to replace Batiste during week 9 against the Packers, and showed an immediate improvement despite facing Clay Matthews, helping the Cardinals to score 0.192 in that game, despite losing badly. His performance earned him the starting job at LT, which he kept until injury forced him to miss week 17, the highpoint of which was their 38-10 thrashing of the Lions, and their only W after week 4, in which they allowed only 1 sack of QB Ryan Lindley and score 3 rushing TDs. At the other OT spot, Massie has started 16 games for Arizona, and the experience he's earned is helping him improve every game, with many analysts beginning to take note of his progress and suggesting that perhaps he might develop into a pretty serviceable RT for years to come. Regardless, the Cardinals will almost certainly be looking for OL help in the off-season, as our stats just go to cement how bad this unit, and offense in general, were in 2012.

Average OLR scores for 2012, plotted against each team's final record

Win It In The Trenches

People say football is won in the trenches. Let me rephrase that, linemen say football is won in the trenches. Skill players like to think they have more to do with the result, and the stupid one's dismiss the line as not being athletes, but we all know it's the battle of the big guys that really decides the winners and losers. With our statistical ranking of the NFLs offensive lines with the OLR stat, it allows us to analyze just how important OL play is in determining a team's overall record in the NFL, and perhaps whether they're likely to be playoff bound come the end of the season. Throughout the year we've look in at the progress of the OL units around the league and plotted their average scores against their team's records to see if there is a correlation between the two, predicting that there'll be a strong link. Now that the season is done, we can take one final look at the scores and the stats and determine our final result.

Now the graph above obviously isn't a straight line, teams don't perform exactly as well as their OL performs, but there is a definite trend. The teams in the top right corner (NYG,SEA,NE,MIN,DEN) are the 5 with the best record and OLR score, with those in the bottom left (JAX,PHI,ARI) the worst. Between these two groups there is obviously a lot of variation, with some teams (Detroit) scoring surprisingly high on their OLR compared to their poor record (4-12), and others like Atlanta and Indianapolis doing excellently as a team, but terribly as an OL.

Statistically, we can look at this correlation using a Spearman's Rank Correlation that assess just how linked the two factors are. Based on all the data we've collected and analysed throughout the year, the final outcome is this:  Spearman R: 0.4302, p-value: 0.0140, Is the correlation significant?: YES.

According to OLR, the Offensive Line is statistically very significant in how an NFL team performs in a season, and whilst everyone here knew that already, it's nice to have a bit of scientific support.

Told you so "skill players".

- Phil Gaskin (@sosayitisaid)
- The Pulling Linemen

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