Like most things in football, pass protection involves a lot of people working together to get optimum results. It’s simplistic to think that the offensive line is solely accountable for protecting the quarterback; invariably it works in combination with tight ends, running backs and the QB himself, who has the ultimate responsibility. Leaving additional people in to block isn’t always a reactive ploy, and neither will poor protection always lead to a team battening down the hatches and keeping people out of pass routes. PFF’s Neil Hornsby will assess the tendencies on a team-by-team basis and hope to shed some light on a complex decision for coaches …
Before diving into the Pass Protection ratings, let’s look at the methodology we used to rank the teams:
The factors we’ve used in determining our rankings are as follows:
Total Pressure — This is a measure of how much total pressure the team has given up. It’s a combination of the sacks, hits and hurries, some of which we attributed to individual players and some that we didn’t. On average, 21 percent of total pressure is either completely unblocked or we don’t have enough information to pin it on a specific individual. Don’t forget, our mantra is, “We grade what the player attempts to do.” Hence a proportion of pressure is captured by us but not assigned to players. We’ve also used our standard methodology of weighting a hit and hurry as 0.75 of the value of a sack, as this is the average value that comes from our grading work. Therefore:
SACKS + 0.75[HITS] + 0.75[HURRIES] = TOTAL PRESSURE
Passing Plays — It’s obvious that a team that attempts more passes gives more opportunities for pressure, so this is a key number. This is not the number of passes thrown by the team but the number of times a QB dropped back to pass regardless of whether they were then sacked or ran with the ball.
Average Blockers/play — As we alluded to earlier, teams take a very varied stance when it comes to use of blockers over and above the offensive line. It seems reasonable that a team keeping more people in should have a better chance to avoid pressure, and so this number is factored in too.
So the formula we use is as follows:
[TOTAL PRESSURE/PASSING PLAYS]*AVERAGE BLOCKERS/PLAY=PASS PROTECTION RATING
The Rankings — Counting Down to the Top
No. 32 — Oakland Raiders
Over the last few years, the play of JaMarcus Russell and the drafting of Darrius Heyward-Bey have been only a couple of the things that turned the Raiders into an NFL laughing stock, so their dead-last ranking here won’t surprise too many people. It’s getting to the stage where it’s too easy to just talk about the Raiders’ problems, so before we do let’s at least start with a few positives. One of those is left guard Robert Gallery, who (when he wasn’t injured) continued his strong play since moving inside, including doing a good job of protecting the QB. When healthy he’s now one of the better guards around. Also on the OL, Cornell Green was at least average in protection, although he took the form of a walking penalty machine. It’s not like the majority or his indiscretions were in relation to getting beaten by pass rushers either; of the 13 calls against him, nine were either false starts or for getting downfield too quickly on screens. If he could sort out his discipline he may turn into a better-than-average tackle. Finally, the two young HBs (Michael Bush and Darren McFadden) were left in to block a large percentage of the time and did well, considering their small amount of experience. However, after those areas for optimism it’s all down a very steep hill.
At the very bottom of that valley is Mario Henderson, who in our opinion was the worst starting tackle in the NFL last year. Although others may have given up more sacks, no one could come close to his combined total of sacks, hits and pressures (63). It didn’t help that with Gallery sidelined, Chris Morris and Erik Pears had to fill in and that meant the left side of the line gave pass rushers the NFL equivalent of diplomatic plates to come and go as they pleased. It says a lot about the Raiders that with all their manifest weaknesses the left tackle position is probably at the top of the list.
No. 31 — Jacksonville Jaguars
If there’s one person in the NFL we feel gets a raw deal from fans and the media alike, it’s Jaguars quarterback David Garrard. He’s arguably the best running QB there is, easily a top-15 passer and for the last two years has struggled with far worse protection than he should expect. The poor performance on the part of his offensive line is exacerbated by the fact that the complementary players are some of the best available at their positions. Tight end Marcedes Lewis had an excellent year all around, including his pass blocking, where he was left in to block often (125 times) and only conceded pressure five times (not one of them a sack). When you add to this Maurice Jones-Drew challenging Clinton Portis for the title of best pass-protecting HB (logging a huge 143 snaps in pass pro and only allowing three hurries), you may wonder why Garrard ever has to move. Unfortunately, the answer is all too obvious.
Starting two rookie tackles is fraught with risk and, although they did about as well as may have been expected by unbiased observers, what really didn’t help was the limited support they received from inside. Uche Nwaneri actually did a pretty good job, but Vince Manuwai and — surprisingly — Brad Meester didn’t. With the two veterans having difficulty themselves, it left a phenomenal amount of responsibility on the tackles and the results — if not the manner of the problems — were similar. For 75 percent of his games Eugene Monroe was above average, but in the remainder he was awful: very boom-or-bust with lots of sacks but a respectable number of hurries. For the most part he had his man, but when he got beat it was often clean. It’s to be hoped this suggests that he can turn things around quickly but it’s always difficult to know which way players will he’ll go from year to year. On the other hand, Eben Britton didn’t end up with a massive sack count against him (five) but was the source of a constant stream of pressure from Garrard’s front side. His 40 pressures lead the NFL in the regular season. He had a good three-game stretch (Weeks 11-13) but that aside, he really needs to step up and play better.
No. 30 — Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It would be easy to blame the rookie quarterback considering the surprisingly poor year the Bucs had in pass protection, but Josh Freeman (and Byron Leftwich and Josh Johnson) actually did a remarkable job of saving further embarrassment by ranking third in the ability to stop pressure from becoming sacks. The true issue was the sheer amount of pressure they were under, and that was essentially down to the offensive line. The real disappointment was the yo-yo play of the tackles, Jeremy Trueblood and Donald Penn, who (in a fair world) should at least have been Pro Bowl alternates in 2008. Neither came close to this level of performance last year and Trueblood in particular was awful, especially as the season wore on. We’re not sure Cameron Wake even knew he was there, as in Week 10 alone he gave up a sack and 10 hurries.
Equally frustrating for Buc fans must be the play of Jeff Faine. When he was brought in as a unrestricted free agent from the Saints in ’08 it looked like a great move, but he had a so-so first year in red and pewter. He actually regressed further in ’09, though it should be noted that injuries may have played a big part in that. If there is any positive to be taken from the mess Tampa Bay made of pass protection it was in the way the coaches didn’t just do things just for the sake of it. They knew both their receiving TEs (Jerramy Stevens and Kellen Winslow) couldn’t block, and therefore didn’t bother leaving them on the line to provide an executive-service corridor straight to the QB. In fact, in spite of this low ranking, they left in the 12th-fewest blockers of any team.
No. 29 — Buffalo Bills
One of the first things we look for in training camp and preseason is how a team’s line is shaping up and more often than not, first impressions are accurate. Case in point was when Buffalo opened their first preseason game with two rookies at guard (Andy Levitre and Eric Wood), a key UFA pickup who’d spent most of his time as a guard at center (Geoff Hangartner) and last year’s awful right tackle (Langston Walker) at left tackle. The car crash that ensued could have been worse but it was never likely to be much better; injuries and poor performance led to multiple changes and in total 13 players spent time on the offensive line.
Worst of the bunch was probably Hangartner, who played every snap and ended up as the worst center in the NFL for pass protection after giving up three sacks, two hits and 16 hurries. This is a huge amount for a guy with little one-on-one responsibility. Demetrius Bell was forced into action when Walker was released and Brad Butler went down with injury and — to no one’s surprise — struggled enormously. Bell owns the dubious distinction of logging the lowest ever single-game grade we have given on ProFootballFocus.com, against Cleveland in Week 5. The icing on the cake was the pass protection of Fred Jackson. In every other facet he was superb but when left in to block (as he was a lot, as the Bills tried to give their QBs time), it didn’t have the desired effect. He gave up a massive five sacks, two hits and six pressures, worst among all running backs.
No. 28 — Washington Redskins
Two players on the Redskins’ offense accounted for a third of the total pressure (even including unassigned pressure) — if nothing else, it gives a strong indication of what they need to do to improve. Right tackle Stephon Heyer and left tackle Levi Jones had seasons to forget, which will almost certainly lead to Washington pursuing upgrades on both ends of the line. Chris Samuels was not playing anywhere near his best when he was injured early in Week 5, but even this subpar performance was significantly better than what followed. Initially, the Redskins tried moving Heyer across to the left side but this was disastrous, as in those three games he surrendered four sacks, four hits and four pressures. A replacement was signed in Levi Jones (with Heyer moving back to the right side) but unfortunately, watching him play made you wonder how he had ever been well regarded in Cincinnati before his more recent fall from grace. The pure numbers (six sacks, 14 hits and 18 hurries) may not sound stupendously bad but when you remember he only played half a season, the real horror of his play is put in more realistic terms.
When you add to this the fact that Mike Williams (who took over from Heyer when he moved across) also bombed outside and everybody’s favorite line of ultimate defense, Portis, only stayed in to block 38 times due to injury (he was as outstanding, as always, nevertheless), the problems were exacerbated. The Redskins didn’t find the kind of upgrade on the offensive line in free agency that makes you feel they have sufficiently addressed these problems so like many, we think it couldn’t hurt for the ‘Skins to get some significant help in the upcoming draft.
No. 27 — Kansas City Chiefs
The story of the season here goes that the Chiefs’ line had problems so the coaches left in additional blockers both on the line (in the form of tight ends Leonard Pope and Sean Ryan) and in the backfield. The tight ends (Ryan, particularly) had issues but the backs just about held their own, which left Matt Cassel picking up the slack. Unfortunately he didn’t, his QB rating dropping more 40 points when under pressure. However, all this covers up one of those coaching decisions that leave you scratching your head and asking if there something more than pure performance involved. For the first three weeks of the season Ike Ndukwe played RT and although he didn’t set the world on fire, considering the context of what was going on around him, he played well in all parts of his game. It would be fair to say that of the five players on the line, he was probably performing the best. So, of all the positions on the line to tinker with, the coaches decided to go with ex-Patriot Ryan O’Callaghan over Ndukwe at right tackle. O’Callaghan’s last proper action had been against the Giants in the Week 17 classic in ’07 that was the precursor to the Giants’ Super Bowl win. He was terrible in the final game of ’07, giving up four hits and three hurries as well as blocking very poorly for the run. O’Callaghan spent all of ’08 on IR.
Nevertheless, the coaches decided something must be done, and in came a new right tackle who proceeded to give up more pressure in his first game than Ndukwe had in his first three. While O’Callaghan continued to play at this level until the season was almost over, he never missed a snap and ended up with eight sacks, six hits and 24 hurries against him. In the mean time, Ndukwe accrued only a single play more, as an extra TE in a short yardage set in Week 7. Ndukwe recently re-signed with the Chiefs after receiving a second-round tender as a restricted free agent. Our heads are still being scratched sore from trying to figure out this one.
No. 26 — Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys have one of the best run-blocking lines around, but their pass protection doesn’t measure anywhere near. Every starting member of the offensive line had some problems and worst of these was recently released left tackle Flozell Adams. Putting aside his ridiculous penchant for giving up penalties (13), he also allowed eight sacks, seven hits and a league-leading 41 hurries (including playoffs). While this is inexcusable, the play of Marc Colombo deserves a lot more sympathy. In the 544 snaps leading up to his injury in Week 10, Colombo gave up a sack, three hits and 13 hurries. Coming back for the playoffs, and clearly not being ready, he gave up three sacks, three hits and nine hurries in two massively disappointing games. He would almost certainly have been replaced in the Divisional Playoff against the Vikings but for the fact backup tackle Doug Free had already come on to replace Adams after an injury. The interior of the line (although not nearly as bad) was also poor, and how a center who gives up nine penalties, two sacks, five hits and 15 pressures (Andre Gurode) becomes a starter in the Pro Bowl is beyond us. On a positive note, Tony Romo did a decent job of preventing pressures turning into sacks, with the Cowboys’ Pressure to Sack ranking a solid 11th.
No. 25 — Chicago Bears
The Bears were one of the teams that had only a couple of guys play well, whilst the others struggled and left their offense dead in the water. The “couple of guys” in this case were center Olin Kreutz and right guard Roberto Garza, with the rest being various shades of poor. None was worse than Orlando Pace and it was a huge mistake believing he had much left in the tank (he didn’t). By the time he was benched in Week 13, the Bears were already gasping for air. Amazingly, as poor as a right tackle as Chris Williams was, he may end up being a success story if he can keep up his late-season form. Through the first 10 weeks of the season he was dreadful, giving up five sacks, eight hits and 24 hurries and throwing his hat in the ring as one of the worst pass protectors in the league. However, he did well against the Eagles in Week 11, did a reasonable job the next game (in Minnesota, of all places) and was then moved to left tackle to replace Pace, where he performed very creditably indeed.
Other players who have to step up their game are Matt Forte, who stayed in to block a league-leading 152 times but was among the top five worst pass-protecting backs last year (two sacks, a hit and 15 pressures); and Greg Olsen, who may be a decent receiver but struggles with all aspects of blocking. That has to be a huge concern considering the offense Mike Martz is expected to implement.
No. 24 — Green Bay Packers
All season long the talking heads expounded on how Aaron Rodgers was taking far too long to get rid of the ball, taking sacks he shouldn’t. While he was responsible for a league-leading 13 sacks, it’s also probably worth mentioning he threw the ball very well under pressure, ran as effectively as anyone and generally carried his offense. If the sacks are a negative that can be worked on, it’s a very fair price to pay.
Far more problematic was the play of the backup tackles when the expected starters were out with injury. Allen Barbre filled in for Mark Tauscher (who himself was average) and really struggled. In just the two games against the Vikings he yielded a sack, four hits and nine hurries. On the other side of the line, Chad Clifton was good when he played but when he didn’t, T.J. Lang had a lot of difficulty (particularly on his inside shoulder) and Daryn Colledge — when asked to slide across from LG — was a disaster. Despite all this, Green Bay coaches left it to Rodgers to deal with the situation, leaving in blockers third-least of any team. Ending on a positive, despite Brandon Jackson playing only half as many pass plays as Ryan Grant, he was left in to block an identical number of times (65). The results show why in that, although Grant was OK in this regard, Jackson was very good, giving up only a single pressure.
No. 23 — Carolina Panthers
Before the season began it looked like the offensive line might be a strength for the Panthers, but as things transpired only Ryan Kalil lived up to expectations (and in his case surpassed them with a Pro Bowl year). Jordan Gross started slowly but was just getting into form when injury struck and Travelle Wharton had to be moved across to left tackle. He did OK but had two poor days against the Dolphins and Jets, improving thereafter. The rest of the line hardly stunk things up, as the overall view here was of below-average play allowing steady pressure.
When help was required Jonathan Stewart wasn’t up to the job, giving up two sacks, three hits and two hurries on only 51 attempts. DeAngelo Williams was marginally better, as were tight ends Jeff King and Dante Rosario, but no one really stood out other than Kalil. In totality, it was a bland and insipid effort that mirrored the teams season.
All this only went to exacerbate Jake Delhomme’s poor form. When he had time, his passer rating was a still shoddy 75.7, but when pressured this dropped nearly 60 points to a shockingly bad 10.9, almost twice the league average for deterioration in the face of pressure.
Come back for Nos. 13-22 as we get closer to our top pass-protecting team.