Offensive Line: Still the Foundation?
Offensive Line: Still the Foundation?
All this week we’ve been running features on the most under appreciated starters on an NFL team, the offensive linemen. The old adage goes that you win games in the trenches and that any team–in order to be successful–needs to build from the inside out. So the question is, is that still the case in the modern NFL?
Alternatively, is it an overused cliché that has lost its relevance? With the advance of NFL schemes, teams are able to isolate weaknesses up front while also compensating for them. This places more of an emphasis on the cohesiveness of the unit rather than the merits of the individual parts. There are still some quality linemen and lines laying the foundation for some of the better teams in the league, but in the last four Super Bowls we’ve seen a number of teams reach the big game with not just a poor line, but with one of the worst for that year. If that unit is so important to an offense, how is this possible?
Yesterday, Sam discussed the possibility of a run game producing despite sub-standard play from the offensive line. It’s likewise possible to succeed through the air behind porous pass protection … not easy by any stretch, but it can be—and has been—done.
Perils of Pressure
You only need look at the completion percentage of quarterbacks under pressure this season to see the devastating effect pressure can have. In Washington, Rex Grossman tossed nine interceptions while seeing his completion percentage plummet by 20% from 64.8% with no pressure to 44.2% as the rush neared. In New York, Mark Sanchez was able to avoid mistakes under pressure, only throwing five interceptions (compared to 13 interceptions without pressure), but simply couldn’t make the positive plays. His completion percentage dropped by a massive 26% to a truly ugly figure of 36.1% when pressured, he threw just three touchdowns, and his quarterback rating under pressure was an atrocious 37.4.
Even when pressure doesn’t directly result in a negative play (a sack or an interception) it has a marked, quantifiable and often catastrophic effect on the quarterback and the passing game. Even good quarterbacks struggle as Matt Ryan saw his completion percentage fall by 22% and his quarterback rating nose-dive from 102.3 to 55.7. Apparently, “Matty Ice” is only applicable in a clean pocket.
New York Conundrum
The contrast in development and play between the two New York quarterbacks provides us with an interesting case study for the offensive line’s effect on the passing game and on the quarterbacks themselves. After spending the first two years of his career behind one of the best offensive lines in the league, Mark Sanchez struggled this year as his offensive line failed to cope with blooding new members and established veterans suffering through injury. Sanchez was clearly spooked by any pressure he saw, even though it was actually at a lower frequency than his Giants counterpart, Eli Manning.
So, did the location of the pressure play its part? First off, keep in mind that both quarterbacks are right-handed passers. Manning saw his blindside–once David Diehl (-48.1 in the regular season) moved outside–yield pressure at a record-setting pace. Sanchez had his greatest weakness at right tackle in the shape of Wayne Hunter (-31.1) who simply was not within the same ZIP code in terms of quality as the man he replaced, Damien Woody.
Blindside pressure can be more destructive, because you don’t get a chance to prepare for the impact. Conversely, if the ball gets out as a defender closes in from behind, it doesn’t have the same effect as if you see your open side tackle get horsewhipped and a snarling defensive end bear down as you step in to the throw. The veil of ignorance you get from blindside pressure can be both its greatest danger and biggest neutralizer at the same time. Pressure coming from the open side is rarely unnoticed, and even if it doesn’t get there as quickly, it may actually influence the quarterback more.
Certainly Manning faced his share of pressure from the open side as well, so this doesn’t entirely explain it. The biggest issue on the Jets’ line coming from the open side is likely an under-scrutinized factor in the Sanchez’s performance under pressure. A right tackle’s ability to not expose his quarterback is a greatly under appreciated factor and is often lost in the hypothetical prototype of a “mauling, road-grading” RT. Manning and Jay Cutler were the only two quarterbacks who completed more than 50% of their passes under pressure, despite both of their right tackles yielding it at an alarming rate.
The Manning-Warner Connection
This question has come to the forefront in large part due to Manning’s season-long success. Especially true at the end of the season where, in spite of his entire O-line allowing pressure like a sluice gate, he propelled his team to the trophy. Wherever you looked on the line, at any given moment in 2011, Manning was facing pressure, but it had little bearing on his and the team’s success.
In the regular season, Manning was pressured on 38.9% of his dropbacks; only one “traditional pocket quarterback”, Kevin Kolb, facing pressure on a more frequent basis. This didn’t improve in the playoffs–far from it, in fact–as Manning saw pressure even more frequently, on 39.2% of his dropbacks. The Giants’ QB logged almost twice as many dropbacks under pressure (69) as the next closest to him, Drew Brees and Alex Smith (both at 35), but he still managed to be the driving force in the team’s title run.
The one quarterback of the last decade who Eli most appeared to shadow on this run was the man he displaced as starter in New York, Kurt Warner. During the Cardinals’ march to Super Bowl XLIII, Warner faced a constant barrage of pressure behind a pitiful Arizona offensive line, seeing pressure on 31.7% of his postseason dropbacks. Both quarterbacks steered their teams to playoff success without needing to run away from that pressure. Instead, these two (more than many others) showed the ability to move around the pocket, dodging pressure while managing to keep eyes downfield.
One of the more astounding statistics for Manning’s work in the playoffs was that he completed 61.4% of his attempts under pressure. Compare that to a completion percentage of 67.0% when he didn’t see pressure and you find a far smaller drop-off in completions than you commonly see.
Pressure will typically bring on mistakes, but in such a steady state, could it be argued that this became the norm for Manning, Warner, and their respective sets of receivers? Though he fell short of victory, Warner’s hook-up with Larry Fitzgerald was crucial to their playoff achievements and Manning had a plethora of receivers to target in his postseason stretch. In both cases, the quarterbacks and receivers were perfectly in sync and fully expecting the pressure to come.
For a quarterback to be successful in the face of pressure and blitzes, he needs his receivers to recognize it as well and make the needed hot reads. A quarterback recognizing the pressure may still find himself with nowhere to go with the ball if his receivers haven’t recognized it as well and adjusted their routes accordingly. These two passing games certainly got plenty of practice under pressure: Manning & Co. were pressured on 313 dropbacks during the 2011 season while Warner and Fitzgerald were faced with 251 snaps under pressure in 2008 … plenty of opportunity to fine-tune their timing and reads.
The Warner-Manning technique isn’t the only successful method of overcoming pressure. They do it by simply standing tall, finding whatever space there is in the pocket, and getting the ball out on time. Others, like Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, avoid pressure by getting rid of the ball so quickly that pressure rarely has an opportunity to mount. The Saints’ offensive line has improved to the point that this quick release is a luxury, but Peyton (prior to 2011) has made a career out of making the Colts’ offensive lines look much better than they were. By having a sense for the pressure almost before it developed, Manning was able to move away and release the ball on time and on target.
A third style that has also delivered success–though not one that you would necessarily want to copy–is in the shape of Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. His line of attack is simply to fight through any pressure that arrives, to take advantage of defenders looking for the big play Pittsburgh’s line so frequently gives up, and release the ball to open receivers as the play breaks down. This method of dealing with it is somewhat unorthodox, but unless the defense finishes (which can be difficult against a quarterback listed at 6-4 241 lbs), it can be effective in the face of offensive line failings.
For all of these quarterbacks, multiple Super Bowl trips attest to the worthiness of their approaches, but these are the exceptions.
In the End
What do we learn from quarterbacks playing under pressure? Is it okay to ignore your offensive line’s limited pass protecting prowess and simply hope that your quarterback can overcome it? So long as you aren’t making him sit in the pocket on slow-developing routes, the constant need to react to pressure can, apparently, aid the timing between a quarterback and his receivers. This is certainly true for the very best and it’s those elite quarterbacks who are successfully overcoming the pressure. Solid quarterbacks can demonstrate ability under pressure, but the wheels almost always come off eventually, and bad quarterbacks just get worse.
If you think you have a great quarterback and receivers who aren’t just running set routes, you can get by with a bad offensive line, but if you fall even slightly short of that, you had better invest in the trenches. Trying to follow the path of the Giants, Cardinals, and the Colts by basing everything around an elite signal-caller is a blueprint for failure; quarterbacks of their caliber in the face of pressure aren’t rolling off of a production line. There is also the small matter of what happens if that man gets injured (as the Colts found out quite painfully in 2011).
For the greatest success from a passing game that can lead you to the pinnacle of the NFL, you need to have a quarterback, but he doesn’t do it alone. A few special players can prevail despite the performance of the blockers in front of them, but the rest of the league needs help in the shape of the five guys on the offensive line, and the best combination of the two is likely to provide the most reliable success.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.