27 October 2011

Examining the Offensive Line Through 7 Weeks

The Saints' offensive line has been in flux for most of 2011, both in the offseason and in the regular season. 

Long time veteran center Jonathan Goodwin departed for San Francisco in the offseason, leaving 2010 fifth round draft pick Andy Tennant to fill Goodwin's vacated spot. When the coaching staff presumably felt that Tennant wasn't yet ready to take the reins, the Saints subsequently signed veteran all-pro center Olin Kreutz to handle the duties. 

Kreutz was soon voted team captain, but sustained an injury in week 3 vs. Houston. He was then replaced in the starting lineup by free agent journeyman Brian De La Puente. Kreutz struggled to regain his once elite form, and when faced with the prospect of presumably being relegated to second string, he decided to retire instead. 

The Saints line is now anchored by the 26-year old De La Puente who, though previously unable to make an NFL roster, Coach Payton has called "smart," "consistent," and a "good athlete." 

The Saints released veteran right tackle and locker room leader Jonathan Stinchcomb in the preseason, replacing him with the reliable and versatile Zach Strief. In week three vs. Houston though, Strief injured his right knee and was replaced in the lineup by 2010 second round pick Charles Brown. Strief has just resumed practicing this week while Brown has done a worthy job filling his shoes. 

Soon enough, the coaches will be forced to decide whether to return Strief to his starting position or allow Brown to retain the job.

In the 2.5 games he's played this year, Strief grades out according to Pro Football Focus at a -3.5 overall; his run blocking grade is a +.3 but his pass blocking grade is a subpar -4.4. Brown, with a larger body of work, grades out at +.5 overall, with a -.5 run blocking grade but an excellent +3.8 pass blocking grade. 

It's important to note that these grades are not indexed--they're not adjusted for the strength of opponents, so the grades should not be taken as absolutes, but rather as guides. 

While the Saints have thrown the ball on 62% of their plays this year, it seems that a more proficient pass blocker--in theory, at least--would be the more valuable asset to the Saints. If that's the case, expect to see Brown retain his job unless his play declines. 

So while Brown continues to acclimate himself to the starting unit, the Saints' offensive line is still a work in progress and in the process of developing a cohesive, highly-functional unit. The results so far have been good. Let's take a look. 

Basic rankings show the Saints to have the 9th best rushing attack this year at 126.1 yards per game. Even better, the Saints rank 7th in yards per carry at 4.6. 

In the passing game, the Saints rank 5th in sack percentage (4.2%) and 3rd in fewest QB hits allowed. The Football Outsiders rank the Saints offensive line as the 7th best pass protection unit in the league thus far. Worthy rankings indeed, and a promising sign for an offensive line still in its development. 

A more in-depth examination into the the Saints' run game and its relation to the offensive line is as follows. All subsequent data and stats are courtesy of the Football Outsiders.

A breakdown of where the Saints have run the ball this year looks like this:
Those numbers in the screen shot are: 62% up the middle, defined as running behind a guard or center; 26% around the end/on the edges (15% left end, 11% right end); and 12% off tackle (8% off right tackle, 4% off left tackle). 

So, the Saints have run the vast majority up the middle, fully maximizing the strength of their all-pro guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks. 

Secondly, in an effort to utilize Darren Sproles' speed and elusiveness in open space, the Saints have used a quarter of their run plays on the edges. 

And lastly, in an effort to minimize exposure to perhaps the weaker part of their line--the tackles--the Saints have run off tackle just 12% of the time, the second-lowest clip in the league behind the Jags (8%). 

With this distribution strategy in place, the Saints rank as the #1 run blocking unit in the league according to Football Outsiders. This ranking is based on a formula for Adjusted Line Yards, which essentially assigns responsibility to the offensive line for yards gained by its team's RBs. 

More specifically, the Saints offensive line is the best in the league at preventing its RBs from being tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage ("stuff rank" or "stuffed"). Additionally, the Saints are the most effective team in the league at both running up the middle and around the left edge. These are high marks for a team that struggled early on (remember the last play of the Packers' game?) and has shuffled players due to injury. 

Further, the Saints rank 7th overall in converting 3rd and 4th and two yards or less into either first downs or touchdowns ("power rank" or "power"). Credit to Mark Ingram here as well. 

Rounding out the run distribution rankings, the Saints rank 7th running around the right edge, 10th off right tackle, and 16th off left tackle. Again, all of these rankings are based on Adjusted Line Yards. 

What's important to note in all of this is that the Saints' offensive line, again, is still very much a group in development. 

With growing levels of success game-over-game, and benchmarks that rank the unit among the league's best so far this season, it's a promising sign for the continued high performance of the offensive line in 2011. 

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