By Eamon McMahon
You hear it all the time. Analysts, coaches, journalists, and even quarterbacks are constantly heard saying “It starts up front,” or “Games are won and lost in the trenches,” and for good reason. The offensive line has always been an important position group, however with more complex schemes and a heavy reliance on the passing game, the hogs in the trenches are asked to do so much more than they previously were. The game of football is constantly evolving and the offensive line has been asked to adapt more than any other group on the field.
In this article, I will do my best to explain why the offensive line is so important to a successful NFL franchise. I will be providing examples of specific players that fit the modern, prototypical NFL lineman criteria and will show how a great offensive lineman can truly catapult a team to the promised land. It isn’t all about the players, however, coaching is just as crucial for this position group and I will explain how certain schemes and coaching styles can play to a lineman’s favor and make their job easier. I will be using data and statistics from ProFootballFocus.com as well as NFL.com which will be listed in the works cited at the bottom of the article for reference. No one gives the big men the credit they truly deserve, and it is time to find out why these men are so pivotal to a Super Bowl contender.
Defenses have stepped up their game and are now employing stunts, disguising coverages and mixing up their pass rush like never before. Corner and safety blitzes are now a normal occurrence, and lineman must be able to communicate their assignments and stay on the same page during a hectic rush or blitz package. Lineman, regardless of whether they play tackle, guard or center, are now depended on to block speed-rushing defensive ends, monstrous defensive tackles and also shifty linebackers and defensive backs. Versatility is key for an offensive lineman, and you hear that phrase littered throughout almost all NFL franchises. A player like Jonah Williams, the Cincinnati Bengals selection in this years draft, was evaluated on film at tackle, however, many scouts and organizations felt he could play inside at guard as well. These versatile prospects that show the ability to play inside or outside are a rare commodity and incredibly valuable to a team that needs flexibility and multiple options in case of injury. Lineman are asked to effectively communicate their assignments to one another, have the physical abilities to hold their block on any type of defender and show accountability and humility to own up to their mistakes when they fail to do their job. All of these factors add up and make this one of the toughest and most strenuous jobs on the field.
A Great Quarterback Needs a Great Line
When you think about the truly dominant teams in the past decade or so, they all seem to have a common thread. Whether it is the Green Bay Packers, the New England Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers or the New Orleans Saints, all these franchises thrive thanks to their quarterback play. However, it isn’t just the quarterback that has elevated these teams for several years, it’s also the dominance of the offensive line that has given the teams the ability to sustain a winning culture. The quarterback position is so vital and crucial to winning football games, and the play of the quarterback is dependent upon how well the offensive line is able to hold off the pass rush and set up clear throwing lanes. The offensive line dictates how well a QB can play on every single down. Without confidence in the offensive line, quarterbacks tend to make quick decisions and force throws due to lack of comfort in the pocket. Having a quarterback with elite pocket presence (Tom Brady) is a luxury, and many signal callers do not have the awareness to see the rush before it gets there. Especially for younger quarterbacks, it is incredibly difficult to anticipate the defenses stunts and coverages and to know when to step in the pocket and where the throwing lanes will be. As we saw with Josh Rosen last season, even a good quarterback can look horrendous playing behind the worst offensive line in football. PFF ranked the Cardinals line 32nd in the league last year, and that played a massive role in Rosen’s ugly first season. With poor coaching, a lack of talent and too many miscommunications and missed assignments, it was almost impossible for Rosen to get a good feel for the game. With pressure in his face almost every drop-back, Rosen couldn’t find clear throwing lanes, wasn’t able to make progressions through his reads and find his #3 or #4 option and was constantly put on his back which never bodes well for a rookie signal-caller.
Aside from the passing game, run-blocking is just as important for an offensive line. While the NFL has evolved into a passing league with quarterbacks breaking records left and right, the run game is still important and can be used as an efficient way to manage the game clock and wear down the opponent. You hear the phrase “We have to establish the run game,” almost every single Sunday before or after a game has been played. Establishing the run is a difficult task, especially with a below-average offensive line. There are obvious situations where teams are expected to run the football, like on 1st and 10, and 3rd and short. But the key is to keep the defense off-balance and to keep them guessing. You don’t want to be predictable as a play caller, so many teams have started to pass on the usual running situations and decided to run the ball on passing downs. This allows the offensive line to stay one step ahead of the defensive line, and gives the offense the upper hand, as the defense is thinking they know what is about to happen. Switching up the tendencies and staying ambiguous take a massive load off the offensive line’s shoulder pads and helps the lineman to get to their spots on the first step. While instinctive defenders can sniff out a play quickly, it is crucial for a play-caller to disguise their run plays with a motion, a new formation, different personnel on the field, or even a hard count. Doing anything out of the ordinary can help confuse the defense and give the men in the trenches that extra moment to grab onto their blocks.
You simply cannot have an efficient and effective offense without a strong offensive line. This doesn’t mean you need to draft tackles, guards and centers in the first round every year, but you do need competition at the position, talent, and great coaching. Coaching is the one thing that can truly elevate a player from good to great. You can have all the talent in the world but if you’re not coach-able, ready to learn and willing to sacrifice for the benefit of your team, it is difficult to find a roster spot and contribute each game. Great coaches can get the best out of mediocre players, especially on the line. The offensive line works as a unit, and they’re only as strong as their weakest link. You can have 4 studs on the line that are all smart and intelligent players, but that one guy who doesn’t know his assignment on each play is what will kill you. You simply cannot make mental errors on the line, and this is where the coaching plays a huge role. Lineman are asked to communicate on each down, talking with both the quarterback and other linemen to make sure everyone has adjusted and taken their correct reads. Without an experienced coach who has seen multiple fronts, stunts, and packages, it’s almost impossible to be able to prepare the lineman for what may happen on the field. Preparation is key, and the offensive line must be ready for anything. The coach must be able to delegate responsibilities, prepare the players for multiple situations and keep the group sharp and on their toes. The mental game is monumental for the offensive line. They need a clever and experienced coaching staff to make sure they don’t need to think too much on the field, just simply react and go play ball.
Quenton Nelson, G, Indianapolis Colts
Nelson is the definition of the prototypical “new-era” offensive lineman. The 6’5, 330 pound left guard is an absolute mauler, with the power to make any defensive lineman look like a little kid. He was constantly seen in highlight films running over linebackers, defensive tackles and anyone who got in his path. He is quicker than you would expect and has the speed to pull around the edge and make reach-blocks that many guys at 330 pounds simply aren’t able to do. His intelligence is what sets him apart, however. Coming from a prestigious university like Notre Dame, Nelson was exposed to great coaching from a great program that set him up for success in the league. Quenton also benefited from playing alongside another intelligent and dependable tackle in the league, Anthony Castonzo, who was the 13th highest graded tackle in all of football with an overall of 76.9. His football IQ is off the charts, and this makes sense when you see he was the 3rd highest graded offensive guard in the entire NFL last year, despite being a rookie. He finished with a PFF grade of 76.7 last year, just behind the All-Pro Zach Martin with a grade of 78.6. Nelson made the Pro Bowl, and also was an All-Pro selection in his first ever season, and for good reason. This man is freakishly athletic, he is incredibly intelligent and coach-able, and he wants to win and help his teammates get better. All of these qualities make Nelson one of the most promising and exciting young lineman in the league. I would not be surprised at all if Nelson cracks the top 50 in the NFL’s Top 100 Players series coming out in the next month or so, he’s already THAT good. It’s no shock at all that the Colts chose him with the #6 overall pick last year. What is shocking is that he is already one of the best guards in football after only playing one season.
Ryan Ramczyk, T, New Orleans Saints
Standing at 6’6 and 313 pounds, Ramczyk has elite size for the tackle position. After being drafted in the first round in 2017, Ramczyk has impressed with his solid play from the start of his career, where he was chosen as a PFWA All-Rookie selection. Finishing in the top 10 in overall grading at the tackle position last year, Ryan has made a giant name for himself after only starting 31 games in the NFL. The young right tackle was the 8th highest graded player at his position, finishing with a grade of 81.3. Of his 1,136 total snaps played last year, Ramczyk only committed 3 penalties the entire season. This is a great indication that he has a high football IQ and rarely is caught out of position. The Saints have had strong offensive lines for the last several years, knowing they need to protect their franchise quarterback Drew Brees. Ramczyk has been exposed to great coaching, starting with his offensive line coach Dan Roushar who is an experienced coaching veteran that has found success wherever he goes. In his biography on the Saints team website, they note his accomplishments from the 2017 season (Ramczyk’s rookie year) where, “The line allowed just 20 sacks, the second-fewest in the National Football League, even though they had to open with six different starting combinations. They played an instrumental role in blocking for an offense that was the only one to finish in the top five in both rushing and passing, second overall in total offense,” (New Orleans Saints, 2018). As I mentioned earlier, great coaching can skyrocket a player into the “elite” category and turn a good player into a great one. Ramczyk, though he would probably find success on any team, has benefited greatly from working under such a prominent and experienced coaching staff. Terron Armstead has taken Ryan under his wing, and the 2nd highest graded tackle in the NFL (87.4 overall) has contributed to Ramczyk’s success by teaching him what it takes to hold your own in the trenches. Learning from great coaches, and also a dominant player has set Ramczyk up for success in the long run, though he is already out-performing almost every veteran at his position.
Jason Kelce, C, Philadelphia Eagles
Kelce is often overshadowed by his exciting younger brother Travis, but Jason may just be the better football player. Grading in this year as the #1 center in the NFL, Kelce is known for his consistency in both the run and pass game. He finished with an overall grade of 83.6 which was more than 4 points higher than the next center on the list. With a strong grade in both the run-blocking (80.7) and also the pass-blocking (88.0) aspects of his game, it’s clear that this man truly has no weakness. He has incredibly strong hands and great leverage, two ideal traits for the center position. He has the strength to hold off the big nose tackles in the middle but also possesses the agility and balance to stay with smaller guys during a stunt. Kelce is an incredibly smart football player, a characteristic that as you can tell I believe is imperative for a lineman in today’s NFL. Kelce goes to work every day with another great lineman, Lane Johnson, and this duo has been one of the more consistent and dominant tandems in the league for several years. It always helps to work alongside another smart, determined player on the line and these two guys have pushed each other and made each other better every single day. Kelce, as the center, is the QB of the offensive line, making sure his guys know what is going on. He’s responsible for calling out the reads, making sure everyone is on the same page and is asked to communicate what he sees on every single down. Kelce is the perfect example of your modern, prototypical center standing at 6’3 and 295 pounds while running a 4.89 40-yard dash at the combine in 2011. Kelce has started every single one of the 110 games he has appeared in, and aside from his 2012 season, he has only missed FOUR games in his entire 8-year career. This man is tough, he is durable, he is intelligent and he has the nastiness that NFL teams look for in an All-Pro caliber center. Kelce doesn’t just do his job on the field, he makes his teammates lives easier by helping them out with their responsibilities as well, putting himself in a class of his own at this position.