Everyone’s natural instinct now is to look for trends in the league. Those that define the NFL playoffs. Trends that have shaped the offseason coaching cycle. The ones we’ll spend all offseason talking about as the new way of the NFL.
That’s all fine and good, but please don’t overlook one of the more obvious ones, if last weekend was any indication. The four teams that won in the divisional round all did so with dominant offensive line play.
Yeah, it’s not sexy, and it routinely gets overlooked. But one 30,000-foot view of those four games showed that winning up front might be as important now as it ever has been.
The Rams went out of character and bludgeoned the Cowboys with the run game. The Patriots played big-boy football, also incorporating tight ends and a fullback, to achieve the same goal. The Chiefs mauled the Colts, just as they have several teams this season. And the Saints — even with Andrus Peat drawing four flags while playing with a broken hand — won more battles up front than they lost.
That’s the trend that cannot be ignored.
“I was trying to think of a moment when I got hit [against the Cowboys] — maybe once when I threw it,” Rams QB Jared Goff said. “No sacks, and then the way we ran the ball. When those guys are doing that up front, you've got a chance. They've been our catalyst all year and continue to be.”
When Pro Football Focus graded all 32 offensive lines late this season, they ranked the Patriots third in the league, the Saints fourth, the Rams seventh and the Chiefs 11th. The four teams that lost last weekend were ranked fifth, sixth, 12th and 27th.
The Chargers were the recipients of that last grade, and it showed in their one-sided loss to the Patriots. It was embarrassing watching Philip Rivers constantly looking at his guys up front as if to say, Really?! We might not ever know how much of that can be blamed on the blockers themselves, on Rivers or on the play callers. The Patriots might be smart defensively, and they have a few good players up front, but the divisional-round loss appeared to have as much, if not more blame placed on the Chargers’ own shortcomings up front.
So for all the hot, new play callers getting jobs and all the wizard quarterbacks populating this coming weekend’s games, it’s worth reminding: You can have all the fancy X’s and O’s you want, but without the proper buttressing up front, you can’t thrive in this league.
More and more teams are trying to flood secondaries with talented pass catchers — wide receivers, tight ends and backs. It’s a novel concept to force defensive mismatches: safeties on tight ends, linebackers on backs, and so on. But if your five- and six-man protections can’t hold up, forget about it.
But the Chiefs, Patriots, Saints and Rams have understood this better than other, less-successful teams. They’ve sunk assets and accumulated depth up front. They’ve changed their schemes to better take advantage of what they have and mask their shortcomings.
The Rams struggled out of their bye, with poor offensive showings at Detroit, at Chicago and at home against the Eagles in a three-game run from Weeks 13 to 15. Rams head coach Sean McVay was determined not to let that trickle into the playoffs, having seen Goff struggle against pressure. What you saw in the Dallas game — more help up front and more straight-ahead blocking vs. the Cowboys’ stunts and slants — was a reminder of how good this Rams O-line can be.
Now comes the test of the best of the best. None of these four offensive lines can by any means be called sub-par, and each arguably belongs in the conversation for the best handful of groups currently in the NFL. A good OL coach and talent up front can really make this wizardry happen. A poor group and less-than-great coaching there can turn a fancy play caller and a good QB prospect turn into pumpkins.
So that’s your trend. This is the reminder we need. Where is offensive football going now? Right back to where it’s always been: in the trenches. The line will always represent, at minimum, 45.5 percent of a team’s personnel on any given play. So why does it feel like we don’t give that unit its commensurate due?
At least some teams have figured this part out.