2023 Game 3 OL Preview

Earning Respect

I've been watching video of different NFL games from the weekend. I was very impressed by one player and by the run blocking of 2 teams (no, not the Rams or the Niners.) The teams typically listed as having the best OLs in the NFL are the Eagles, Chiefs, Browns, Lions, Ravens and Cowboys, not necessarily in that order. The 2 teams that had really good games this week don't come from that list of usual suspects.

The first team is the Atlanta Falcons. PFF ranked their OL 5th in 2022 and projected them to be 7th best this season, so they aren't as much of a surprise. ESPN measures them only 29th in pass block win rate and their 17th place run block win rate is actually lower than the Rams in 16th place. That number doesn't match what I saw on tape from their last game (they were 19th after week 1, so climbed up the list slightly this week.) The Falcons have an athletic and fast flowing line. They are good at zone runs, working combo blocks and climbing to cut off LBs. Left tackle Jake Matthews was the top ranked OT in run block win rate after Week 1, but he didn't make the top 10 list after the 2nd game.

Four of their starters have PFF grades over 70 (Matthews, Drew Dalman, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary), the only weak link being rookie left guard, Matthew Bergeron, who has a 48.2 PFF grade, ranking 61st out of 71 guards.

As recently as 2021, the Falcons finished only 27th in PFF's season ending OL rankings. They were 21st and 24th in 2020 and 2019. It took some time for their draft investment in the OL to pay off, but Atlanta has finally seemed to turn the corner and now has an OL stocked with promising young talent.

The 2nd team that was impressive road grading was the Washington Commanders, paving the way for Brian Robinson Jr. They weren't as good pass blocking. The ESPN metrics are exactly the opposite of what the tape shows, with ESPN ranking them 7th in pass block win rate, but only 23rd in run block win rate. Charles Leno Jr., their LT, is the top ranked OT in the NFL in run block win rate. LG, Saahdiq Charles, leads the team with a 71.8 PFF grade. As a backup last year, he only had a 43.6 grade. Entering the season, Washington was projected by PFF to only have the 27th ranked OL (they were 20th in 2022). The Rams were projected as the 28th ranked OL, just one slot behind Washington. Brian Robinson Jr. only averaged about 3 yards per carry in the 1st game, but in the 2nd game he had nearly 5 yards per carry.

The individual player who impressed me this week was Luke Goedeke, the RT for Tampa Bay. Goedeke looked like a 2nd round draft bust as a rookie, getting benched at one point for performance, and earning a miserable 43.7 PFF grade. The Bucs moved him outside to RT from guard, and slid Tristan Wirfs over to LT. Against the Bears, Goedeke was outstanding in both pass and run blocking, displaying good hands, mobility, intelligence, physicality and aggression and composure. He has a 72.8 PFF grade, ranking 18th out of 71 OTs. It was like he was in the dark, then suddenly the lightbulb turned on for him. The Bucs might need to see a similar jump from 2nd round pick Cody Mauch, who only has a 49.0 PFF grade.

Fair Analysis?

Despite giving the Niners all they wanted on Sunday, all 5 of the starting linemen for the Rams saw their PFF grades decline. Is PFF being unfair to the Rams? Let's start with the numbers

Alaric Jackson 54.9 (54th out of 71 OTs)

Steve Avila 59.0 (39th out of 71 OGs)

Coleman Shelton 69.1 (7th out of 33 Cs)

Joe Noteboom 53.7 (48th out of 71 OGs) and Tremayne Anchrum 55.0

Rob Havenstein 56.5 PFF (50th out of 71 OTs)

Aside from Shelton, who grades out surprisingly high among centers, none of the other starters place inside the top 32 at their respective positions.

One of the best pass blocking snaps by the Rams came on a pass that was dropped by Kyren Williams. Jackson and Hav are excellent. Avila shows nice recovery ability. One of the few snaps where it was a clean sweep, across the board good pass blocking and no threat to Stafford.

Another area where I'd say there is clear improvement is red zone rushing. Jackson and Avila are big, physical players and showed that they can move and displace defenders, opening up space for the RB. This is something we've struggled with in recent seasons. This year, the Rams have scored on 57.1% of their rushing attempts inside the 10 yard line. In 2022, that percentage was 37.5% for our top 2 RBs and in 2021 it was only 23.1%. Red zone scoring efficiency was a point of emphasis I highlighted in a fanpost prior to the season as a potential key if the Rams were going to surprise and so far the Rams are tied for 1st in the NFL in red zone scoring efficiency.

Okay, now for the bad from the tape:

Jackson: It was always going to be a tough assignment facing Bosa and the Niners. Multiple times, Jackson was obliterated by pass rush moves, both power, speed and inside counters. Sometimes Avila or a RB helped to save him. Give Jackson credit for hanging in there and battling, but he had his hands full. Jackson doesn't have great range in space, so on screens and wide runs, he and Avila weren't able to cut off the speedy and instinctive SF linebackers. He repeatedly whiffed on 2nd level blocks.

Avila: He needs to time his initial punch better and make better hand placements. What tends to happen is he's late with his hands and weakly catches the DT, allowing them to drive directly through him, bull rushing him back towards the QB, shrinking the space in the front of the pocket. There's a play where Jackson is smoked by a spin move, but the DE can't get to the QB, because Avila gets bull rushed so far back he's in the way of the DE. Havenstein also was discarded on this play, so 3 Niners were surrounding the QB. Avila sometimes lunges forward and can get instantly beaten by swim moves. A key play I wonder if anyone noticed was the play immediately before Stafford's late INT. Avila's passive hands allows the DT to free up his arm and deflect the pass, preventing what would have been a 1st down conversion on a dump off pass. This wasn't an isolated incident, there were other examples in the game where Avila's lack of hand fighting ability allows the DT to get their hands up into passing lanes. Games can turn on a series of small things. On a gap run, Avila got pushed backwards into Shelton's path trying to pull block, then Avila gets shed, the DT helping to slow down the RB. On a 3rd down, the Niners run a 3 man loop. Avila is momentarily distracted, thinking that it is a twist, not staying tight to the DT, but fortunately Stafford gets the pass out before the DT can get home.

Shelton: Honestly, I'm not sure why he has such a good PFF grade. He's undersized and struggles to anchor in pass pro. Lack of size and power impacts some run blocks. He got destroyed on a down block. What I like from Shelton is he has very good mobility. Gets to 2nd level landmarks. He had an outstanding screen block where he was able to pick off a LB attacking the RB. He also does a good job saving blocks with lateral recovery range. There was a play where Stafford nearly gets hit before he can hand it off to the RB and I couldn't tell if Shelton or Avila messed up by not blocking the NT. The Niners ran a 3 man game vs the IOL and the Rams messed it up, but Stafford gets the pass out so fast the free runners can't get home.

Noteboom: Anchrum had some struggles when he replaced the injured Noteboom. Like Shelton, Boom has good mobility and blocking range in space, but he doesn't have good strength and aggression for power runs. Fans dump on Boomer, but if you watch him closely, he actually does some nice things in pass protection, not just solo blocking, but as a helper he saves other linemen.

Havenstein: Like Jackson, Hav had some problems in pass protection. Run blocking, however, he made some of the best blocks by any Rams linemen in the game. Specifically, he had 2 excellent backside blocks that were high level of difficulty. That's something Hav brings to the table, he has a veteran savvy and technical ability, a knack for knowing how to move his body to get to blocks that other players would lose. Hav's had some rough moments this year, but IMO his PFF grade might be too low.

Monday Night Preview

If we assume that Anchrum starts at RG, the 5 Rams starters have an average PFF grade of 58.9. Guess whether the Bengals OL has a higher or lower average.

The Bengals have an average PFF grade of 53.6

Orlando Brown 66.7 (INDEX score of 131.8 in 2022)

Cordell Volson 37.4 (67th out of 71 OGs) (99.6 INDEX 2022)

Ted Karras 61.6 (124.6 INDEX 2022)

Alex Cappa 46.9 (129.6 INDEX 2022)

Jonah Williams 55.5 (103.2 INDEX 2022)

Bench: D'Ante Smith (4th rd 2021), Cody Ford (41.2 PFF as backup in 2022), Max Scharping 59.9 PFF in 2021, Jackson Carman (healthy inactive vs Ravens)

PFF projected the Bengals to have the 17th best OL this season. They were 28th in 2022. Williams played LT last year. Their 2022 INDEX scores were solid. Ford and Scharping were disappointing 2nd rd picks for other NFL teams. Carman is their home grown 2nd rd bust.

The Bengals are 30th in pass block win rate and 26th in run block win rate. If you combine the PFF and ESPN metrics, the Bengals might have the worst OL in the NFL.

Nick Scott got injured in their last game. I haven't seen any updates about his status. If he can't go, rookie Jordan Battle would probably take his place. Do you remember linebacker Logan Wilson from the Super Bowl penalty vs Cooper Kupp? He has a new contract with a $9 mill salary. He also has a 46.0 PFF grade, 75th out of 79 linebackers.

Tutu Atwell has shown signs of life, becoming a key offensive weapon for the Rams in year 3. If the Rams had passed on Atwell, a player who would have made sense at that 2nd round slot could have been Joseph Ossai, an EDGE rusher from Texas, who the Bengals got early in the 3rd round. Ossai missed his entire rookie season due to injury. He had 3.5 sacks last year as a backup. Injured with a high ankle sprain, he probably won't play vs the Rams.

The Bengals have their own version of Puka Nacua, but because they have Chase, Boyd and Higgins, Andrei Iosivas isn't going to see much action. He's a 6th round rookie from Princeton. He was a preseason standout with a 76.8 PFF grade. They have another rookie WR I like, Charlie Jones from Purdue.

How to Waste Your RB

One of my favorite RBs is Dameon Pierce of the Houston Texans. He ran well in 2022, he looked good in the preseason, he's a good player. So far this season, Pierce has 69 yards on 26 carries, 2.65 yards per carry. A key reason for this is the Texans didn't have 4 projected OL starters available in their last game (including Laremy Tunsil, the LT), plus they had lost 2 key OL backups. The Texans didn't have the greatest OL even when healthy (projected 25th by PFF), so with likely the worst OL injury situation in the NFL, it looks like it could be a miserable year for CJ Stroud and Pierce. If it results in the Texans getting the number one overall pick in the 2024 draft, I wonder what they'll do. Would they really dump Stroud after just one year? Pierce and Kyren Williams have nearly identical Rushing Yards over Expected metrics from NFL Next Gen Stats.

Josh Jacobs was voted the 12th best player in the NFL by his peers. He has 46 yards on 28 carries, 1.64 yards per carry. His -1.08 rushing yards over expected per attempt is one of the worst in the NFL (Cam Akers is one of the only RBs with an even lower number.) Last season, Jacobs had the 11th best RYOE/Att number. The Raiders are 24th in run block win rate.

Alexander Mattison had a tough week. His RYOE/Att is just behind Jacobs. Apart from fumbling the ball, I didn't think he was that bad in their last game. The Vikings were playing their backup LT and backup C and missed blocks by both of those reserves impacted a couple of his runs.

Khalil Herbert of the Bears had the best RYOE/Att in 2022, but he's only averaging 3.88 yards per carry this year after averaging 5.7 yards per carry last year. The Bears have Teven Jenkins on IR, Nate Davis missed their last game to attend a family funeral, Cody Whitehair is playing with a hand injury, and Lucas Patrick with his 43.3 PFF grade is the lowest ranked center in the NFL.

Back when the Jets still had ARod the media praised the Jets for having a loaded RB room. Breece Hall has the best RYOE/Att in the NFL, but Dalvin Cook has the 4th worst mark and is averaging 2.4 yards per carry. The Jets are dead last in pass block win rate. Big money guard, Laken Tomlinson ($13.3 million salary) has a 50.8 PFF grade. Connor McGovern is ranked 32nd out of 33 centers with a 43.6 PFF grade. Mekhi Becton is ranked 69th out of 71 OTs with a 44.4 PFF grade. Duane Brown has a 51.8 PFF grade. It is all well and good to load up on big name skill position players, but this isn't fantasy football. At some point, the OL up front needs to block for them.

Around the NFL

Remember when I suggested that it would be nice if the Rams could afford free agent guard/center James Daniels? He has a 47.6 PFF grade, 62nd out of 71 guards.

Brian Baldinger heaped glowing praise on Dawand Jones after he replaced injured Jack Conklin at RT for the Browns. Despite Baldinger's seal of approval, Jones had a tough game vs the Steelers and has a 46.7 PFF grade, 62nd out of 71 OTs. Amazingly, the LT for the Browns, Jedrick Wills Jr., a former top 10 overall pick, has an even lower grade, 45.0, ranking 67th out of 71 OTs.

Speaking of the Browns, do they have a massive Deshaun Watson problem? Per spotrac, his current dead cap number is almost the same as the entire NFL salary cap. Hurray for 100% guaranteed contracts. I can only imagine the additional cap pit the Browns would be in if they had given Nick Chubb a massive new contract prior to his unfortunate knee injury. Their entire team might be completely wrecked for the next 5 years. Maybe they still are, seeing as they are the Browns. I feel bad for their fans. Haven't they been through enough? Can't we just let them win one time out of pity? We could create a special bowl game between the Jets and the Browns, just so one of those teams could at least win something. Watson's stats are really ugly and he doesn't visually look like a good QB on tape. Like Carson Wentz, it is hard to understand how things have gone sideways so quickly for him.

Terence Steele got a rich new contract from Dallas with a $16.5 million salary, but he has a 46.1 PFF grade and nearly got Dak Prescott injured by getting completely pancaked on a pass block. Mike McGlinchey has a $17.5 million salary, but he had a knee sprain in camp and has a 49.4 PFF grade. Jawaan Taylor has a $20 million salary, but after getting away with cheating in the 1st game, he got benched in the 2nd game to clear his head after getting called for too many penalties. he has a 46.6 PFF grade.

If Detroit could even get all their linemen healthy, they'd have one of the best OLs in the NFL. The problem is it seems like they literally never have a fully healthy OL. Taylor Decker got hurt, so they slid Penei Sewell over from RT and plugged in their swing backup, Matt Nelson.

Nelson took an odd path to an NFL roster spot. He played defensive line in college at Iowa. He had one sack his final year in college, playing with Jake Gervase. A PS player as an UDFA rookie in 2019, Nelson is very intelligent and intends to attend medical school after his football career is over. In 2021, Decker got hurt and Nelson made 11 starts at RT. He only had a 50.8 PFF grade. The Lions have him on a dirt cheap one year contract for 2023. The Lions have many starting linemen who are former early round picks, but if they keep getting hurt, Nelson could have a key role this season, an unlikely role for a player who didn't even play OL in college.