I watch offensive and defensive line more than any human should. I just finished watching my final game of last weekend and there are some very interesting trends developing in the worlds of line play and the running game.
The Dallas Cowboys came into this season with what looked to be one of the weaker offensive lines in football, but as I've always preached, it isn't about the individual parts, but how guys play together as a unit. So far, the Cowboys have taken a big step forward as a unit and it is showing up in the win/loss column.
On the flip side, the New York Giants were coming off of a terrific 2012-2013 campaign as one of the top run-blocking units in the game. But with most of the same players in the same starting positions, the Giants can't get the running game going and they can't protect Eli Manning. The Giants have more problems than just offensive line play, but it has certainly played a big role in their 0-3 start.
The San Francisco 49ers' pass protection is a growing concern, while the Indianapolis Colts' running game has been one of the surprises of the season thanks to the improvement with the Colts' gap plays and physicality of the Colts' running backs. No offensive line is doomed forever and no offensive line can rest on their laurels.
Moving the Sticks
We all know about the San Francisco 49ers have a heavy rep when it comes to stomping out running games, but is it time to reassess? The 49ers have struggled to stop the run in each of their last two games and teams are having success running at Justin Smith. Ready for a crazy stat? The 49ers have missed or had tackles broken 35 times over their first three games (same as the Jaguars). Once the 49ers start wrapping up more effectively, things will get back to normal.
There are three kinds of running backs. Most backs fall into the hard runner category or the explosive runner category, but a small handful are in the third category which combines both elements. Don’t worry about Tampa’s Doug Martin, as he is getting ready to explode. Martin is first in the league in yards after contact with 162, tied for third with four broken tackles and tied for third with four explosive rushes (15+ yards).
Isn’t it amazing how the threat of the deep ball and creating space can make life so much easier for one back over another? Michael Vick’s ability to throw deep combined with Chip Kelly’s spread offense has allowed LeSean McCoy to face eight in the box just once in 62 carries (1.6%). Conversely, teams don’t fear Christian Ponder or Jake Locker and neither offense spreads defenses across the field very often, which is why 33.3% of Adrian Peterson’s carries (23 total) have come against eight in the box while Chris Johnson has had to deal with the eight-man front for 36.2% of his carries (25).
The Big 5 Matchups
1. Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson vs. Jaguars - The Jaguars can’t tackle and they don’t have enough talent on defense. The Colts' offensive line “let them drop” last weekend against the 49ers, and I’m expecting that confidence to carry forward in what should be a strong game for both Bradshaw and T-Rich.
2. Wes Welker vs. Brandon Boykin - The Eagles can’t generate enough heat without blitzing and if they blitz Peyton Manning, tears will flow in Philly. They will likely flow anyway once Welker gets his hands on Boykin, who has been beaten on 66.7% of the throws against him.
3. Frank Gore vs. Rams defense - Gore complained about not getting enough touches last weekend and squeaky wheel probably gets the grease here. The Rams are coming off of a blood-letting at the hands of … wait for it … the Cowboys' running game. Huh? The 49ers should get it back on track here with a big day on the ground.
4. Big Ben vs. Vikings pass defense - The Vikings' secondary has struggled this year and Antonio Brown is coming off of a monster game. The Steelers have to have a win here and that’s that. The problem, of course, is that the Steelers haven’t proven they can protect Ben Roethlisberger. If they can keep Roethlisberger reasonably clean, he has a big game here.
5. Ravens offense vs. Bills defense - The Bills secondary is beat up and CB Justin Rogers has surrendered 384 yards and 3 TDs so far on the season. Bernard Pierce and the Ravens' O-line should finally get it cranked up against Buffalo's overpaid defensive front.
Three Offensive Lines in Trouble
1. Minnesota Vikings - If the Steelers have any prayer of turning things around, it has to start here. The Vikings are struggling to back safeties off of the line of scrimmage and I’m sure Adrian Peterson will see the luxurious, flowing hair of Troy Polamalu spying him for much of the game. That means the Vikings get yet another eight-man front all game long.
2. Tennessee Titans - I’ve been underwhelmed with LG Andy Levitre so far and he’s going to have a nightmare on his hands with Jets DLs Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson coming to town. The Titans' offense has been disappointing up to this point, and this Jets defensive front looks like vintage Rex Ryan stuff. With Chris Johnson unwilling to get the tough yards, the offensive line will have to do more than they are probably capable of.
3. San Diego Chargers - Remember when the Rams had been able to keep Sam Bradford clean? Yeah, well that ended last weekend when they took on the Cowboys, who are flying all over the place under Monte Kiffin. The Chargers' interior line trio won’t be able to keep MLB Sean Lee from making about 20 tackles while LT King Dunlap needs help against DeMarcus Ware.
FanDuel.com Value Picks
Editor's Note: Rotoworld's partner FanDuel is hosting a one-week $250,000 Fantasy Football league for Week 4. It's $25 to join and first prize is $25,000. Starts Sunday at 1pm ET. Here's the link.
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers - $7,000
Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins - $6,300
Jacquizz Rodgers, Falcons - $5,500
Bilal Powell, Jets - $4,700
Ryan Broyles, Lions - $5,000
Antonio Brown, Steelers - $6,500
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