AFC North Roundup Finales: The Offensive Line

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

And some of them were more offensive than others. To find out who and why, read on...

As I noted in my previous post about the running game, it can be difficult to separate the running game from the performance of the offensive line. And as I believe I am going to demonstrate to most everyone's satisfaction, it is not difficult to separate the performance of the offensive line from the health of its members and the continuity of the lineup.

First we'll look at some information on the individuals who made up the line. Part of the problem with this is trying to figure out which is the chicken and which is the egg. In other words, if a player is struggling, how much is on him and how much is on the players around him? That can be a tough call, and pretty hard to quantify. But, generally speaking, it seems as if the lines with the most continuity play the best, or as least the best they are collectively capable of. But let's look at the players:

Centers:

Pro Football Focus 2012 ratings (higher is better):

Pff_center_2012_medium

The players are listed in order of number of snaps. Anyone who took a snap at center is listed. Notice something about Cleveland? That's right, Alex Mack took every single snap.

In case you're wondering about the rather odd parameters for the chart, I've used the highest and lowest ratings in the league, as I realized that would give a better picture of where the AFC North guys stand than the random outside numbers I've been using. It still doesn't give you the whole story, though. For example, Alex Mack seems a long way off the top rating, but he ranked No. 9, and Maurkice Pouncey was close behind at No. 12 (out of 36 ranked centers.)

Here are the rankings. I'll give the same disclaimer as for the running backs—I've used the 25 percent filter, which compares the men who did most of the work. For those who didn't make it through the filter because of insufficient snaps, I've given the comparable ranking for what PFF rated them, in brackets. For purposes of comparison, I've also put the Pro Football Reference Approximate Value figures on the table:

2012_center_medium

As you can see, the PFF and the PFR guys feel differently about some players. PFF has never been a fan of Maurkice Pouncey. Conversely, this year's AV of nine for Pouncey is the lowest they have ever given him, and is considerably more than that of any of the other centers.

Since it is interesting to see the historical figures (at least to me), here are trending charts. As I did with the receivers, I'm dividing it by years in the league (but only going back to 2008, when the PFF ratings begin).

Pff_hist

The parameters of the charts this time are the average high and average low for 2008 - 2012.

Notice the left end is 2012, so you're going back in time as you read to the right. Jeff Faine was a high first-round draft pick, by the Browns, and played for the Saints and the Buccaneers before being picked up by the Bengals in 2012. His upside was never all that up, and his best season according to PFR was in 2006, his first season with the Saints. Matt Birk has been in the league since 1998 (!) and has played at a high level for most of that time. He was drafted by the Vikings in the sixth round and played in Minneapolis until the Ravens picked him up in 2009.

Kyle Cook was undrafted in 2007 and never played until the Bengals picked him up in 2009. He played really well the first year, and has been steadily dropping off ever since. Alex Mack, on the other hand, has not missed a start since being drafted 21st overall by the Browns in 2009. Doug Legursky has been a durable and useful UDFA for the Steelers, although his play declined this year, if you believe PFF.

Here's the rest of the centers:

Centers_pff_2_medium

Well, at least PFF thinks Maurkice is improving... Out of curiosity I looked up the ratings for Justin Hartwig for 2009 and 2008. One can see why the Steelers started a first-year center. Hartwig's rating was the lowest in the league both seasons, at -17.9 and -21.8 respectively.

Neither Robinson nor Gradkowski played a significant number of snaps in 2012.

Finally, here is the historical trending for the PFR AV rating:

Pfr_trending_cen_medium

As you can see, Pouncey trended downwards the past three years, but is still well above the crowd. For PFR, anyhow...

Guards:

Pff_2012_guards_medium

Well, it's official, at least as far as PFF is concerned. Marshal Yanda is the best guard in the AFC North, by a long shot. The best pair of guards (and conveniently for the Bengals, the ones who played every snap) was Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling. It's also official (at least according to PFF) that the best Pittsburgh guard is Ramon Foster, and that Maurkice Pouncey belongs at center. We shouldn't let the fact Pouncey hadn't played any guard for at least five years cloud our judgment. And it is also official that any alternative is preferable to have Doug Legursky at guard.

But let's see if the PFR guys agree with these assessments:

Pfr_etc

Once again the three guards, all from the Steelers, who didn't make it through the filter are shown in brackets. Maurkice Pouncey's AV is primarily as a center—I don't think he equalled Marshal Yanda as a guard.

Here's the historical data for the guards:

Pff_trending_guards_2_medium

I fear I left the one-year guys off, except Maurkice Pouncey (as a guard,) as it was really difficult to read, and you can work out where they fit in. I also had to bag the team colors, because it was just too hard to read. I'm sure Maurkice, a man who has a picture of his momma tattooed on his arm, won't mind being pink...

Jason Pinkston appears to plunge off the chart in 2011, because he was actually rated lower than the five-year average low. Sorry about that, Jason.

And here's the PFR AV for the past five years - it's a bit unwieldy for a trending chart:

Pfr_av_hist

Bobbie Williams was actually with the Bengals until 2011; John Greco was with the Rams until 2011.

Now, the tackles:

Pff_2012_tackles_medium

Just like with the guards, the pair of tackles PFF fancies the most belongs to Cincinnati. However, Cleveland isn't far behind. Pittsburgh and the Ravens are bringing up the rear. It is interesting to me that the man so many people want back next season, in other words Max Starks, is, according to PFF the worst tackle in the AFC North. The only other tackle who is even close is Mr. Blind Side himself. However, as you can see from the chart, they are a long way from being the worst tackles in the league.

Marcus Gilbert, aka "The Terminator," was the only Steelers tackle to grade positively, although, both Mike Adams and Kelvin Beachum were just below the line, if you will. particularly Adams. Let's look at the PFR AV:

Pfr_2012_tackles_medium

As before, if a player didn't make it through the filter they were ranked by the slot their rating would fit into. According to PFF, Andre Smith is the best tackle in the AFC North, followed two slots later by Joe Thomas. But according to the PFR AV it isn't close—Thomas is a far better tackle than anyone else, and Andrew Whitworth is better than Smith. Chacun à son goût, as the French would say.

Here's Trending, PFF:
Pff_trending_tackles_medium

And here's PFR AV:

Pfr_trending__tackles_medium

Maybe the Max Starks apologists have a point. Starks wasn't as highly rated in 2012 as Joe Thomas or Andrew Whitworth, but he was rated as highly as Michael Oher. Oh, wait...

Now that we have looked at the individual information for the guys, let's take a look at line rankings. These are rankings, so the chart goes from 1 to 32, and lower is better: The first set of charts is from Advanced NFL Stats and Cold Hard Football Facts:

Anfl__chff_medium

The two sites are looking at slightly different things, but it is striking how little they agree. The only one that is even close is Cleveland. CHFF also shows how much the team moved in the index from the previous year. While the Bengals and Browns stayed pat, the Ravens fell three slots and the Steelers fell six slots.

It is interesting to look at the factors which went into the CHFF ranking. Here they are:

Chff_stuff_medium

"Yards per rush attempt" is self-explanatory, and rather damning if you're a Steelers fan. Since a negative pass play is undesirable, a lower percentage is better. The final column is the Success Rate, not the Suck rate, and as you can see the Steelers were particularly good there. As I recall they were at some otherworldly percentage in that stat before Ben got injured. But overall it was the run game which did the Steelers in.

Now, Football Outsiders:

Fo_o_line_medium

As you can see they separate their rankings into run blocking and pass protection, and not surprisingly Pittsburgh did a lot better with the latter than the former.

Pro Football Focus has a "Signature Stat" called Pass Blocking Efficiency, and you see it in the first chart. But I thought it would be interesting to not just consider the overall numbers for the season but to look at each week through the season. First, the season average (remember lower is better):

Pff_pass_blk_medium

Now, the trend. Rather than a ranking these are the rating figures, so higher is better:

Pff_pass_blk_trend_medium

We can see that even with much more stable lines such as the ones fielded by Cincinnati and Cleveland there is a fair amount of variation, but the overall rating is high. On the few occasions they dipped down, let's see who they were playing and what the game results were:

Cincinnati Bengals:

Week 2: Cleveland Browns, W (34-27) Week 12; Oakland Raiders, W (34-10) Week 15; Philadelphia Eagles, W (34-13)

Cleveland Browns:

The Browns had a bit of a slow start, but by Week 5 they were in fine form. Here are the anomalies thereafter:

Week 7: Indianapolis Colts, L (17-13); Week 11: Dallas Cowboys, L (23-20); Week 17: Pittsburgh Steelers, L (24-10)

Curious. It looks as if the Bengals play better when they aren't as good at pass blocking,..

Now for the Steelers and the Ravens, whose performance in this metric was unimpressive for the most part.

Baltimore Ravens:

Week 2: Philadelphia Eagles, L (24-23); Week 5: Kansas City Chiefs, W (9-6); Week 12: San Diego Chargers, W (16-13); Week 15: Denver Broncos, L (34-17)

Pittsburgh Steelers:

Week 1: Denver Broncos, L (31-19); Week 6: Tennessee Titans, L (26-23); Week 14: San Diego Chargers, L (34-24); Week 16: Cincinnati Bengals, L (13-10)

I said I wasn't going to talk about the post-season, but I am just going to throw in these nuggets. In Week 17 the Ravens garnered an 82.1 rating; the Bengals 84.2. If you look at the Wild Card game the Bengals O-line received an 81.3 rating, lower than all but three of their regular season games. Conversely, the Ravens received an 82.1 rating, the same as their last game of the regular season, and climbed from there. In the Divisional Round they received an 89.6 rating; in the Conference round an 89.7. In the Super Bowl they fell back to 83.6, better than all but five of their regular season games. Jim Caldwell is a genius, or at least he was in his O-line shuffling. His first game was Week 15, and from there they climbed steadily until the Super Bowl.

So let's look at Pittsburgh's line. Although the line was, generally speaking, better at pass blocking than run blocking, it varied a good bit. Let's look at the trend chart again, this time with just the Steelers on it, and compare it to the personnel shifts:

Pff_pit_medium
Week 1: Pittsburgh wasn't the only AFC North team to struggle with the Denver pass rush. It was Willie Colon's first-ever game at guard, and he graded out at a -3.5 overall. Yet he graded out with 1.3 overall for the season, so this was perhaps his worst game. Things were looking a lot rosier until Week 6 in Tennessee. Let's see what happened, from the AP recap:

Center Maurkice Pouncey injured his right leg on the Steelers' first play from scrimmage and was ruled out for the rest of the game. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert hurt his right ankle in the second quarter. Doug Legursky stepped in for Pouncey, while rookie Mike Adams replaced Gilbert. A Steelers drive stalled when Derrick Morgan got around Adams and sacked Roethlisberger.

Maybe it isn't so surprising the line struggled in this game. They weren't a lot better in Week 7 vs. the Bengals, although they managed to win anyhow. Maurkice Pouncey was still out, and of course Gilbert didn't return for the rest of the season, although he hadn't been IR'd yet. Mike Adams made his first official start. Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman had also been ruled out for the game, and both men are excellent pass blockers, so this didn't help.

On to Weeks 9, 10, and 11. What happened there? The three games were @ New York Giants, vs. Kansas City, vs. Baltimore. In all three games Mike Adams struggled in pass protection, ranking at or near the bottom of the league, except for Kansas City, when he was a pedestrian No. 39 of 54 ranked tackles. Isaac Redman, Baron Batch and Chris Rainey were the sole healthy backs for the Giants game, and while not embarrassingly bad, neither Batch nor Rainey were particularly good pass blockers last season, although Batch is distinctly better than Rainey (or Ray Rice for that matter.) Both Redman and Dwyer were active for the following two games. However, Isaac Redman left the game vs. Baltimore with a concussion.

The other members of the offensive line varied a great deal in how well they performed. Maurkice Pouncey was a pedestrian middle of the league in all three games, with the third game being the worst. Week 11 was Max Starks' only good game (all of this, naturally, in terms of the PFF guys' determinations.) Willie Colon and Ramon Foster took it in turn to be great. Colon was tied for first place in Week 9, but was 14th and 36th in the next two weeks (out of 58 ranks players.) Foster was No. 21, No. 33, and tied for No. 1 in the same three games.

None of those three games were dire, though. The more interesting question is, what happen in Weeks 14 and 16?

Let's be honest here. It's hard to pass protect for a quarterback who is unsure of himself, as Rothlisberger appeared to be. The San Diego game was his first back from injury, and you know he was wondering what was going to happen if he took a hit. In a game in which a few 10ths of a second makes a potential difference in the outcome of a play, any subliminal hesitation on the part of your quarterback is going to make life more interesting on the line.

And, of course, Willie Colon and Mike Adams had joined Marcus Gilbert on the bench, Kelvin Beachum was starting at right tackle, Maurkice Pouncey moved to guard, and Doug Legursky was playing center. The results were not pretty.

Why San Diego could come in with a line signed off the street and rank No. 3 in pass blocking efficiency for that game, I couldn't tell you. Maybe the defensive coaches would be able to enlighten us on this matter. But the Chargers had nothing to lose. The Steelers had a great deal to lose, and they lost it, too, although the big win of the day was that Roethlisberger was still ambulatory by the end of the game.

In the game previous to Week 16 vs. Cincinnati, lest we forget, David DeCastro made his first NFL start, after spending the fall rehabbing from his ACL injury. He played pretty well, ranking No. 20 out of 34. But as many players have attested when coming back from an injury, "conditioning" isn't the same as "game conditioning," and DeCastro plummeted in Week 14 in the PFF ranking to No. 44, out of 44 ranked guards. Ramon Foster didn't have one of his best games, either, coming in at No. 34. Max Starks turned in a stinker as well, giving up a hit as well as three hurries. Kelvin Beachum actually graded out better than Starks, coming in at No. 24 out of 49. He only gave up two hurries. How much help he had from, say, Heath Miller, we'll never know. Maurkice Pouncey gave up a sack.

Sorry this was so long, but it serves to illustrate some of what goes on behind the scenes when the coaching staff is constantly juggling players. Cincinnati juggled centers, but Jeff Faine played over half the total, and was ranked in the upper half of the league. The rest of the line was solid. Baltimore had the luxury of tweaking their lineup when all their players were healthy to find the best combination, and it served them well in the playoffs.

And I'm tired now, and have a concert to conduct, so I'm not going to go through the same exercise for the run blocking. I'll just mention that Willie Colon was by far the best run blocker of the guards. None of the guards even graded positively, except Colon, who would have graded in the top ten overall if he had managed sufficient snaps to clear the filter. Ramon Foster, conversely graded out almost at the bottom of the league. Of the tackles, only Mike Adams graded above zero (barely.) That put him at 38 of 80 tackles graded. Max Starks was No. 77. Enough said. Maurkice Pouncey was the best run blocker on the team, by far, after Willie Colon. It's a shame they couldn't have played together the whole season.

All this to say that, before the Steelers worry too much about their running backs, they'd better, in my opinion, worry about who is blocking for them, and how. As we saw last season, when the line was working well together and had a few weeks with the same personnel, either a sixth-round pick (Jonathan Dwyer) or a UDFA (Isaac Redman) could rack up 100+ yard games. It's pretty hard to run through a hole that isn't there.

In one of the comments below, lqwdsteel asked:

can someone explain that PFF ranking

because any ranking that had Gilbert above Adams last year has some serious flaws… unless of course you get extra points for getting blown up so badly that you not only endanger your skill players, but you take out half of the O-line also.

I can't speak for the folks at PFF, but I can show you what went into the total ranking. Here is a screenshot of the weekly breakdown for Gilbert:

Pff_ss_medium

Anything highlighted in green is, in their rating system, significantly above an average player for that position. As you can see, his best work was in two of the four games the line was best for the season. (He was already out by the other two good games.) And not that none of his scores are highlighted in red. That means that, in the judgment of the PFF folks, he never, in any aspect, played worse than an average player. (The area between +1 and -1 is all counted as "average." Note also they did not credit him with a single sack in the 5+ games he played.

Whether one agrees with their conclusions or not, the PFF people watch every single game from the standpoint of each individual player to try to grade things. So they, after watching the various players, decide which player is responsible for a sack, a hit, or a hurry, or for the line not getting the necessary push to open a hole for a run, or whatever the scheme is. Of course, they don't always know the play calls, and therefore I assume they occasionally assign blame to the wrong player, when if the truth were know, it was a blown route or what have you that caused the problem. I suspect they get it right more often than they get it wrong. Obviously these things are subject to a great deal of interpretation, especially in something as interconnected as the functioning of an offensive line.

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