Which Offensive Line has the Edge Heading into 2017?
The most important position group on a football team is – without question – the offensive line. It is the foundation of any good football team. No team that has postseason success does so without a withstanding offensive line.
The offensive line is the cornerstone of championship teams.
I’m not saying all positions on the line need to be perennial Pro Bowl superstars in order to obtain any success. Talent definitely helps, but is not the only quality. A great group of offensive linemen must be a cohesive unit. A unit that functions on the same wavelength. A group so in sync with each other they function as a whole.
The best lines have players that are gritty and make their living doing the dirty work. They are choir boys when the referees are looking but when the zebra crew turn their heads, the nastiness comes out. They are built to bully, punish, and demoralize the hearts of defenses. They are a brotherhood that lay it out on the line for each other – especially for their leader.
Heading into Year 3, it’s important to understand how each offensive line affected the growth and development of both Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston. It’s also important to look at how each unit will play a role in how successful each young QB will be in 2017.
Since the focal point is on how the line influences the each Quarterback’s production, I want to focus on some of the metrics of year 1 vs year 2.
Below is a table that outlines some of the key measurement of how successful the unit was in terms of how effective the passing game was.
As can be seen above, Mariota had a higher completion percentage and rating. The figure above includes the stats of other Titans’ QBs that filled in on the games where Mariota did not play due to injury. The above numbers are an accurate reflection of Winston’s production from the pocket being that he did not miss a game.
Mariota’s solo stats for 2015 (which were featured in Part 1) indicate that he had a higher passer rating at 91.5 and better completion percentage at 62.2, while throwing 10 interceptions to Winston’s 15. Although Mariota edged out Winston in those categories, Winston threw 3 more touchdowns.
Mariota was punished and was sacked 38 times in 12 games during his rookie season. That’s an average of 3.17 times per game. At that rate, Mariota would have finished the season tying Aaron Rodgers at 51 sacks on the year. Winston would have had half as many a little less that half as many sacks.
Winston’s line would be key in helping running back Doug Martin set the tone for the offense with his career high 1,400+ yards rushing. This opened up the passing game for Winston, who put up big numbers. The Buccaneers followed their Winston selection by taking two linemen in the 2nd round in tackle Donovan Smith and center/guard Ali Marpet.
Led by Pro Bowl Guard Logan Mankins, the Buccaneers had the 5th best offense that season, primarily due to the running games’ dominance. Teammates Joe Howley, rookies Marpet and Smith, and Demar Dotson helped sure up the line and kept Winston healthy all season. Tampa had an unquestionable edge over Tennessee in terms of offensive line.
One thing was clear. The Titans had to fix their offensive line in order to protect their franchise QB.
And that’s exactly what they did.
Titans improve, Bucs not so much
Below is a chart outlining how each team did in Year 2.
New GM Jon Robinson took over and made the necessary moves to protect the former 2nd overall pick. He brought in veteran Center Ben Jones to anchor the middle.
Robinson’s wheeling-and-dealing in the 2016 draft allowed him to grab Jack Conklin. He would also select mauling Guard – Sebastian Tretola in the 6th round. Former 2nd round pick Dorial Green-Beckham was traded to the Eagles in exchange for swing tackle Dennis Kelly. Robinson would continue to make adjustments. He claimed Patriots Guard Josh Kline off waivers in early September – who would take over for 1st rounder Chance Warmack, who was placed on season ending injured reserve after deciding to undergo surgery to repair his hand.
Warmack injured his hand during the week two warm ups prior to the game against the Detroit Lions. He would still play week two, but chose surgery following the game and ended his season – and ultimately his time in Tennessee.
The Titans offensive from would help team establish the identity as grinding, ground and pound run first team. They would pave the way for new running back DeMarco Murray to have a stellar season. Players performed and produced. Conklin and Lewan locked up the outside, Jones held it down in the middle, and guards Kline and Quinton “Huggy Bear” Spain were physical at assertive at the point of attack.
Below is a chart that shows how the two units compared in terms of the passing game. Both teams threw for 29 touchdowns but Tennessee threw for for 7 less interceptions. The biggest improvement? The Titans went from leading the league in sacks allowed in 2015, to only giving up 28 total compared to the 54 the previous year.
Mankins retired and Tampa would miss his presence and productivity. Their offensive unit couldn’t help elevate the running game to 2015 form.
They did however finish the season with a winning record at 9-7. The Titans finished the season at 9-7. Both teams finished the season on the outside looking in. Playoffs were so close.
Below is a chart that looks at the overall offensive unit. As can be seen, the Buccaneers led in every statistical category. The were the better unit in 2015. Their record – and the numbers – confirm it. The Bucs were 4th in the NFC, while Tennessee was dead last.
2016 was completely different. The Titans improved in every category. The led the Buccaneers in the head-to-head look at the numbers, with the exception in the number of 1st downs.
The only stats the Titans do not want to rank higher than the Bucs – or any other team – is the number of Penalty/Penalty yards.
Now, when an offensive line is good, a lot can be contributed to the degree of nastiness they play with. This is going to result in penalties. Some the team can live with. But penalties that affect the outcome of a game need to be avoided.
The Titans are built to be even better. Their line significantly improved, and I believe a lot of the credit goes to Russ Grimm (which can be read in the previous post). The Buccaneers have the potential to be a good team, also. There is something that ultimately separates the two in who will reach the postseason first.
Their Division opponents.
Where the AFC South is the Titans for the taking – due to uncertainty if Andrew Luck’s healthy. The Colts did make strides in free agency and the draft, but there still are some question marks on if the defensive overhaul will work. There is uncertainty at the position in Houston, but their relentless defense will be a tough test for Titans linemen. And well, Blake Bortles is Blake Bortles – anything can happen. Nothing is guaranteed.
Tampa will have a harder time. Two NFC South teams have played in the NFL’s biggest game in back-to-back years. The Falcons are looking to avenge their Super Bowl meltdown. Cam Newton hopes the addition of Christian McCaffrey will help the Panthers return to the Super Bowl.
Drew Brees is Drew Brees. He has led the league in passing yards in back-to-back seasons. If Brees has a defense that can help him pick up more W’s , the Saints and newly acquired running back Adrian Peterson may also make some noise in the NFC South.
The Titans should be the favorite for a playoff birth in year 3 over Tampa if they can finally get some wins in the division.
One thing that cannot be questioned is the brotherhood of Grimm’s Reapers.
Tennessee’s offensive line is just going to improve and get better.
*** I do not claim any credit for the photographs featured above. All credit goes to their respective author(s). Stats referenced were from team sites, nfl.com, espn.go.com***