March 6, 2013

Winning Football Starts in the Trenches

By - Brad Heerschop

I was recently involved in a discussion during which the question was asked: "If you were the owner of an NFL expansion franchise, where would you start in building your roster?" The overwhelming consensus was to begin with the offensive and defensive lines and build around those units.

The fact is, good teams tend to play well on both sides of the line. Dominant teams generally have this much in common. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, teams that don't play well at the line of scrimmage don't maintain high levels of success for extended periods of time.

Photo by: Getty Images
Linemen are the unsung heroes of the great game of football. The biggest men on the field have to work as a cohesive unit to control the line of scrimmage in order for their teams to compete each Sunday. They work hard on every play, yet for the most part, are the forgotten bunch when it comes to the fame and glory the game brings. They seldom are names well-known throughout the world and are rarely considered for MVP honors. This is especially true on the offensive side of the ball.

Being a former linemen, I have taken it upon myself to give these players some recognition. There are very few stats for offensive linemen and gap stuffing defensive linemen, that are indicative of how well they play their part for their team. I have comprised a system to rank the play in the trenches of each NFL club. It is by no means completely accurate, but it takes into consideration many aspects of the game.

Statistics I took into account when choosing the greatest lines in the NFL are rushing yards, yards per carry and sacks, on both sides of the ball. Along with other factors, this gave me a formula to select the three teams that dominated most off the ball during the 2012 NFL season. I have included fullbacks and tight ends as well, since they are intricate parts of a team's front line.

I realize there are other factors, such as how many times each quarterback dropped back to pass, broken tackles and injuries. Not to mention the talent level of each team's "skill position" players. But nonetheless, this is what the formula gave me for the best lines in football.

3. (Tie) Houston Texans (12-4) and San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1)

These two teams should come as no surprise. The Texans had the best record in the AFC for most of the 2012 season. They had 9 Pro Bowl players, 5 of whom were linemen. That list consists of Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt (DE), Owen Daniels (TE), Chris Meyers (C), Wade Smith (G) and Duane Brown (OT). In my opinion, Brown is the best tackle in the game today. The 49ers, as we all know, were the NFC champs, and that success began at the core of the game -- on the lines. They had 3 linemen go to Honolulu this year; Mike Iupati (G), Joe Staley (OT) and Justin Smith (DE).

2. Denver Broncos

The Broncos ended the year tied with the Falcons for the league's best record (13-3). Led by Elvis Dumervil (DE) their defensive line had more quarterback sacks than any team in the NFL. They also finished second in yards per carry and third in rushing yards per game. On the other side of the ball, they were no slouches either. Led by Pro Bowlers Ryan Clady (OT) and Zane Beadles (G), they finished second in the league in total sacks allowed. Considering their quarterback is hardly the league's most mobile signal caller, this is a testament to what that unit did all year.

1. Minnesota Vikings

This may come as a surprise to some, but it shouldn't. Although Adrian Peterson was incredible this year, not enough credit was given to the men in front of him. Pro Bowl FB Jerome Felton led the way for AP on most of his carries, making huge holes for the talented back to maneuver through. Kyle Rudolph and Matt Kalil were sent to the Pro Bowl as well for their part in AP's historic season. On the defensive side of the ball, the Vikings were in the top 12 in every major category. Led by perennial Pro Bowler Jared Allen, they helped take the NFC North's basement dweller of 2011 to a playoff berth and a surprising 10-6 record in 2012.

Other teams that deserve an honorable mention are the Washington Redskins, New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks. They all came close to topping this list. Overall, every team that did well in this study also participated in the 2012 postseason.

The teams that did poorly, were not much of a surprise, either. Arguably, the two worst teams in the league, Jacksonville and Arizona, finished 32nd and 31st, respectively. The only surprise in the bottom bunch were the Indianapolis Colts, clearly the exception to this rule, finishing 30th in the NFL.

The purpose of this research was to solidify what I already thought to be true. Great teams win games at the line of scrimmage. The best teams of all-time all had great play from their big men, and it's a shame that the media hype doesn't surround these players more often.

There's a reason that quarterbacks take their offensive linemen out to dinner after victories. There's a reason the men who play the lines well have higher contracts than a lot of players who are household names. And there's a reason that great linemen garnish high draft picks in this quarterback-driven league. The players in the trenches are the heart and soul of every NFL franchise. Those who are well schooled in the game will attest to the value great linemen bring to each team.


  1. Great job brad, but my guys didn't go to Honolulu , they went to the Super Bowl :-) but I get what your saying. They might of lost but they were there . Its very true because they are the heart of the team. They do all the dirty work .

  2. Good point Matt. Saying Pro Bowl repeatedly gets redundant, but I suppose that was the one point in the article where calling it Honolulu was invalid. Ah well. The point is there. Thanks for checking it out.

  3. I completely agree. Success starts with the lines. They don't get near enough credit.

  4. Add my team to the list of teams with bad o-lines. Smh

  5. Yeah Brian. No doubt. The Bears pass protection is awful. Their run protection isn't awful, but their line can certainly use some work. The only reason they weren't near the bottom of the list was their D line was decent enough to even things out a bit.