It's a cliche, but football really is won in the trenches.
Yesterday, Kyle wrote about Ohio State's focus on rebuilding the offensive line for this fall. Today, I'd like to take a closer, more analytic look at just how good the Buckeyes' line was over the past two years and why the success of the 2012 line gives hope for this season.
First, we'll get a little technical, breaking down the methodology for quantifying run-blocking success, while the second half looks at Ohio State's offensive line under this microscope.
It's hard to quantify how valuable an offensive line is. Sacks allowed and rushing yards per attempt give a semblance of an idea, not the complete story. A great offensive line can give up bunches of sacks if its quarterback holds onto the ball forever; a lousy offensive line could have its ineffectiveness masked by an explosive running back who churns out yards after contact. Take these two hypothetical lines:
Line A produces nice holes for its running backs and gains exactly five yards on each run. Line B gets no push and is stuffed for 19 one-yard runs, but has one nice play and makes a crease for its speedy running back who takes it 81 yards for a touchdown. How much of those 81 yards was the offensive line responsible for? Just the first few, and the running back took it from there. Line A and Line B produce the same statistics, yet one of these lines is great and the other is lousy.
This brings us to a stat called "Good Blocking Rate" (GBR), used by advanced stat wonks such as the Football Outsiders. GBR is the percentage of rushing attempts in which the offensive line provides good blocking, which they loosely define as "when the offense does not allow the defense to disrupt a rushing attempt." This data is collected for the NFL by re-watching each game and determining for each rushing play whether the team blocked well.
Short of re-watching and charting every play from last season, I used play-by-play records and some parameters to determine good run blocking, which I define as "designed running plays that gained at least three yards." It's essentially what's needed to get to the second level of the defense; by this point, the running back has cleared the defensive line and the offensive line has done its job. Another way to think of it: "good blocking" means the running back is untouched until reaching the linebackers or second level of the defense.
Quarterback scrambles are excluded, as they are not designed running plays. Successful short-yardage plays are also considered good blocking (i.e. a two-yard touchdown run).
With all that out of the way, here are Ohio State's numbers from the past two years. A rule of thumb I've found for college teams1 is as follows: anything above 60% is solid, 65% is very good, and 70% is elite. 75% for a season is unheard of.
|Rushing attempts||Good Blocking||Good blocking Rate (gbr)|
Again, unheard of.
Here's Ohio State's 2012 season broken out by opponent:
And here's the following season, which may be among the best we'll ever see:
The 2013 offensive line was an exceptional unit, there's really no other way to put it. The 74.9% GBR makes the 67.2% from 2012 – itself a good score – look pedestrian, but without context these numbers don't mean much.
In context, Ohio State runners were essentially untouched until they reached the linebackers three out of every four runs. That sounds pretty good, but how good? Let's compare these numbers to some of the other top college lines of 2013 to help them make a bit more sense.
|Team||Good Blocking Rate (GBR)|
Alabama, Auburn, and Stanford had several NFL players on their lines and some of the best rushing attacks in college football. Their methods are different; Alabama and Stanford were the definition of pro-style power football, while Auburn's running game stems from the Hurry-Up No-Huddle and wing-T rushing concepts.
Yet Ohio State's offensive line performed better than all three of them, and it wasn't close. These teams can claim stronger schedules, no doubt, but having a mutual opponent of Michigan State supports the stance that Ohio State's offensive line was superior to Stanford's at the least. Ohio State posted a 73.7% GBR against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game while Stanford had a 44.1% GBR against the Spartans at the Rose Bowl.
Consider the 2012 offensive line's success as well. The 67.2% is phenomenal, better than Alabama's line was this year. The 2012 line featured a center (Corey Linsley) that had never started a game, a left tackle (Jack Mewhort) who had never played tackle before, a right tackle (Reid Fragel) who was a tight end in the previous season. The "experienced" guy was Andrew Norwell, who started at left tackle for the first half of his sophomore season before moving inside.
Ohio State posted a 73.7% GBR against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game while Stanford had a 44.1% GBR against the Spartans at the Rose Bowl.
This group is miles ahead of the 2012 line. Taylor Decker and Chad Lindsay bring good experience competing on great lines, and Pat Elflein has valuable playing time in the two biggest games of the season. Even the two other guys (presumably Antonio Underwood and Darryl Baldwin) have been in the program for a few years now and are entering their third off-seasons with Warinner. They should be expected to perform at a high level from game one.
After only one off-season of coaching from Ed Warinner that group was one of the top offensive lines in the country. One year later they were the top offensive line in the country. If that group could put up better numbers than Alabama in their first year with a new staff, there is no reason for concern in the offensive line. In fact, I'll take it a step further: I believe this year's offensive line will surpass the 2012 group and once again perform like one of the top lines in the country.
Football is won up front and the offensive line will be the key to a playoff run for the Buckeyes this year. These guys have big shoes to fill, but you'd better believe they'll be up for the challenge.
- 1 Running the ball in the NFL is much tougher. The Buffalo Bills were the NFL's top offensive line in 2012 at 52.3%. ↑