From pass protection to run blocking, every aspect of the modern NFL offence runs through the O-line. Aside from skill position players themselves, nothing has a larger impact on the outcome of a play call than the battle up front. In the Offensive Line Overview series, we look at which of the league's 32 offensive lines are trending up and down.
Without further ado, let's check in on the state of the NFL's trenches heading into Week 9:
Though the Steelers' star players remain surrounded by drama and instability, the offensive line has achieved a consistency in recent weeks that the rest of the AFC North can only gaze upon with envy. Despite missing RT Marcus Gilbert due to a knee injury, the offensive front only allowed quarterback Ben Roethlisberer to be sacked a single time (their first sack allowed since Week 4), and created huge holes to allow James Conner to rush for 146 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. The Browns' defensive line, a sturdy unit in their own right, were routinely outclassed by C Maurkice Pouncey (six time Pro Bowler, two time All-Pro), veteran LG Ramon Foster, and RG David DeCastro – who's making yet another case for himself as the best right guard in football. The importance of Pittsburgh's solid backup play can't be overstated either, as evidenced by such a solid performance in Gilbert's absence: B.J. Finney, Chucks Okorafor and Matt Feiler have all played like part-time starters when called upon to enter the line, giving Steelers fans and fantasy owners alike the confidence to believe that this unit will remain atop the league all season. It's no surprise that Conner hugged each one of the team's offensive linemen and thanked them for paving the way for a breakout season after the team's Week 8 win.
What to Watch: Le'Veon who? James Conner has put up at least 100 rushing yards and two touchdowns in each of the Steelers' last three games, and shows no signs of slowing down.
The Texans spent much of this season in the "Fallers" portion of this column, due in large part to a brutal start to the year. It's true that Houston's O-line had nowhere to go but up, but the unit deserves credit their achievements over the last two weeks – not only has the Texans' offensive line no longer looked like the worst unit in the league, they've looked altogether dominant. Last Thursday's 42-23 win over the Dolphins feels like ages ago, but the numbers still stand out: the O-line allowed zero sacks, a single QB hit and only six QB pressures in what was by far the best showing of the season. The team's run-blocking also performed at a season-high level, paving the way for Lamar Miller to rack up 133 yards and a touchdown on 18 rushing attempts. Miller's 7.4 YPC was his best showing of the year without a close contestant.
What to Watch: Last we saw second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson, he was slinging five touchdown passes without an interception. Some may expect a sharp downtick in scoring coming from Watson after losing Will Fuller for the season, he's still surrounded by a competent running game, an offensive line that's churning and a league-leading WR talent in DeAndre Hopkins. With veteran Demaryius Thomas (5x Pro Bowler) now also on the roster, it's not hard to imagine that Watson will find a way to maintain top-end QB numbers.
The O-line was Carolina's biggest concern to begin the season – Andrew Norwell packed his bags to board the free agency train, and both Matt Kalil and Daryl Williams were lost for the season before Week 2 – things couldn't have looked worse for the offensive front, and analysts were wondering how Cam Newton would perform in the face of a season filled with consistent pressure. But the NFL season is nothing if not a season of change: fast forward to the present, and the Panthers are coming off dominant win over the Ravens, in which the offensive line did not allow Cam Newton to take a single sack against a defense that led the league in sacks with 27. In fact, Carolina's O-line has allowed the third-fewest sacks in the league (10), and paved the way for the team's sixth-ranked rushing attack (averaging 138 yards per game).
What to Watch: Cam Newton is in the midst of a career-best season as a passer, with a 66.4% completion rate and at least two touchdowns in six straight games. He has a golden matchup against the league-worst Buccaneers defense this week, and should serve as a high-end QB1.
It's rare for a team to enter the "Fallers" section coming of a bye week, but the Cowboys have managed to do just that. The team's surprise firing of offensive line coach Paul Alexander certainly draws attention to the O-line's drop in quality play this season, but it remains to be seen whether the decision will serve to fix those problems. Assistant line coach Marc Colombo, who played on the Cowboys' O-line from 2005-10, steps into Alexander's former role. Heading into Week 9 of the regular season, the offensive front has allowed quarterback Dak Prescott to be sacked 23 times (ninth most in the league). Prescott ranks 27th in the league in passing yards, behind quarterbacks who've missed multiple games like Carson Wentz, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Baker Mayfield, and has led Dallas' offense to only 20 points per game, good for 26th in the NFL. Shifts to the O-line weren't the only moves made in an attempt to bolster the passing game during the Cowboys' bye week, though: former first-round pick Amari Cooper, who springs to mind wearing a Raiders jersey, was acquired for a 2019 first-rounder in the hopes of finally giving Prescott a reliable, big-body target. There's a danger to shifting parts around and relying on entirely new pieces in the middle of the season, so it wouldn't be surprising if the Cowboys struggled to fully acclimatize to these changes in a messy game against the Titans on Monday – but on the positive side, these moves could end up paying off in the future.
What to Watch: While the Cowboys' passing offence has struggled in large part due to the offensive line, the team ranks fourth in the league in rushing and Ezekiel Elliott has rushed for the second-most yards by any running back this season (619). This coaching shift shouldn't have any large impact on Zeke's fantasy value one way or another.
New York Giants: The Giants' offensive line has been a nagging talking point all season, and fell face first into the spotlight once mor during Sunday's 20-13 loss to the Redskins, in which quarterback Eli Manning was sacked seven times and suffered 10 QB hits. Washington, prior to Sunday's win over the G-Men, had accumulated only 14 sacks on the season – they matched half their season's sack total in one game against New York's O-line. Manning threw two interceptions, and electric rookie running back Saquon Barkley was held to just 38 yards on 14 carries. New York's offense is nigh-unwatchable as is, and has been unable foster sustainable weekly fantasy production through the passing game. The Giants will certainly attempt to address their O-line issues during a week 9 bye, but no apparent solution seems to exist for the team outside of somehow fostering better play from a front five who have, all season, performed at an unflinchingly poor level.
What to Watch: As durable as quarterback Eli Manning is, it can't be ignored that the 37-year-old already been sacked 31 times, putting him on place for an astounding 62 sacks on the season. Eli has already taken more sacks this year than he did in the entire 2017 season (not to mention that he's been hit 59 times through eight weeks), and his continued health shouldn't be taken for granted. Coupled with rising criticisms of Eli's play, it seems increasingly likely that one of Alex Tanney or Kyle Lauletta could get a chance to play snaps under center sometime this season.