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This offensive line can’t pass block

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Los Angeles Rams v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks managed to upend the Los Angeles Rams on Thursday, with the usually reliable Greg Zuerlein missing a field goal in the final seconds that would have given the Rams the lead. With the victory the Hawks move to 4-1 on the season and into second place in the NFC West, with first place a possibility if the San Francisco 49ers lose to the Cleveland Browns on Monday.

In any case, Russell Wilson was brilliant against the Rams, in spite of the constant pressure he faced. By my count he was pressured or sacked on 17 of 30 dropbacks, and it’s a minor miracle that he was only sacked once. Aaron Donald and Dante Fowler led the way for the Rams defense, but Clay Matthews, Cory Littleton, Greg Gaines, Samson Ebukam, Morgan Fox, Michael Brockers and Sebastian Joseph-Day all applied pressure to Russ as well at some point during the game. Just to give an example of what Donald did to the line over the course of the game, here’s a breakdown from Brian Baldinger that looks at Donald literally hopping right past D.J. Fluker.

So, the question becomes, what’s up with the line. Many fans were convinced that the team’s offensive line had turned the corner in 2018, and were ready for a marked improvement. Instead, what they’ve seen is Russ being pressured at levels somewhat similar to prior seasons. Seeing that has led to the type of exchange that took place in this week’s piece in the Look at the Line series,

While it’s likely not possible for us to know for certain what the actual root cause of the regression this season, there are a couple of factors at play. First, Thomas Emerick, who does a significant amount of research on offensive lines and their impact on fantasy for sites such as RotoViz and The Sporting News has found that new schemes often outperform during the first year of implementation. Thus, it’s possible that 2018 was in part the result of the fact that there wasn’t any tape on the Seahawks system and tendencies for defenses to rely on.

From there, while it’s likely nearly impossible to measure the impact of a single coach from the perspective of player development, the idea positronic raises in his comment may be on point. Specifically, if there is a continual systemic failure that leads to a specific outcome, then why not try to identify that issue. Thus, maybe it’s helpful, maybe it’s not, but recently I’ve worked to put together a massive database consisting of various offensive linemen, the offensive line coaches for whom they played and their PFF grades.

To boil everything down as simply as possible, what I did was to look at the performance of offensive linemen who played for various offensive line coaches over various seasons based on PFF grades, and then from there to see if there were any patterns or trends in player development. Obviously, this all hinges on how much stock one wishes to put into PFF grades, so one can interpret the data as one wishes. For those who believe PFF grades are nothing more than marketable hogwash for the uneducated, that’s fine. For those who believe that PFF grades some in a close second to the bible, that’s fine too. Most will likely fall somewhere in between, and can take the data, accept that it may or may not have some value, and then go on with their life with a fun little bit of trivia to know.

In any case, while many are surprised by the fact that the Seahawks offensive line appears to have regressed this season, it may not be as much of a surprise for those who may have undertaken such an analysis as this previously. Specifically, Seattle offensive line coach Mike Solari has been employed several different places during the PFF era (2006-present), we are able to look at how players under his tutelage have developed during his time coaching them. During that period Solari has been the offensive line coach for the following teams:

  • 2008-2009: Seattle Seahawks
  • 2010-2014: San Francisco 49ers
  • 2016-2017: New York Giants
  • 2018-2019: Seattle Seahawks

To isolate things as much as possible, what I did is to only look at players who played at least 100 snaps in the season before Solari became the offensive line coach, as well as at least 100 snaps in each of the first two seasons they played under Solari. Because of the large amount of turnover at various offensive line positions, this yielded a sample of only 16 offensive linemen, however, even with such a small sample, the outcomes were largely divided into two groups, which are shown in the charts below. (Author’s note: There is no difference between the two charts, it’s just that the charts were far easier to read when the data was split up into these two groups.)

In that second chart it certainly appears that there may be a first year bump in performance, followed by a second year regression. That would be consistent with what Emerick has found, and it could also help explain what we’ve seen play out on the field this season.

However, those first two charts are based on overall grades, and since PFF does break down an offensive lineman’s performance into both pass and run blocking, let’s take a look at what the pass blocking grades look like.

I’ll leave it up to the reader to interpret those charts as one wishes. There are several different ways to interpret the data in the charts, including that the grades are the result of the style or system of blocking that is used rather than an accurate measure of the players’ skill and development. Thus, it’s simply something to keep in mind as the season progresses and we continue to look for improvement from the line and it’s individual pieces.