Detroit Lions Offensive Line Analysis: Part I

>> 12.15.2010

Detroit Lions offensive line: offensive tackle George Foster (72), center Dominic Raiola (51), guard Edwin Mulitalo (64), and offensive tackle Jeff Backus (76) line up in the red zone in the Atlanta Falcons 34-21 victory over the Detroit Lions.  Sigh.In the 1993 offseason, the Lions attempted to compensate for the tragic death of All-Pro guard Eric Andolsek—and freak paralysis of G Mike Utley—by signing three free agent linemen: Dave Lutz, Bill Fralic, and Dave Richards.  I clearly remember the newspaper headline that echoed a quote from a coach: “Lions Add ‘900 Pounds of Beef’.”  The gambit didn’t work, and the Lions have been frantically sandbagging the offensive line ever since.

Those who’ve been reading since the beginning might remember that I wrote about that memory last spring, while contemplating the additions of Gosder Cherilus, George Foster, Jon Jansen, Ephraim Salaam, and Daniel Loper over the preceding year.  Four of those five are gone—yet I’ve noted several times this season that the offensive line is better than you think it is, especially in pass protection.  Many have rampantly bashed Cherilus, as well as usual suspects like Backus and Raiola all year long.  Many and called for drastic action to overhaul the offensive line, theoretically to protect the Lions’ investment in Matthew Stafford.  Few, however, seem to realize that the Lions’ O-line is keeping its quarterbacks clean as well as any in the NFL.

Sean Jensen, Bears writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, posted the latest “New York Life Protection Index” stats, while lamenting the Bears’ position on that table (dead last).  This metric, per the creators:

“ . . . was created by sports information leader STATS to provide a composite gauge for this undervalued component of the game. While the New York Life Protection Index is calculated using a proprietary formula, the fundamentals are comprised of the length of a team’s pass attempts combined with penalties by offensive linemen, sacks allowed and quarterback hurries and knockdowns.”

Okay, so check out the New York Life Protection Index, and check out where the Lions rate: ninth.  Ninth?  Yes: ninth-best in the NFL, first-best in the NFC North.  Yes, in pass protection.  Yes, the Lions.  I’m tempted to crow about how all of my suspicions have been confirmed, and how my own eyes have been seeing the truth while all others’ have been clouded with lies and suspicion, and on and on and on, except . . .

The Colts are first.  The Colts, whose profound struggles on the offensive line are a matter of fact, are ranked #1 by this metric.  This reminds me of that year the Lions allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL, at least in part because Joey Harrington was throwing the ball into the stands on every third dropback.  Something similar has to be happening here with Peyton Manning and the Colts’ patchwork line . . . but how do we capture it?  Let’s examine another advanced offensive line metric, one that’s far less of a “black box.”

Football Outsiders’ Offensive Line Rankings feature a variety of interesting stats.  First and foremost, there’s Adjusted Line Yards, which their attempt to mathematically isolate yards gained because the offensive line got good push from yard gained because the running back broke a play open.  The mathematical methods Football Outsiders uses to isolate offensive line yards are detailed here, but for now let’s just see how the Lions stack up.

  • Adjusted Line Yards: 3.25 per carry, ranked dead last in the NFL.
  • Power Success: 59%, ranked 17th in the NFL.
  • Stuffed: 25%, ranked 27th in the NFL.
  • 2nd Level Yards: 1.00, ranked 25th in the NFL.
  • Open Field Yards: 0.43, ranked 28th in the NFL.

So, the Lions’s offensive line isn’t doing great; it’s actually the worst run-blocking line in football.  Detroit running backs have the least daylight to work with of any in the NFL.  This, unlike the Colts being #1 in pass protection, jibes with what we’ve seen on the field.  But Football Outsiders’ ALY stat can drill down even deeper.  They’ve actually broken down the Adjusted Line Yards by gap: “A” gap (between center and either guard), left and right “B” gap (between guard and tackle), and “C” gap (outside tackle/between OT & TE).  Here’s what they came up with for the Lions:

32 DET 4.65 13 3.7 25 3.33 30 2.73 32 1.61 32
- NFL 4.31 - 4.19 - 4.06 - 4.03 - 4.06 -

This table has two rows: the Lions, and the NFL average.  Working from left to right, we see that runs to the outside of Jeff Backus, or between Backus and the tight end, get the benefit of slightly-above-average run blocking.  Runs between Backus and Sims have get below-average help from the line.  Runs on either side of Dominic Raiola get poor help from the offensive line, runs between Stephen Peterman and Gosder Cherilus are at a steep disadvantage to the rest of the NFL, and . . . well, just don’t run to the outside of Gosder.

This is both surprising and unsurprising.  First, remember when the Lions passed on Michael Oher to take Brandon Pettigrew?  Some subscribed to the notion that Pettigrew’s size and blocking would result in improved pass protection and running lanes anyway—getting “offensive line help” without actually drafting a lineman.  Football Outsiders’ stats show this is exactly what’s happening, which is surprising and exciting.  What isn’t surprising is the total lack of daylight in the A gaps.  Stephen Peterman has been playing hurt, and Lord do we ever see it here.  And Gosder?  I had no idea the Lions were struggling so much to run behind him.  These numbers are flatly appalling for a 6’-7”, 325-pound RT with a legendary mean streak.

Okay, so the left side of the Lions' line is average at run blocking, and the center and right side are butt-naked last in the NFL.  So how did the Lions end up with the ninth-best offensive line by the New York Life Protection Index?  Well, because that looked only at pass protection.  Well, what does Football Outsiders have to say about pass blocking?

Adjusted Sack Rate (ASR)/Sack Rate: Sack Rate represents sacks divided by pass plays, which include passes, sacks, and aborted snaps. It is a better measure of pass blocking than total sacks because it takes into account how often an offense passes the ball. Adjusted Sack Rate adds adjustments for opponent quality, as well as down and distance (sacks are more common on third down, especially third-and-long).

The Lions rank 4th in the NFL in adjusted sack rate, having allowed just 24 sacks while passing constantly against tough competition.  Above them are the Saints, the Giants, and . . . at number one . . . the Colts.  Okay, so this metric has its limitations, too—it’s still derived almost entirely from sacks.  Clearly, we can’t just measure pass protection by sacks allowed, because sacks are as often taken by quarterbacks as they are allowed by the offensive line.  Aaron Schatz ended the 2003 “Fun With Sacks” article where he conceived of Adjusted Sack Rate with the following plea:

Consider this a public request: If you have an idea for another statistic to measure pass blocking/pass rushing, please let me know. The never-ending quest for knowledge marches forward!

Coming up in Part II: we march.


BenderCU December 16, 2010 at 12:51 PM  

I've never really understood the people nagging about gutting the O-line to "protect" QB better, anyone actually watching the games should be able to see that the QB isn't taking many sacks or much pressure really. Hillard played extremely well against clay matthews last week, the one sack he "gave up" was stanton's fault imo.

My only complaint with the O-line is the running game. I'm really surprised by the numbers off the R-end, i'd have expected those in the middle but not off the R-end. I'd really like to see Raiola as a back up, he just doesn't seem big/strong enough to run block up the middle.

NorthLeft12 December 16, 2010 at 1:03 PM  

Ty, I think you are reaching a bit regarding the stats and Grew's contributions in run blocking. Another site, ProFootballFocus, has regularly made negative comments regarding Brandon's blocking skills. I don't pay for full access so I don't know where they have him graded in the NFL for blocking, but they make it clear that he is not a very good blocking TE. With Grew's size and reputation, this is very disappointing. Unless you chart where Grew lines up and blocks for those runs around end, you really can't say what his contribution is. I would tend to think that he lines up on both sides equally as often, so his contribution is really a wash when comparing how the Lions run to each side. Might be interesting to compare to the runs when Heller is in the game.

By the way, has anyone seen Tony Scheffler? If he is still playing, I sure don't see him do much.

Ty Schalter December 16, 2010 at 1:22 PM  


Agreed, to my eyes the line has done a great job keeping heat off the QB, especially against the Giants and Packers.

I completely agree, I was astounded by the numbers along the right side. Cherilus should be able to get better push than that by size alone. Peterman, as I said above, is clearly nowhere near what he was last season--and he's suffered a myriad of not-very-publicized injuries. Raiola, I've always been a "he makes up for lack of road-grading with protection calls, leadership, pass pro, and second-level blocking" guy, but if the guards on either side of him aren't getting push either . . . you got nothin'.


Ty Schalter December 16, 2010 at 1:37 PM  


Yeah, I'm quite familiar with PFF; I am planning on digging into their data in the next installment. You're absolutely right that they aren't fond of Pettigrew's blocking; I'll bring that up within the context of their data as well.

Great point about Scheffler! I know he was knocked out with a shoulder injury for a while, then injured his ribs right when he came back. He's been okay the past two weeks, but I think with Stanton as the quarterback, they have Heller in as the second TE, for maximum run blocking and pass protection. If you have Drew out there running the option, you need great seal blocks on the edge. When Shaun Hill gets back in there, look for a sudden reappearance of Tony Scheffler, too.


Anonymous,  December 19, 2010 at 2:16 AM  

How does this measure pulling and trapping o-lineman? For example, Peterman is used often to pull to the left on running traps and counters. Therefore, he is actually blocking on the left side, not on the right where he lined up.

acrylic paperweights December 20, 2010 at 9:21 AM  

I quite agree that Raiola isn't big/strong enough to run block up the middle. He could do well as a back up!

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