The importance and challenge of offensive line continuity

A look at the importance of offensive line continuity as a foundation for offensive success

Offensive line continuity can play a sneaky factor in finding consistency year over year. No surprise then that most of the teams averaging four or more incumbents since 2016 also rank top-11 in total offense over the span.

Teams’ offseason moves have already provided plenty to evaluate their level of emphasis on offensive line continuity in 2019. There’s enough to identify which teams have finally solidified their front, and which are facing a bit of a sea change.

With NFL free agency reaching a relative calm and draft season ramping up, only 10 teams project to replace multiple starters. The number of teams doing so has gradually decreased from 22 in 2015, and it shouldn’t change dramatically by Week 1 of the 2019 regular season.

Finding stability

While OL continuity has increased across the league, it certainly isn’t a new concept.

“From our position it was a huge deal,” said former Broncos GM Ted Sundquist. He was elevated from director of scouting during a stretch from 1995 to 2003 in which Mike Shanahan and OL coach Alex Gibbs guided four different Broncos rushers to eight combined top-11 finishes, and helped get John Elway a couple rings.

No first round selections of the Broncos landed in their series of nine opening-day starting offensive lines under Gibbs, featuring 39 incumbents and only six new starters. They did maintain combos up front as players developed the chemistry and wits to know “when to pass off and when to pick up,” said Sundquist. “Good communication skills up front, and all it takes is one to throw the whole thing off. It's a ripple effect all the way down the line.”

The pinnacle of OL continuity in recent years has been the Pittsburgh Steelers, the one team to give Denver’s defense much trouble in the 2015 postseason. Without Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers far outgained Denver and topped nine yards per pass in the divisional round. Just a week later they bounced the Patriots and sacked Tom Brady four times, forcing Bill Belichick to almost immediately bring OL coach Dante Scarnecchia out of retirement. Scarnecchia continues to steady the ship seasons later.

GM Kevin Colbert has overseen the only roster to hit max starting OL continuity in four straight offseasons, including this current one. The Steelers join Philly as the only offensive line unit to avoid replacing multiple starters entering Week 1 in each of the past six years.

Pittsburgh is making like Denver did at the turn of the century, with three separate top-11 rushers in the past four years. Suppose that would make Le’Veon Bell the Clinton Portis in this equation, with Maurkice Pouncey as Tom Nalen.

“We were so successful because the organization knew what the pieces of the puzzle looked like and how they fit. And we went out and found them,” said Sundquist.

“I don't want to say Alex [Gibbs’] job became easier — but it kind of became a little bit different. Then he could develop young guys and work them in knowing fully well that we had helped give him the platform so to speak, both athletically and fundamentally, that he was looking for to execute that zone scheme, that West Coast version of the zone read that we were running.”

It’s hard not to follow this thread without then comparing OL coach Mike Munchak’s recent departure to Gibbs leaving for Atlanta in 2004.

Maintaining continuity

The Steelers also move on from Marcus Gilbert to get younger (and cheaper) at right tackle with Matt Feiler, representing a less jarring change in the Week 1 starting lineup by elevating a player who actually took most of the snaps last season. They’ve done it in past years with Kelvin Beachum and Alejandro Villaneuva.

The Rams are also transitioning from vets with groomed replacements, though projected starters Joe Noteboom and Brian Allen did not see significant playing time behind departed interior linemen John Sullivan and Rodger Saffold. An emphasis on continuity is apparent from Sean McVay’s time in Washington and OL Coach Aaron Kromer’s past stints.

Between the two Super Bowl participants, only Austin Blythe entered 2018 as a new offensive line starter. A suspension to the incumbent had opened the door for Blythe after seeing time off the bench for LA in 2017.

Rookies occupy less than five percent of starting offensive line spots entering Week 1 since 2016. Only the Ravens have started multiple rookie linemen in a season opener, lining both Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis on the left side in ‘16.

Blowing it up

No team projects for fewer returning starters than the Buffalo Bills. In fact, they leave promising young LT Dion Dawkins as sole incumbent — qualifying incumbents or returning starters as (projected) Week 1 starters who took a majority of snaps the season prior or entered that previous season as Week 1 starter, and for the same team.

So while the Bills did snag major upgrades in C Mitch Morse and RT Ty Nsekhe, they deviate from a long stretch of relatively decent continuity. They now rank lowest by a fair margin with a minus-2.5 continuity score against the four-year average, and minus-3 against last season.

Atlanta joins Buffalo as the only teams currently projected to replace a majority of their offensive line starters, bringing in a mix of vets who didn’t pace the market in asking price. James Carpenter and Jamon Brown each head south from New York, while Ty Sambrailo factored late last season and closed out the tenure of longtime Falcons RT Ryan Schraeder.

Five at last

Frank Reich showed the value in finding your guys upon arrival. McVay did the same thing in LA the year prior. Some turnover is healthy, especially when you can maintain that new group like both Reich and McVay did in their respective year two.

Even in running it back with all five linemen this year, led by sophomore bulldozer Quenton Nelson, Indy still has a bottom-five average continuity score since 2016 — trailing only Minnesota, Denver, Cleveland, and Arizona. So, no consistent offenses over the past few years in this cohort.

Kyle Shanahan has found his guys in year three. Stalwart Joe Staley is the lone holdover from those great lines with Jim Harbaugh and OL coach Mike Solari. These units accomplished the ideal coupling of individual quality and group continuity with a core of Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Alex Boone, and Anthony Davis.

That front not only boasted All-Pros, but the ability to fend off opposing defenses as a cohesive unit.

"Just the confidence level that it gives the staff when it comes to executing the game plan,” said Sundquist, whose Sports VTS venture develops virtual reality training for football. It has potential application for offensive lines, and currently focuses on quarterback development.

Harbaugh and a superb offensive line played a major role in not only the run game’s success with Frank Gore, but the revival of Alex Smith’s career. Now Jimmy Garoppolo makes his comeback from ACL tear behind a unit that got reps together in his absence.

Laken Tomlinson and Mike Person provided the Niners above average guard play on the cheap last year, after they heavily invested in Center Weston Richburg that March. LT Joe Staley continues to build a Hall of Fame case and Mike McGlinchey kept his head above water as a rookie starting tackle, which is really impressive considering the development curve at that position. OL coach John Benton’s been with Shanahan since he came to the bay.

Ted notes that the chemistry up front is crucial from the QB’s perspective as well, “knowing fully well I can go through my reads and sit back here, and the guys are going to pick it up regardless of what they throw at me.’"