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The NFL’s Crisis on Offense

Teams struggled to move the ball in Week 1, and it wasn’t just a statistical quirk. The league’s struggles on offense have deep roots and could become a long-term problem.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you thought NFL offenses looked bad around the league in Week 1, you weren’t alone—and, as my Ringer colleague Zach Kram wrote, you weren’t wrong. Teams were far less efficient moving the ball and scored fewer points in Week 1 compared to recent opening-week and season-long historical averages. Veteran and rookie quarterbacks alike struggled, and ground games were all but nonexistent for the majority of teams. In a league that’s continually changing old rules and building new ones to protect quarterbacks, encourage passing, and cultivate more scoring, defenses won the week.

So why were offenses so bad in Week 1? Are we seeing the start of a pendulum-swing back toward defense-dominated football?

Well, there’s a good chance that the opening week of action was just a statistical anomaly and that quarterbacks, pass catchers, and running backs will bounce back this Sunday and over the rest of the season. But the substandard offensive play could be the first glimpse of a wider trend resulting from a confluence of factors, including a decline in offensive line play, an influx of explosive and dynamic defensive linemen, and a shortage of franchise-caliber quarterbacks.

The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, so it was a little disconcerting to start the year with a Week 1 slate featuring less-than-scintillating matchups between Jared Goff’s Rams and Scott Tolzien’s Colts, Blake Bortles’s Jaguars and Tom Savage’s Texans, and Tyrod Taylor’s Bills and Josh McCown’s Jets. Goff played surprisingly well, and the fact that both Tolzien and Savage got benched in favor of exciting young passers in Jacoby Brissett and Deshaun Watson helped a little, but those developments were more than offset by terrible performances by Andy Dalton (four interceptions), Carson Palmer (5.6 yards per attempt, three picks), and Eli Manning (5.8 YPA, one interception). Add in substandard outings by Tom Brady (44 percent completion rate, zero touchdowns, 70 passer rating), Philip Rivers (192 yards at 5.8 YPA), Cam Newton (56 percent, 171 yards), Russell Wilson (52 percent, 158 yards, zero touchdowns, one lost fumble, 70 passer rating), and Kirk Cousins (58 percent, 72.9 passer rating), and a lack of outstanding performances to make up for those flops, and it was easy to wonder if the NFL has a quarterback problem.

The league still depends on an aging cadre of top-tier signal-callers to carry many of its top teams. As our Kevin Clark wrote in August, roughly half of the league’s starting signal-callers will be 30 or older this season, and as the likes of Brady, Manning, Rivers, Palmer, and Ben Roethlisberger inevitably start to decline (and eventually retire), they’ll need to be replaced. But, as Clark and former player, scout, and current NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks noted, teams are nearing a crossroads: Coaches and evaluators may have to adapt their way of thinking, evaluating, teaching, and playing in order to reflect the changing nature of the game—particularly on offense, where the college game is increasingly pervasive. Quarterbacks in traditional “pro style” schemes often must learn a totally different language, go through more complex read-progressions, and operate more frequently under center rather than out of the shotgun. We’ve seen teams start to adopt more college-style run-pass options, shotgun looks, and spread formations, but the evolution may be slower right now than it needs to be for the league to fill a deficit of quarterback talent coming from the college game.

But the offensive problem isn’t just an issue of millennial passers who aren’t familiar with seven-step drops. Quarterbacks at every level depend on the guys blocking in front of them, and the quality of offensive line play in the NFL is at an all-time low. As I wrote about in June, coaches and front office folks have voiced their concerns about this trend for a few years now: In much of the college game, rather than firing out of a stance at the snap and hitting the guy in front of them, offensive linemen are more often tasked with a “zone and occupy” style of blocking. Without much game tape to evaluate whether these college linemen can generate power, stay engaged on a block, or even operate out of a three-point stance (one hand on the ground), teams have instead leaned on athletic measurables with an eye toward longer-term development. In some cases, it’s simply a projection based on body style and movement skills, with the assumption that coaches can just teach these guys how to play pro football once they get to that level.

Of course, the coach-’em-up game plan is made even more difficult with the practice-time constraints that the 2011 CBA puts on teams. Coaches essentially must pack a graduate-level course on the nuances of the playbook and NFL game into a few weeks of OTAs and training camp in order to get their linemen ready for the field. Add in the fact that much of the time coaches do have with their players is limited to CBA-mandated non-padded, non-contact practices, and players often head into the season with just a handful of full-contact, full-speed preseason reps. Those restrictions have led to a position group that’s traditionally been considered one of the safer bets in NFL draft to bust out of the league all too frequently of late.

Exacerbating all of these issues on offense is the fact that defensive linemen are getting more powerful, more explosive, and just plain faster year after year. Increasingly, the best high school athletes, many of whom would fit into the size mold of an elite offensive lineman, are playing on defense, where there’s higher earning potential. Hitting the quarterback is more glamorous than protecting him, and the opportunity to do a sack-dance on national TV is too enticing. So, instead of facing a defensive line with maybe one top-tier pass rusher, you’re seeing more teams with two or even three guys that can get after the passer from all over the line.

Outside of a select few Hall of Famers like Reggie White, Joe Green, Warren Sapp, John Randle, and some others, defensive tackles have historically been more oriented toward stuffing the run. They’ve been more relied upon to anchor a line than offer much pass-rush upside, and frequently fit a rotund 340-pounds-plus prototype (hi, Ted Washington). All that has changed with the explosion of passing in the NFL, and we’ve entered a golden age of über-athletic interior pass rushers. That position group is now more commonly manned by muscled-up sub-300-pounders with both the power to bull-rush and the agility and grace to run around offensive linemen in the blink of an eye. More than a few game changers among this group come to mind: Jacksonville’s Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson; Philadelphia’s Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan; Green Bay’s Mike Daniels; Seattle’s Sheldon Richardson and Michael Bennett; Los Angeles Ram’s Aaron Donald; Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy; Houston’s J.J. Watt; Miami’s Ndamukong Suh; Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins; Tennessee’s Jurrell Casey; Carolina’s Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei—I could go on, but that’s a good start.

A good chunk of these guys had a direct hand in Week 1’s offensive slog. Cox, lining up to the inside of Brandon Graham in the Eagles’ win over the Redskins on Sunday, stunted to the outside as Graham dropped into coverage, beat right tackle Morgan Moses around the edge, and forced a Cousins fumble, which the Eagles recovered.

In the third quarter, the newly acquired Jernigan easily blew past Redskins guard Shawn Lauvao—I mean, it literally left Lauvao diving after him—and rocked Cousins for a sack.

A big part of the reason that Seattle was unable to get anything going on offense was the singular effort of Daniels. Play after play, Daniels disrupted Wilson’s ability to throw from the pocket and smashed his way into run lanes to throw off the rushing attack.

“I give [credit] to Daniels—he played a heck of a football game,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said after the game. “He gave us some problems and we didn’t deal with him as well as we thought we would.”

For Carolina, Lotulelei and Short consistently wrecked havoc behind San Francisco’s line. Short bullied through blocks to eliminate run lanes …

… While Lotulelei beat double-teams to finish what Short had started. Here’s a half-sack he shared with Julius Peppers, but was facilitated by Short’s penetration at the snap.

Of course, we can’t talk about interior defensive line game wreckers this week without bringing up the Jaguars’ 10-sack performance against the Texans. I already broke down Campbell’s big four-sack day Sunday, but Jackson deserves a lot of the credit as well after finishing with a near-sack/forced fumble (which was eventually called an incomplete pass), a sack, and a tackle for a loss—all shown below.

Hell, Jackson could’ve had another sack on the day when he surged past center Nick Martin, but he got into the backfield so easily that he thought it was a screen pass and held up to defend that instead.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impact these interior defenders can have on an offensive game plan, and there were plenty of other examples from Sunday’s games alone. Plus, we weren’t able to see what Suh and McCoy could do this week as the two teams’ postponed their game due to Hurricane Irma, and because he had just ended his holdout, we missed out on a chance to see what Donald could do against a porous Indianapolis line.

Teams are more able than ever to field effective pass rushers at every spot on the defensive line. And, as these defensive pass-rush units have lined up more frequently against inferior offensive lineman, they’ve become more and more effective at getting pressure with just four rushers. Last year, teams blitzed (defined as sending five pass rushers or more) just 27.4 percent of the time—a 5.8 percent drop from the 2010 season, per the Football Outsiders Almanac. And despite the fact that offensive lines faced a decade-low 4.24 pass rushers per dropback, quarterbacks faced pressure on a decade-high 20.3 percent of their dropbacks. We could see those numbers diverge even further in 2017.

Now, instead of having to frequently blitz a defensive back or linebacker in order to pressure the quarterback, teams can simply send their best four rushers at the quarterback on passing downs while dropping seven players back into coverage. For those teams with bad offensive lines who can’t just line up with their five guys and block a four-man rush, they must ask the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly or utilize a “max protect” blocking scheme, i.e., keep running backs and tight ends in to help slow those rushers. In those cases, it may help slow the pass rush down, but it leaves a major disadvantage downfield, as Brian Baldinger explained here.

The result? You get quarterbacks trying to throw to two or three pass catchers downfield against seven defenders in coverage, simply because their offensive line alone can’t protect them long enough to get a throw off. Football is still a numbers game, and three-on-seven is a losing battle.

Offenses around the league still have plenty of time to look at the tape, find solutions, and bounce back. That’s the great thing about football; it constantly evolves, and coaches are paid to deal with the ever-changing schemes and strategies they see from their opponents. But the lack of game-ready offensive linemen coming through the draft remains a real issue teams must deal with, especially with a parallel surge of highly athletic defensive linemen. And, sooner or later, the league’s going to have to deal with a major changing of the guard at the quarterback position as elite veterans begin to hang up their cleats.