Offensive line play is the most underrated aspect of NFL handicapping. While media bobbleheads and square bettors spend a majority of their time talking about quarterbacks, running backs and the next-big-thing at wide receiver – this focus is due in part to America’s “other” gambling obsession, fantasy football – one of the most overlooked issues for any given team is the play of the large mammals along the o-line.
Teams need strength, stability and depth across the offensive line. Quarterbacks need to be protected and given time to get the ball to the playmakers. Running backs need lanes to run through and be successful. And NFL squads need to dominate their opponents, physically, along both lines if they want to enjoy the ultimate success.
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Need proof? The four teams in the conference championship games last season – the New York Giants, San Francisco, New England and Baltimore – had four of the toughest, most physical, most experienced, and most decorated offensive lines in football. Two of the other most successful regular season teams, Green Bay and New Orleans, also featured a combined four Pro Bowlers along the offensive line.
Promising teams can see things go haywire quickly because of offensive line issues. Chicago was 7-3 last year and boasted a Top 5 offense despite having a pathetic offensive line that subjected quarterback Jay Cutler to nonstop pressure and hits. He was injured in Week 10 and the Bears went into a tailspin, winning just one more game while going just 2-4 against the spread.
Conversely, Houston lost its starting quarterback to injury around the same point in the season. However, they were able to go 4-4, including a playoff win, with a rookie quarterback precisely because they had one of the best offensive lines in the game. Houston went 6-2 ATS in those games and was one of the best bets around.
Below I have targeted four teams that have significant preseason expectations that could be undercut by poor offensive line play. You can’t predict or handicap injuries, especially to the quarterback. But the offensive line issues on these teams could have potentially devastating consequences.
Here’s a look at four teams whose seasons may be sabotaged because of poor offensive line play:
You don’t know who Will Svitek is. However, the arm injury that put him out for the season could be one of the more significant ones in the NFC South this year. Svitek was the Falcons “swing” tackle, the primary backup on both the right and left side, and without him Atlanta is woefully thin behind its starting five. Starting left tackle Sam Baker missed 11 games last year with back issues (Svitek filled in), and his play this fall has been spotty. Losing Svitek is like letting their insurance policy lapse. And tackle play could be even more crucial this year as Atlanta installs a new offensive system that focuses on deep drops and throwing the ball down the field.
This group was a real strength for Atlanta in 2010 when they won 13 games. But they let Harvey Dahl leave via free agency, Baker has had injury issues, and center Todd McClure has seen his play deteriorate as he enters his 13th season. The Falcons had major problems converting key third- and fourth-and-short situations last year because their line play was subpar. Those could end up just having been cracks in the dam; this year the dam could break.
The Chargers didn’t play Philip Rivers in Week 3 of the preseason because they were afraid that Jared Allen and the Minnesota Vikings defense would maim him. That’s not exactly a vote of confidence for the San Diego front five and confirmed my worst fears about this unit.
The Chargers were actually No. 8 in the league in fewest sacks allowed last season. But anyone that watched this team knows that Rivers was under constant pressure – he took 68 hits – and the opposing pass rush had a dramatic impact on his decision-making and overall performance.
Left tackle Jared Gaither hasn’t played this preseason, solid center Nick Hardwick is dealing with concussion issues, and a third starter, guard Tyronne Green, has been dealing with a foot injury as well. The line was already a major question mark going into this year and now it is completely mangled. They have one of the worst right tackles in football (Jeromey Clary), but he could end up being one of the top options on a team that may start two rookies in Week 1. This is a make-or-break season for a lot of key people in this organization. But Rivers could end up being the one who gets broken behind this gruesome line.
The Steelers have ignored their offensive line in each of the last two seasons. However, the constant pounding that Ben Roethlisberger has taken over the past two seasons has taken its toll on both Big Ben and the Steelers running game.
Pittsburgh tried to address the situation this offseason by using its top two picks on guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams. But it really seems like too little, too late. Making matters worse is that injuries have already started to stretch this already thin unit to bulimic levels. DeCastro, a projected starter, is out for the year. Max Starks and Trai Essex, two backup-level players that are now starting, also have extensive injury histories. This is one of the younger lines in the AFC and we are just one twisted ankle away from seeing more Chris Scott and John Malecki than I think Big Ben would like.
As with the rest of the teams on this list, the warning signs have been there for at least two years for the Cowboys. But they neglected cracks in the foundation of their offense and now they could pay the price.
Tyron Smith is a future Pro Bowler. Doug Free is a solid right tackle. Beyond that it is a free-for-all. Cowboy fans might try to delude themselves into thinking guys like Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau are solid NFL starters. They are not. Phil Costa was one of the weakest centers in the league last year and the biggest issue may be that Dallas has one of the worst crops of offensive line backups in the league.
Tony Romo has been running for his life this preseason. He’s been making some plays, but that is really masking the serious issues of this group. If we know anything about Romo it is that he is at his worst under pressure. And we saw what happened to the Cowboys during their disastrous 2010 when he was lost for the season. With four games against two of the best pass rushing teams in the NFL – the Giants and Eagles – things could get ugly for Dallas this year if Romo is either left to take standing eights or if he is put down for the count.
Robert Ferringo is a professional handicapper and has posted back-to-back profitable seasons (college and pro). Robert has turned a profit in three of four football seasons and over the last nine months his clients have earned nearly $10,000 in profit with his football selections. He is looking forward to building on his stellar football handicapping resume again this fall and you can check him out here. Also, you can also get $60 worth of free Robert Ferringo member picks (no salesman, no credit card, no obligation!) by clicking here for more info.