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Stats Corner: How can we measure the Offensive Line?

Let’s identify and explain some stats to show whether the OL unit is doing well or not carrying their weight.

Northwestern v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Pop Quiz: What are the only positions in football which are not given points in fantasy football? Answer: Punters and offensive line.

Punters can be measured, yards per punt, yards per return, the percentage of fair catches, the percentage of punts inside the 20-yard line, number of touchbacks, etc. How do you determine the effectiveness of offensive linemen? Especially when their two main objectives, run block and pass protections, are fundamentally different. When the running back is coming through, the objective of the O-line is to move forward, push the D-line backward, and create holes for the back. When the quarterback is going to throw, the O-line is to step backward, close the holes, and create a wall protecting the ball.

Every offensive lineman I have asked prefers the running game because it is more fun to move forward and shove people. Ideally, O-line would prefer not to be mentioned. Usually, when O-line is mentioned, it is for blown assignment, not creating holes for running back or allowing a sack, or for a penalty. But is not being bad, good enough to help the team? There are a few different ways O-line can be measured. One option, started in the NFL and applied to NCAA, is to use Adjusted Lines Yards. This formula takes all the running back carries and applies them to the O-Lines, good is you are blocking for Todd Gurley or Saquan Barkley, not so good if it’s James Conner or Peyton Barber. Think back to high school and college group projects where the entire group got the same grade, even the guy who didn’t pull his weight, showed up late, and you did extra work to cover for him. Grades are given in percentages and adjusted for down, distance, opponent, and shotgun vs. under center. The percentages are:

  • Losses: 120% credit
  • 0-4 Yards: 100% credit
  • 5-10 Yards: 50% credit
  • 11+ Yards: 0% credit

Yes, the O-line receives zero credit if the running back goes for more than 10 yards, but 120% of the credit if there is a loss. So, if the running back runs into his own blocker and loses a yard does the O-line deserve 120% of the credit for the loss? Of course, if the running back breaks two tackles in the backfield and goes for 20 yards, I guess it balances itself out.

The adjusted sack rate is also used as grades which compare sacks per pass attempt, not good if your quarterback likes to hang onto the ball too long, talking about Dak Prescott and Eli Manning. It is adjusted for distance all downs and passing downs, 3 rd and 14 from your 35-yard line down 5 and 41 seconds left in the game would be a passing down.

So where does the Mountain West O-Lines rank? Football Outsiders took the NFL model and applied it to the NCAA. The big difference is they threw out all garbage time plays. Here are the criteria for their rankings:

Run-blocking stats

Line Yards per carry: they tightened up the requirements 100% for 0 3 yards gained and 50% for yards 4-8 gained. Over 8 yards is counted as “highlight opportunity” therefore all credit goes to the runner. And all lost yardage counts for 125%.

Standard Downs Line Yards per carry: The straight per-carry line yardage on standard downs which consider all 1st downs, 2nd and 7 or less, 3rd or 4th and 4 or fewer.

Passing Downs Line Yards per carry: The averages for rushing on passing downs, considered longer yards than previous.

Opportunity Rate: The percentage of carries that gain at least four yards. It is expected that the offensive line can push back the defense at least 4 yards every time a run play is called.

Power Success Rate: The percentage of runs on third or fourth down with less than two yards to go, which result in a touchdown or 1 st down.

Stuff Rate: The percentage of times that the running back was stopped before the line of scrimmage.

Pass-blocking stats

Sack Rate: Unadjusted sack rate for all pass attempts.

Standard Downs Sack Rate: Unadjusted sack rate for standard downs pass attempts.

Passing Downs Sack Rate: Unadjusted sack rate for passing downs pass attempts.

Here are the Mountain West Teams and their national rankings:

MWC OL Stats

Team Line Yards Rk Std. Downs Line Yards Rk Pass. Downs Line Yards Rk Opp. Rate Rk Power Success Rate Rk Stuff Rate Rk Sack Rate Rk Std. Downs Sack Rate Rk Pass. Downs Sack Rate Rk
Team Line Yards Rk Std. Downs Line Yards Rk Pass. Downs Line Yards Rk Opp. Rate Rk Power Success Rate Rk Stuff Rate Rk Sack Rate Rk Std. Downs Sack Rate Rk Pass. Downs Sack Rate Rk
Air Force 2.73 31 2.79 19 2.4 102 50.30% 29 74.20% 42 14.40% 11 4.00% 21 3.80% 35 4.30% 15
Boise State 2.62 57 2.6 46 2.68 67 46.90% 78 81.80% 9 18.30% 49 6.20% 58 5.50% 73 7.30% 49
Colorado State 2.35 102 2.23 112 2.75 59 39.90% 127 80.00% 17 17.90% 44 5.00% 35 3.20% 21 7.50% 52
Fresno State 2.49 79 2.49 72 2.46 96 43.80% 97 73.70% 46 19.10% 70 2.90% 7 1.60% 4 4.90% 23
Hawaii 2.8 21 2.71 25 3.09 20 53.00% 15 70.80% 62 18.70% 62 8.20% 104 7.50% 114 9.30% 93
Nevada 2.33 104 2.35 98 2.27 109 45.60% 86 55.00% 124 21.00% 97 3.40% 10 3.90% 41 2.60% 4
New Mexico 2.42 89 2.39 93 2.56 85 41.50% 118 73.10% 49 21.60% 103 10.40% 121 6.70% 95 14.10% 124
San Diego State 2.4 91 2.27 106 2.85 47 45.60% 87 64.70% 102 22.50% 110 9.20% 115 5.20% 66 12.00% 110
San Jose State 1.93 129 1.97 127 1.82 122 37.30% 129 50.00% 127 25.40% 126 7.90% 98 8.10% 119 7.80% 60
UNLV 2.64 48 2.62 43 2.74 60 48.20% 57 76.30% 34 17.60% 42 6.70% 73 3.60% 29 9.40% 96
Utah State 2.51 76 2.57 55 2.3 107 48.00% 59 65.00% 101 19.70% 80 2.00% 3 1.50% 1 3.00% 7
Wyoming 2.63 53 2.64 41 2.61 78 49.20% 44 58.30% 119 18.50% 56 7.80% 95 8.50% 121 7.10% 47

So how did the O-lines ranks? Utah State’s QB Jordan Love has to love his O-line as they lead the nation in Standard Downs sake rate and 3rd in the nation in Sacks total. Boise State’s O-line got the Power award, converting downs on 2 yards or less almost 82% of the time. Hawaii had the highest Opportunity rate, moving the D-line back, so the ball moves forward at least 4 yards. Nevada may have let Cristian Solano get sack more on standard downs, but when everyone knew that he was throwing the ball, the O-line was 4th in the nation at preventing a sack.

The Offensive line may receive little recognition in the stats line and highlight reel, but every play literally starts with them and goes through them. Besides, bowl teams have good ones, and it’s no coincidence that the 3 ranked teams at the end of the season poll, all have O-lines that are listed in the top 10 in the nation in at least one category, Boise in Power Success, Fresno in Sack Rate, and Utah State in Sack Rate, Standard Downs Sack Rate, and Pass Down Sack Rates. Or maybe double-digit win teams routinely have their quarterbacks sacked and running backs hit behind the line of scrimmage, that seems like a way to succeed.