(Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire)
Fantasy production starts up front, in the trenches, with the unheralded behemoths who pave the way for rumbling rushers and prolific passers. Knowing which offensive lines have the best matchups week-to-week, and which ones look poised to struggle based on opponent, can actually give you an edge when it comes to making some tough starting lineup decisions.
If you want a general overview of which lines should block well and which ones should get steamrolled this season, check out our preseason rankings here. However, sometimes even a porous line’s weekly prospects can improve when matched up with a middling defensive line, so this column won’t just focus on the obvious, top flight and elite lines which should block well each and every week provided good health, but also which ones could thrive on a given week due to an advantageous matchup, thus opening the door for positive fantasy production for all skill players involved.
So what’s the formula? Well, all the same caveats that went into ranking the lines during the preseason still apply -PFF overall line grades, offseason changes in scheme and personnel, the strength of schedule, and so on – but all of that gets measured against the success each opposing defense continues to demonstrate based on total passing and rushing yards allowed, yards-per-game allowed, home and road splits, red zone defensive efficiency and overall points allowed using Pro Football Reference’s Team Defense statistics.
Generally speaking, a good offensive line is going to hold up regardless of opponent, so fantasy owners with skill position players playing behind great lines will rarely consider O-line matchups, while owners with skill position players playing behind sieves on the line will perpetually be concerned or, more likely, block out (pun intended) the dismal state of a line and just hope their players will succeed in spite of all the backfield penetration and pass rush. Just like you don’t need a rankings column to tell you whether to play Drew Brees or Todd Gurley (you’re starting them aggressively, regardless of opponent, and expecting fantasy production), you also don’t need to know who the best lines in football are playing unless the advantage is so great or the competition so noteworthy that it’s worth consideration. Thus, you’ll almost never see the top lines appear in this column unless the talent gap between them and their opponent is so vast (or close) that it warrants extra exploitation or notice. The goal here is to let the matchups dictate advantages and disadvantages and unearth a few notable contests.
Let’s take a look at some mouthwatering and concerning matchups for Week 5.
(a few lines who should pave the way on game day)
Green Bay Packers (@ Detroit Lions)
The Packers’ O-line is hardly a juggernaut, but the Lions are allowing 5.3 YPA to opposing running backs, 3rd worst in the league. They’ve also allowed a long run of 66 yards, which ranks as the second longest in football through 4 weeks. All of this plays into the hands of a Packers team that is trying to reduce the stress on QB Aaron Rodgers‘ knee and turn explosive RB Aaron Jones loose. Detroit is giving up 157.8 YPG on the ground, almost necessitating a run-heavy approach given Rodgers’ limited mobility in this divisional tilt. The Packers’ O-line should be able to control the clock by moving the ball on the ground, thereby keeping Lions’ QB Matthew Stafford and his playmaking WR core off the field.
Jacksonville (@ Kansas City Chiefs)
Interestingly, whenever RB Leonard Fournette is out, the Jaguars typically lean on QB Blake Bortles to sling it. That didn’t work out so well in Week 3, and Jacksonville will be best served employing a run-first approach if possible on the road in Arrowhead as well, if only to keep Chiefs’ star QB Patrick Mahomes from getting too many chances to find holes in the Jags’ elite D. Like the Monday Night game where the Chiefs faced off against Denver, the game script for this game should not require tea leaves to read. The Jaguars figure be smart to try and pound the rock with RBs T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant rather than try to get into a shootout with the league’s highest-scoring offense. Jacksonville’s O-line has improved much since last season, as its 4.3 YPA and 113.5 YPG rushing averages suggest, all obtained largely without Fournette in the lineup so far this season. The Chiefs’ run defense continues to be about league average, but their pass defense is second only to Tampa Bay for the worst in football. Expect the Jaguars to pound the rock and exploit mismatches for WRs Dede Westbrook, Keelan Cole, and Donte Moncrief when they need to move the ball through the air. While it’s true that this game could easily turn into somewhat of a shootout the way the KC vs DEN game did on Monday night, the Jaguars would probably prefer to avoid that scenario.
Los Angeles Chargers (at home vs Oakland Raiders)
We saw last week what the Chargers can do against a defense devoid of a pass rush, as they mounted a comeback against a 49ers team that caught them off-guard with early stops and scoring. The Raiders have a measly 5 sacks on the season, tied with the N.Y. Giants for lowest in the league. QB Philip Rivers should have all day behind a revamped O-line to throw the ball to WRs Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, while RBs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler should have little trouble finding holes to run through on the ground. The Chargers’ O-line has paved the way for 499 yards on the ground thus far, good for 6th in football, along with a whopping 5.3 YPA. This is yet another game that could devolve into a shootout.
(a few lines that may crumble the foundation on game day)
Minnesota Vikings (@ Philadelphia Eagles)
The Eagles will be hungry after a tough and surprising loss to Tennessee last week. Philadelphia currently boasts the best rushing defense in football, limiting opponents to 3.4YPA and 63.8 YPG on the ground. Minnesota’s overmatched O-line remains its biggest Achilles heel as it seeks to contend for a Super Bowl, and this matchup with the defending champions does not bode well for a line that has led the way for a pathetic 252 yards rushing so far through four games, the lowest total in football. The Vikings have essentially become a one-dimensional offense, where QB Kirk Cousins and WRs Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen must carry the offense. The Eagles’ pass defense ranks middle-of-the-road statistically, so expect a game plan that revolves around trying to win through the air. The Vikings may welcome back RB Dalvin Cook for this game, but he won’t be returning to an inviting matchup.
Houston Texans (at home vs Dallas Cowboys)
The Texans continue to trot out one of the league’s worst O-lines, and in this battle for Texas, they should have a hard time protecting QB Deshaun Watson from a Cowboys defense that is top 6 in total passing yards allowed and top 6 in terms of limiting YPG allowed through the air (209 YPG). They’ve also allowed less than 100 YPG rushing with a paltry 3.6 YPA, not that Houston fields a prolific rushing attack. Facing a strong passing defense without any discernible threat of a run game to keep defenses honest, the Texans may have a hard time moving the ball, while Watson may find himself running for his life early and often against a defense that has already posted 14 sacks, good for 3rd best in football. WR DeAndre Hopkins is always a threat to go nuclear, but this matchup is tough, especially without WR Will Fuller to help stretch the Cowboys’ defense.
Seattle Seahawks (at home vs. Los Angeles Rams)
The Seahawks surprised with a productive performance against the Cardinals last week, but the first-place Rams are an entirely different matter. The Rams can seemingly score at will, so it’s unlikely Seattle will ever get the chance to establish the run game. And it’s going to take another strong game on the ground before we can place much faith in the meager 3.8 YPA the Seahawks’ O-line has been able to muster so far rushing. This game has the makings of a blowout, with perhaps the boisterous home crowd being Seattle’s best asset to keep the Rams’ offense off-balance. It’s probably best to take a wait-and-see approach with the Seahawks in a tough divisional matchup. If the Seahawks’ O-line can push for another 100+ yards on the ground (likely with RB Mike Davis taking most of the carries again) and QB Russell Wilson can keep pace with the Rams’ offense without needing to scramble every down to keep drives alive, then perhaps we can start start taking a more optimistic view for this unit than the bottom shelf ranking they held coming into the season.