Saints Have One of the Best Offensive Lines in the NFL

Drew Brees feels rather comfortable behind his protective unit. - Stacy Revere

The New Orleans Saints' offensive line has been under heavy scrutiny more than a few times this season. Although some of the criticism has been deserved, most of it has been largely overstated.

The New Orleans Saints have one of the best offensive lines in the National Football League. Yes I said it, I wrote it and you just read it. The question is: do you believe it? My guess is that you probably do not.

Well, I'm about to try and debunk another one of those perceptions that are too often accepted as reality in the NFL.

If you listen to fans and pundits, the Saints have an average-to-poor offensive line. They can't run the ball consistently and this season, Drew Brees has been under duress way more often than he has in previous years.

In a popular league like the NFL, people expect written pieces on their favorite team on a daily basis; that gives birth to easy and lazy narratives that eventually take roots in the mind of readers. Those stereotypes are catchy, they make people look knowledgeable around water coolers and unfortunately, they usually have very few facts to support them.

Maybe at this very minute, you feel like saying: What the heck are you talking about? The Saints are ranked 25th in the NFL in rushing. They average 91.4 yards per game, a not-so-great 3.8 yards per running play and they only have seven rushing touchdowns in 13 games. Clearly, their offensive line isn't that awesome.

You'd be right about the total yardage stats above. However, please bear with me and allow me to go geek on you for a minute and take a look at some very interesting advanced analysis courtesy of the outstanding work of the people at Football Outsiders.

Among other factors, what mainly prompted me to write this piece were some of the passionate debates that many members of this blog (and I'm sure Saints fans across the board) were having earlier this season about the Saints struggles to run the ball.

Questions that came back over and over were: is it the running backs' fault? Is it the offensive line? Why does Pierre Thomas always gain positive yards when Mark Ingram can't do it even though they're playing behind the same line?

Well, let me introduce you (for those of you who aren't advanced stats junkies) to Adjusted Line Yards (ALY) and Adjusted Sack Rate (ASR).

You can find a simple and more detailed explanation of ALY and ASR by going here. However, if you're like me and hate clicking on link after link, I will give you a brief description of what those are.

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First, let's take a look at the Adjusted Line Yards (ALY).

Football Outsiders determines teams ALY by using regression analysis (which is essentially a statistical way to estimate the influence of several variables on each other). They take every carries a running back has and they assign the offensive line a responsibility value depending on the distance level of each of those plays on the field.

For each of the values am I about to describe below, imagine the running back's responsibility to be set at 100%.

1) Behind the line of scrimmage, when for instance the running back is tackled in the backfield, the offensive line is assigned a 120% responsibility. This number indicates the fact that the offensive line is usually 20% more responsible for yards losses than the running back.

2) Between 0 to 4 yards, the offensive line has a 100% responsibility, putting it at equal responsibility with the running back for gains up to four yards.

3) From 5-10 yards, the offensive line is usually 50% less responsible for the yards gained, thus its responsibility decreases to 50%. Those yards can be attributed in a larger part to the running back's vision and ability to break tackles from linebackers or defensive backs in run-support.

4) After a gain of 11 yards or more, the offensive line's is assigned a responsibility of 0%. At that point, the length of the run depends on the running back's speed/shiftiness and/or the wide receivers blocking downfield.

To make the ALY numbers even more representative and accurate, Football Outsiders takes in account the down and distance of the plays, the difference between runs started with the quarterback under center and those with the quarterback in the shotgun position and the defense that the running back is facing. Finally, the numbers are normalized so that the total average ALY for the NFL matches the total rushing yards per carry in the NFL.

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How about the Adjusted Sack Rates (ASR)?

Football Outsiders determine the ASR by using a formula that in layman's terms could be simply described by the following question: how many times did a quarterback get sacked or have an intentional grounding equated to his total number of passing attempts, depending on the down, the distance and the defense he is facing?

Sacks are not created equal. Any given quarterback is more likely to get sacked on third and 19 against the 2013 New Orleans Saints defensive sack machine. On the other hand, that probability quickly decreases when that same quarterback is facing a 2nd and 5 against an injury-depleted Dallas Cowboys defense.

Additionally, an offense that throws the ball more often (as is the case for the Saints) increases the probability of giving up sacks compared to teams that predominantly use the running game.

Let's get to the meat of the numbers and the rankings. If you have clicked on the Football Outsiders link I posted above, you've probably seen the following table already. However, here I truncated it to only feature the top 10 teams in ALY and ASR in the NFL.

RUN BLOCKING

PASS PROTECTION

Team

Adj. Line
Yards

RB
Yards

Power
Success

Power
Rank

Stuffed

Stuffed
Rank

2nd Level
Yards

2nd Level
Rank

Open Field
Yards

Open Field
Rank

Team

Rank

Sacks

Adjusted
Sack Rate

1

KC

4.53

4.70

61%

20

16%

3

1.31

6

0.92

9

DEN

1

15

3.4%

2

NE

4.47

4.49

52%

27

18%

9

1.29

9

0.76

14

DET

2

15

3.7%

3

SD

4.28

4.06

73%

8

12%

1

1.07

20

0.36

30

CHI

3

22

5.1%

4

NO

4.24

4.21

63%

16

20%

20

1.28

10

0.65

19

NO

4

26

5.2%

5

STL

4.24

4.16

59%

23

15%

2

1.14

16

0.63

20

ATL

5

31

5.2%

6

CIN

4.24

3.93

64%

15

17%

7

1.03

23

0.44

27

CIN

6

26

5.5%

7

DAL

4.18

4.61

72%

9

16%

5

1.32

4

0.94

8

SD

7

24

5.6%

8

HOU

4.13

4.31

51%

28

20%

18

1.36

2

0.62

21

IND

8

29

6.0%

9

MIN

4.11

4.96

76%

4

20%

14

1.32

5

1.38

1

NE

9

36

6.6%

10

DEN

4.10

4.36

63%

17

16%

4

1.30

8

0.61

22

HOU

10

34

6.6%

Via footballoutsiders.com

The two most interesting columns for the purposes of this article are the Adjusted Line Yards (third column in Run Blocking) and the Adjusted Sack Rate (fourth column in Pass Protection).

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Adjusted Line Yards (ALY) Analysis

As you can see in the table above, the New Orleans Saints are tied for 4th in the NFL with a 4.24 ALY. That means that on any given run play this season the Saints have legitimately gained more than four yards on average, without the value being inflated by isolated long runs or a weak opponent's defense.

Other notable statistics show that the Saints are 16th in the league with a 63% Power Success. That is the percentage of runs on third or fourth down with 2 yards or less to go that resulted in a first down. Although this value could be better, for a predominantly passing team, middle of the pack isn't anything to sneeze at.

I'll gladly admit that not all is rosy for the New Orleans offensive line; they are ranked a rather low 20th in the league in "Stuffed" rating. It indicates that on running plays, they get stopped for no gain or get tackled for loss 20% of the time. This has been one of the team's Achilles' heel, notably in short-yardage goal-to-go situations.

Adjusted Sack Rate (ASR) Analysis

In pass protection, New Orleans offensive line has done a stellar job during Sean Payton's tenure with the Saints and the 2013 season is no exception.

The Saints are ranked 4th in the league in ASR, having given up a sack or an intentional grounding only 5.2% of the time they have tried to pass. This value again is adjusted to down, distance and opponent. This low percentage is even more impressive when considering that the Saints are 7th highest in the league with 519 passing attempts on the season.

Furthermore, after allowing 20 sacks in the first 8 games of the season, New Orleans offensive line has been steadily improving, letting opposing defenses sack Drew Brees only 6 times in last 5 games. For the season, they're ranked 5th in least amount of sacks allowed with 26.

For all the narrative about the Saints offensive line not being up to par, the numbers do not lie. While it may have a few weak links, the Saints offensive line operates well as a unit and anchors the league's third-ranked offense in total weighted offensive DVOA (20.7% above the league average). Here are the rankings.

Although those good numbers are mostly propped up by the passing attack, the Saints aren't as awful in situational running plays as is the popular belief. Going into the playoffs where they're most likely bound, New Orleans will have a chance to win wherever it plays, in no small part because of its talented big uglies up front.

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