It’s Time to Notice the Bills’ Offensive Line

12/04/2023
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The 2023 NFL season has not gone according to Bills’ Mafia plans. At 6-6 the Buffalo Bills are currently tenth for playoff seeding when only seven will make it into the championship dance. We are back to the dreaded “In the Hunt” graphics. While that reality is certainly disappointing, there are bright spots littered throughout this season: Dalton Kincaid’s emergence, Josh Allen taking his play up even another notch, Terrell Bernard making you forget your concerns about him, Christian Benford maintaining his surprising level of play, Ed Oliver outplaying his new contract, and, lastly, the performance of the revamped offensive line.

Heading into this season, the Bills switched out guards Ryan Bates and Rodger Saffold for free agent Connor McGovern and second-round rookie O’Cyrus Torrence. However, the uncertainty at the guard position was overwhelmed by the concern about incumbent right tackle Spencer Brown. General opinion in the offseason was that if the offense had a weakness, it was the line and Brown specifically.

During the Bills’ bye week, I dug into the offensive line’s statistical performance. To the eye, the OL has been solid, to the point where we haven’t talked about them that much. What do the numbers say?

That we haven’t talked enough about how well the Bills’ offensive line is playing. (I hope you like charts😉)

Bills’ OL Overall Performance

In a generic sense, consistency is good for offensive lines. Consistency is not a good thing in and of itself – you can be consistently awful – but for OL groups, having the same player next to you repeatedly for communication and learning tendencies is a plus. For all of the Bills’ injuries on defense, the line has been virtually completely healthy (knock on wood – there will be no jinxes here). Through Week 12, the Bills’ most common OL grouping has the most snaps in the league. Dion Dawkins, Connor McGovern, Mitch Morse, Torrence, and Brown have played 714 snaps together (Sumer), a whopping 97.1% of snaps, which is third highest after Denver and Cincinnati. The Bills’ OL has been remarkably healthy all season, but not just healthy.

The Bengals’ OL is a good example of how consistency isn’t intrinsically positive. The Cincy OL has played the fourth most snaps together, but their average ranking over a selection of OL metrics is 27th out of the NFL’s 32 teams. In contrast, the Bills’ OL has been both consistent and good.

Referencing data from ESPN, FTN, PFF, & Sumer

The statistics represented in this chart are

  • Full Team Pass Block Efficiency (PBE)
  • Most Common Pass Block Efficiency, which is the averaged PBE for linemen with more than 100 snaps (Avg Pass Eff)
  • EPA of most frequently used OL group
  • Snaps by the most common OL group
  • Adjusted Line Yards, a rushing metric designed to separate OL performance and RB performance
  • Pass Block Win Rate (PBWR), the rate at which OL sustain their pass block for 2.5 seconds
  • Rush Block Win Rate (RBWR), a formula for determining if a block was maintained or “won” using factors like relative distance to the runner, relative velocity to the runner, and others
  • Sacks/Pass Attempt

Here’s how the Bills rank:

Here’s the league-wide chart:

There are a lot of other metrics available to consider, and some of those are mentioned later, but this amalgamation offered a wide cross-section of OL activities and the different ways to measure OL success currently available. Considering the combination of how many snaps they’ve played and their statistical output, we can say the Bills’ OL has had the greatest degree of positive impact of any OL in the NFL.

Two high-quality indicators that cross pass and run blocking are Pass Blocking Efficiency from PFF and Adjusted Line Yards from FTN. The Bills are one of only eight teams ranked above average in both metrics.

Allen’s positive impact on OL metrics has to be recognized. For years, Allen has had one of the best (read lowest) rates of allowing pressures to become sacks. His pocket presence, awareness, mobility, and strength all factor into making him one of the NFL’s most difficult-to-sack QBs. Allen’s 9.4% rate of pressures becoming sacks is only behind Patrick Mahomes’ 8.6%. While it may add to how impressive the Bills’ OL performance has been, Pressure To Sack rate doesn’t dismiss all of these metrics; the Bills’ OL has been outstanding in front of Allen on their own merits.

Sports Info Solutions (SIS) has its own set of OL statistics, and the Bills rank exceptionally well here also.

Outside of holding calls, their ranks here are all in the top 11, and they are generally in the top five. Each evaluation company has its own distinctions and quirks in how it assesses each play as you move down the spectrum from objectivity to subjective analysis, but the Bills’ collection of beefdozers isn’t just the best that has ever played in front of Allen, it could be argued they are the best line in the league to this point in 2023.

5 unbelievable stats from Bills’ Week 12 loss vs. Eagles

Spencer Brown

If an offensive line is a weak link system, then Brown was probably Bills Mafia’s biggest concern about the OL heading into the 2023 season, even more so than rookie RG Torrence. We can’t be watching one of the best OLs in the league if Brown is still one of the worst Rs in the NFL, which he was by the stats in 2022. The chart below compares Brown’s 2022 and 2023 quantitatively:

Brown has improved across the board in pass blocking. You could nitpick about the penalties, but after the Philly game, I’m not using referees’ opinions on anything against a player.

Brown’s jump in pass block efficiency represents what most of us said we wanted from him this season: “If he can just get to average, they should be alright.” He won’t be confused with the best RTs in the game, and the Bills have helped him in a number of ways, but going from bad to average is a huge improvement, and Brown’s effort and development need to be recognized as much as his poor play from last year.

These numbers were through Week 10.

The numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. The clips below detail some of the improvements Brown has made this year. He always had his well-known athleticism, but now we are seeing some of the work Brown has put in with Offensive Line Coach Aaron Kromer and the benefits of his full health.

Conclusion

Many will have the reaction that this year’s offensive line work is being wasted, and those folks can’t be stopped from having negative opinions. The overall numbers are undeniable though. Money and age might force changes at LT and C in the next couple of years, but the unit has significant promise for next year as well. The Bills’ OL is a top five unit in the NFL and could be the best in 2023, and that should be celebrated.

Shameless plug: Greg Tompsett and I talk about the future of center with Mitch Morse and Ryan Bates in the show below.

You can find Chris on Twitter (@lowbuffa), getting dirty in #MafiaGardens, or watching football. Go Bills!

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