"Stats never lie." This is one of the most popular and widely accepted fallacies in all of sports journalism, and while may be very useful for quantifying analysis, their context remains paramount to their usefulness.
This is especially the case with the Detroit Lions offensive line, which looked to perform at an elite level last season when the pass protection statistics are looked at in isolation. They allowed the sixth fewest sacks and eighth fewest quarterback hits according to NFL.com and as a team were ranked the fourth best pass protection unit by Pro Football Focus.
Nevertheless, I believe that the offensive line is not elite, and will try to explain why these statistics are misleading in this article.
Firstly, I will tackle its run blocking prowess, because this is a less controversial area. According to NFL.com, the Lions had the 19th best yards per carry average in the league in 2010 with 4.0 exactly. This is by no means elite.
However, supporters of the hogs would point to the Lions' left side PWR, which ranks eighth in the NFL. This statistic shows the first down completion percentage of one and two yard rushes on third or fourth down or at the goal line.
This is the most accurate statistic for grading the offensive lines influence on the running game because the conversion of a short down in the running game generally relies on the offensive line getting a good push off the line of scrimmage and stopping defenders from penetrating into the backfield.
Despite the high PWR ranking when running left, the Lions ranked 29th when running right and 25th when running over the centre of the line. This shows that while the left tackle and left guard were able to handle their run blocking responsibilities, elsewhere in the line the run blocking was not very effective.
After a couple of games, every defensive co-ordinator in the league would notice this trend and adjust their game plan and defensive formations to stack the left side with defenders and force the Lions to run the ball away from their run blocking strength.
In all, the statistics support my opinion that the Lions' run blocking is only middle of the road. They do need to improve this, especially in the interior of the line.
My assessment of Detroit's pass protection is likely to be more controversial. Although they were top-10 in sacks and quarterback pressures allowed, were the eighth best unit in the Cold, Hard Facts.com offensive hogs rankings and the fourth best in the pass protection ranking by Pro Football Focus, I still believe that the Lions do not have a great pass protecting offensive line.
The first defense for this opinion comes from its relation to other offensive lines. The Lions were only 0.05 points worse than the New York Jets in the Pro Football Focus rankings. The Jets are unquestionably regarded as the best offensive line in football at the moment. The Lions line would never be placed so close to them from a subjective viewpoint.
Also, in the PFF standings Detroit ranks better than the Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns and New Orleans Saints.
The Dolphins had arguably the top offensive tackle tandem in 2010, the Saints could claim the best guard tandem in the league along with good tackle play and the Browns offensive line has a quality left side consisting of Joe Thomas, Eric Steinbach and Alex Mack and solid performers on the right. When compared to these lines, the Lions would seem to be outgunned.
Next, the Lions' offensive play calling plays an instrumental role in the pass protection performance of the offensive line. In 2010 the Lions almost exclusively called short passes that were released from a three-step drop. This makes it nearly impossible for the opposing pass rushers to get past a blocker, however inept, and sack the quarterback before he releases his pass.
Additionally, Shaun Hill did an excellent job in getting a pass off before he was taken down, and this is shown by the large difference between sacks and hits surrendered. More importantly, when watching the Lion's offense there was often one or two defenders in the backfield on every play. This makes it plausible to conclude that the main reason why the Lions were so good at pass protection in 2010 was the short passing offense they ran.
Despite the angle this article has taken, I wish to temper the criticism I have laid upon the Lions offensive line. Although I believe a replacement for Dominic Raiola and Stephen Peterman need to be drafted, I accept that they were both suffering down years because of injury and may bounce back in 2011. The same goes for Gosder Cherlius, who was making strides before he went down late in the season.
If the line plays better next season, the need to rebuild would be lessened significantly.
To conclude, I intended to use this article to show the flaws in the "stats never lie" sentiment as well as analyze why the offensive line looked so good on stat sheets when when watching games many games it seemed the backfield was swarming with defenders.
I hope I have achieved this and proved how stats cannot be seen as the be all and end all of football commentary. I still feel they have an important role in explaining opinions, but the initial view, in my opinion, should come from watching games.
In regard to the offensive line, I think it is the second biggest weakness in the Lions at the moment behind the secondary, and a first or second round draft pick to address this in the 2012 draft is essential. However, it is still by no means awful, and Rob Sims and Gosder Cherlius should become cornerstones of this group for the future.
Thanks for reading.