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Around the NFL: Offensive-line play still matters in 2019

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Cleveland Browns Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

In a league where high-arsenal offenses and prolific air attacks carry teams to lopsided victories, the real secret to offensive fruition remains the same as it has since the beginning of the NFL: a strong and cohesive showing from the big men up front.

Two teams with higher expectations in 2019 than the year before — the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons — were embarrassed in their season openers, in large part due to poor play from their offensive line.

While the Browns attempted to flash their shiny new offense with Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and David Njoku, the men in the trenches allowed seven quarterback hits and five sacks on quarterback Baker Mayfield. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, Matt Ryan had no room to breathe and was knocked around seven times — four times registered for sacks.

Sam Darnold and the New York Jets led 16-3 heading into the fourth quarter, but nine quarterback hits and four sacks paved the way for an improbable comeback by Josh Allen and company. And although the Seattle Seahawks barely squeaked by the lowly Bengals at home, poor play up front allowed their franchise quarterback Russell Wilson to be knocked around nine times and sacked four.

Whether those four teams were blown out, defeated at the last second or narrowly escaped with a victory, expectations for the Browns, Falcons, Jets and Seahawks have definitely been tempered — in most part due to their play in the trenches.

Fortunately for some, their offenses are both high-octane and solid up front. The Kansas City Chiefs played one of the tougher defensive units in Jacksonville and scored 40 points while allowing zero sacks on last year’s MVP Patrick Mahomes. The Philadelphia Eagles, who trailed the Redskins 20-7 at the half, kept Carson Wentz upright all but once on Sunday and gave him and Desean Jackson more than enough time to complete the comeback against a stout Washington front seven. The Cowboys and Patriots, who outscored their opponents 68-20, allowed a combined seven quarterback hits and one, lone sack.

Consistency on the offensive line is one of the hardest things to maintain over the stretch of a franchise’s success. All Colts fans here remember how tough it was to win games before general manager Chris Ballard added Quenton Nelson, Mark Glowinski and Braden Smith to the starting lineup. There’s a reason the Bills brought in multiple offensive lineman this offseason as opposed to adding dynamic skill players. It makes sense why the Cowboys have invested nearly a quarter of their salary cap on their offensive line; a number that could jump to 35.77 percent (over $86 million) by the year 2021.

The blueprint on how to build the right offensive line has been laid out by several teams over the last nine years, yet other teams still find a way to screw it up.

Take the Texans for example. While the Colts, Cowboys, Patriots and Eagles built their o-lines through wise drafting and selective free-agent spending, Houston traded away massive draft capital for one left tackle when, just a year prior, the Texans benefited off receiving a second- and fifth-round draft pick for sending Duane Brown to the Seattle Seahawks.

One above average talent doesn’t magically keep the quarterback upright, but rather a collaborative development of young talent, cautious free-agent signings and smart draft choices. Houston’s Week 1 opponent, the New Orleans Saints — who drafted four of their five starting offensive lineman — held All-Pro J.J. Watt without even a tackle for the first time in his career.

Bring in the star receiver, build an offensive masterpiece around your franchise quarterback, hire the innovative offensive coordinator: Just make sure you invest in the offensive line to keep them all alive.