Run and stop the run. Win the battle in the trenches. Make big plays with your biggest men, and you have a shot at winning every game. It's been the lifeblood of American football since the sport had legs - and that tradition is very endearing to many generations of football fans.
This Sunday, when the Buffalo Bills travel to Cleveland to take on the Browns in a game chock-full of playoff implications, football will be played the way it was meant to be played: old school. In cold, not-so-sunny weather. A smash-mouth, in-your-face slugfest in which the team that dominates the point of attack - on both sides of the ball - will likely win the game. Bearing that in mind, which team's pair of lines has the best chance of doing just that on Sunday?
First - DVOA and ALY
The offensive and defensive line statistics used in this report come by way of Football Outsiders - because the NFL doesn't keep statistics on linemen. I've always found that a bit disconcerting, but the Outsiders have us covered. They use DVOA to analyze every position, including the lines; here's the quickest, and simplest, explanation of DVOA:
A far more intricate and detailed analysis of DVOA is here. For the purposes of our trench analysis, we'll use a stat called ALY (Adjusted Line Yards). Basically, if a running back gets stuffed, the line is 120% responsible for that yardage; if the back gains 0-4 yards, the offensive line is 100% responsible; 5-10 yards, 50% responsible and over 11 yards, 0%. This is then adjusted for down, distance, situation, etc. It's the best way out there to measure the effectiveness of an offensive line without considering the running back(s) involved. The same stat is used for defensive linemen. Using ALY, here's how the Bills and Browns stack up.
The O-Lines: Not So Far Apart
Many experts are pointing out the disparity between Buffalo's 28th-ranked offense (averaging 17 points per game) and Cleveland's 9th-ranked offense (27.7 points per) as the reason that Cleveland should win the game. But DVOA and ALY point out that while there may indeed be more productivity on Cleveland's side of the ball, these two offensive lines are pretty close in terms of production.
The Browns' offensive line has gotten a ton of respect after the off-season additions of Joe Thomas and Eric Steinbach made them one of the best units in the league. That unit has been the driving success behind Cleveland's offensive resurgence; it's no surprise, then, that the unit ranks #6 rushing and #5 passing using the Outsiders stats. The Browns have given up just 16 sacks (11 on Derek Anderson) - good for the second-lowest total in the league. They also average over 4 ALY at any point in the run blocking scheme (left end, left tackle, mid/guard, right tackle, right end), with the most success coming as they run to the left. They average 5.5 ALY to left end and 5.27 ALY to left tackle; that's where Thomas and Steinbach reside, and it's also where Buffalo's worst run defender, Aaron Schobel, lines up. Watch for the Browns to attack with Jamal Lewis to the left all day.
Buffalo, meanwhile, sports an O-Line that ranks #15 rushing and #14 passing. Surprised? I was too. The Bills have surrendered 23 sacks on the season (9 on Trent Edwards); due to the fact that the Bills pass far less than most teams, however, their sack percentage (number of sacks per dropback) is a bit higher, so they rank near the middle of the league. Buffalo's rushing statistics are a little more uneven than the Browns', as well - we're at our best running up the middle (4.19 ALY) and to right tackle (5.03 ALY) behind Brad Butler and Langston Walker. The Browns are weak along the defensive line's middle - we'll get to that in a moment - so the Bills could actually be more successful in this department on Sunday.
The D-Lines: One Advantage for Buffalo
The common talk heading into this game is that we've got two bad defenses clashing. The Bills rank #30 in overall defense in the NFL, while the Browns are dead last. But once again, the Outsiders' D-Line stats tell a slightly different story.
Cleveland's defensive line ranks #31 against the run and #29 against the pass - granted, they only play three linemen, so their 3-4 scheme makes up for some deficiencies, but the Browns struggle along the line of scrimmage nonetheless. This unit allows opposing offensive lines to average 4+ ALY at any point along the line of scrimmage, something that the Bills will most assuredly try to take advantage of. The Browns are also one of the most anemic sacking units in the league - granted, they've accrued more sacks than the Bills (23 to 19), but again, the sack-happy 3-4 scheme can be credited with some of that. (Just seven of those sacks come from defensive linemen.)
Buffalo, as mentioned, struggles in the pass, where they're ranked #30 - one spot below Cleveland. Of their 19 sacks, however, 14 come from defensive linemen - and once again, scheme comes in to play. Due to the differences in the two schemes these defenses employ, it's difficult to measure their effectiveness against the pass. It's not as hard to gauge the run, however. While the Browns rank #30 against the run, the Bills come in at #15 - despite the fact that both teams struggle against the run. Buffalo's defense does a great job stuffing the run at left end (where Terrence McGee can usually mop up), but are atrocious to right end (over 7 ALY - Jabari Greer mops up there). Otherwise, they're right around the league average in ALY, whereas Cleveland is well above that average.
What This All Means
With weather forecasts calling for cold, wind and snow, the running game will be of the utmost importance in this contest. The trench analysis proves that when you take into account the O-Lines and D-Lines of both teams, the contest is a virtual wash. There are strengths and weaknesses to both sides. Because the two units are so close in this department, it likely means that this game is going to be close throughout. Cleveland will have its moments offensively, but the Bills have an equal shot at having a lot of offensive success as well.
So when you hear an NFL expert blabber on about Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow and Joe Jurevicius tomorrow - and how they'll be deciding factors in the game - let that blow in one earhole and out the other. When you get two teams like this, plus the predicted weather, the game changes. It becomes a game played out in the trenches. And when you take a look at the trenches, these two teams are in a deadlock. This will be anyone's game to take. Game on.