Going into the 2011 season, most pundits pegged the Buffalo Bills offensive line, and specifically the pass protection, as a problem waiting to explode. Ryan Fitzpatrick had the most to lose when it went up in flames. Instead, the offensive line allowed the fewest quarterback sacks in the league this season, giving up just 23.
Part of the reason for the pundits' opinions was the manner in which GM Buddy Nix built the offensive line. Only one first-round pick held court on the offensive line, and Eric Wood was making the move from right guard to center. Elsewhere, left guard Andy Levitre had manned his spot since being taken in the second round of the 2009 draft after Wood. Even Levitre went through some tough times during the pre-season, splitting first team reps and being moved around.
Besides those players with a high draft pedigree, Buffalo had a former seventh-round pick manning the left tackle spot. Demetrius Bell had fought injuries in 2009, a theme that would recur in 2011.
The two other starters were both brought off the scrap heap by Nix. Kraig Urbik was claimed off waivers in 2010 despite being a third-round selection by the Pittsburgh Steelers just a year before. Urbik was asked to start at right guard from the get-go in 2011, and the team released veteran Geoff Hangartner. Joining Urbik on the right side was street free agent Erik Pears, who was signed in late December 2010. Nix was not confident enough in Pears, though, and pursued Atlanta Falcons tackle Tyson Clabo during free agency.
With a highly-questionable starting five, the Bills went into the season with 2011 fourth-round pick Chris Hairston as their lone backup tackle and Chad Rinehart, another 2010 mid-season free agent signing, as their top interior reserve. The only other man on the roster was Colin Brown, who was signed in December of 2010.
Why would three December free agents and a waiver wire acquisition inspire confidence?
The line proved those pundits wrong thanks to some great play and coaching. Offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris deserves major praise for the job he did turning this unit of castoffs into a solid unit. Fitzpatrick's quick decision-making and head coach Chan Gailey's decision to scheme quick passes also allowed the offensive line to hold up against formidable pass rushes.
Buffalo led the league in sacks allowed with 23. Behind them were the Tennessee Titans and New Orleans Saints (24), Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders (25), Atlanta Falcons (26), and New York Giants (28). Those teams all made the playoffs or were competing for spots through Week 17.
The Bills didn't set the mark against weak competition, either. They faced the top pass rushing team in the league and held the Philadelphia Eagles to only one sack, well below their three-plus-sacks-per-game average. They faced five of the top ten and nine of the top 16 pass-rushing teams.
In 2010, the Bills offense allowed 34 sacks and in 2009 it was 46 - double the 2011 total. In fact, the only time since sacks became an official statistic in 1982 that the Bills allowed fewer than 24 sacks was in the strike-shortened 1982 season, when they gave up 12 in nine games.
Fitzpatrick was sacked on only 3.7% of his dropbacks - a figure eclipsed only by Drew Brees and Matt Hasselbeck in 2011 (3.5%). The last time the Bills' leading passer was sacked that infrequently was Doug Flutie's Pro Bowl season in 1998. He was sacked on just 3.3% of his passing attempts that year as Buffalo made the playoffs just two years after Jim Kelly's retirement. (For the record, Kelly's lowest sack rate was 4.1% in 1992.)
If the Bills want to take the next step in 2012, the offensive line is going to need to continue keeping Fitzpatrick upright to make his reads. The offense can then build on their sporadic success from 2011 into a cohesive and consistent unit.