NFL Network analyst and former Pro Bowl center Shaun O'Hara selects offensive line units to watch heading into the week, breaking down what's on the line for each group, potential matchups and other significant factors. Following each week's games, O'Hara will select a Built Ford Tough Offensive Line of the Week.
New England Patriots
There are a lot of interesting storylines in this AFC East matchup, as the Bills try to sweep the Patriots for the first time since 1999, a year when Wade Phillips (Buffalo) and Pete Carroll (New England) were the head coaches. Of course, the Patriots haven't been swept in their division since the Miami Dolphins did it in 2000. The Patriots look very different than the first time these two teams met this season -- back in Week 4, when the Bills won 16-0, handing the Pats their first home shutout since 1993 -- as Tom Brady is back. Brady has more wins (25) and more touchdown passes (62) vs. Buffalo than any other QB in NFL history.
Brady isn't the only fresh face in this matchup, as the Bills welcome back Marcell Dareus, who served a four-game suspension and then battled through a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the last three games. The Bills are still licking their wounds after the ground thrashing Miami gave them last week, amassing 256 rushing yards. The Patriots will be eager to test Buffalo's ability to stop the run with LeGarrette Blount, who is tied for the most rushing TDs this season and leads the team's sixth-ranked rushing attack.
In their Week 4 game, the Bills sacked Patriots QB Jacoby Brissett three times, and they already have matched their season total from 2015 with 21 sacks (second-most in the NFL). The interior offensive line -- left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason -- will have its hands full with the fresh legs of Dareus and the powerful Kyle Williams. Tackles Marcus Cannon and Nate Solder will be tested by the NFL's current sack leader, Lorenzo Alexander (with nine), as well as Jerry Hughes on the outside. The Bills have had a lot of success with their odd three-man fronts on third down, something New England should have plenty of film on.
Falcons fans are feeling a little déjà vu this season after watching their team lose two straight following a 4-1 start. After blowing a 17-point lead last week to San Diego at home, Atlanta will face an even tougher challenge in the Packers' seventh-ranked defense. Green Bay has given up some big plays to No. 1 receivers this season, but against the run, the Pack defense is allowing just 71.8 yards per game and a meager 3.15 yards per carry (both tops in the league). The Packers have allowed only one running back to amass more than 50 yards rushing in a game this season (Ezekiel Elliott racked up 157 yards in Week 6).
Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has done a good job attacking defenses in the run game with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and I'd expect Shanahan to use some perimeter runs to try to keep the Packers off balance. Being efficient on first down will be crucial for the Falcons because the Packers have been excellent on third down, allowing offenses to convert just 33 percent of the time (third-best in the league).
The Cowboys boast the No. 1 rushing offense in the league, but will face an Eagles team that is fifth in total defense. Dallas has one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, which has led the way for Ezekiel Elliott's superb weekly rushing performances, including a 157-yard outing against Green Bay's top-ranked run defense in Week 6. The Cowboys lead the league in time of possession and are doing an excellent job protecting quarterback Dak Prescott, only giving up nine sacks in their first six games (second-fewest in the league).
The heavyweight battle inside will feature right guard Zack Martin and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. Two weeks ago, Cox was neutralized by Washington's Brandon Scherff, so this matchup has all of the ingredients to be great, as I believe Martin is one of the best guards in the NFL. On the outside, Tyron Smith (one of the best left tackles in the game right now) will battle the long-armed Connor Barwin, while Philly's Brandon Graham (one of the more underrated players on the defense) will give right tackle Doug Free all he can handle.
Yes, I am double-dipping again this week, as both Philadelphia and Dallas have good matchups. The Eagles' offensive line suffered a major blow when Lane Johnson was suspended a few weeks ago. Rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai stepped in at right tackle and, while he struggled in his first game against Washington, he settled in last week against Minnesota. The O-line has been solid this season, but is a little banged-up heading into Week 8. Right guard Brandon Brooks battled an ankle injury last week, and left tackle Jason Peters left the game vs. the Vikings with a bicep injury.
The Eagles have done a complete turnaround from Chip Kelly's fast-paced offense and are doing a much better job controlling time of possession. They need to protect the ball better Sunday night (four turnovers last week) if they want to keep Elliott and company on the sidelines.
"We didn't block anybody," he said after his team's first loss of the season. "We were soft. We got overpowered."
Ouch! Believe me, this offensive line is fired up. Things like that don't happen very often, even when they are warranted, but the message has been sent. The first order of business is improving the run game. The Vikings averaged 3.4 yards per carry last week against the Eagles and have the second-worst rushing attack in the league. Couple that with an inability to protect quarterback Sam Bradford, who is taking an average of 7.2 hits per game (third-most in the NFL), and now we see why Zimmer is upset.
The Vikings' offensive line has been ravaged by injuries, as both starting tackles (Andre Smith and Matt Kalil) are on IR. Minnesota signed Jake Long and that experiment didn't go well. He eventually was benched, leaving T.J. Clemmings at left tackle and Jeremiah Sirles at right tackle. The Vikings better figure out a solution before Monday because Bears rookie Leonard Floyd will be ready to pounce.