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.
One of the NFL's best offensive lines this season faces another big challenge in the Black Hole when the Bills' ferocious pass-rushing defense comes to town. And although Derek Carr will be nursing a dislocated pinky finger suffered while taking a snap last week, he has been the most protected QB. Opposing defenses have sacked Carr 13 times and recorded 24 QB hits on the MVP candidate (both fewest in the league). The Raiders will look to get back to their run game, which helped them slow down Denver's defense a few weeks ago, especially considering the injury to Carr's throwing hand coupled with the fact that the Jaguars rushed for 183 yards against the Bills last week.
The Bills have racked up 33 sacks (second-most in the league) this season, led by the curious case of linebackers Lorenzo Alexander and Jerry Hughes. Alexander sits in second in sacks (10) behind only Von Miller, but he has just one in the last four games after getting out to a monster start. Hughes has five sacks and 47 QB disruptions on the season, according to Pro Football Focus. On the other side, Raiders left tackle Donald Penn has yet to give up a sack, so he and right tackle Austin Howard will have a good battle on their hands. On the inside, center Rodney Hudson, left guard Kelechi Osemele and right guard Gabe Jackson will be looking to shut down DTs Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, who has three sacks in the last two games.
If the playoffs started today (of course this sounds ridiculous), this is exactly what one of the AFC Wild Card matchups would look like. The 7-4 Dolphins are riding a six-game win streak sparked by an electric run game with Jay Ajayi -- who leads the NFL in rushing yards (730) since Week 6 despite Miami having a bye Week 8. Also playing a role in the streak is the return of some healthy offensive linemen, although they were once again without three starters last week.
The Dolphins face their toughest challenge of the season this week against Baltimore, which sits atop the AFC North thanks to its stout and stingy defense. The Ravens boast the league's No. 2 overall defense, fourth-best scoring defense and top run defense, having allowed just three rushing TDs to running backs this season (tied for second-fewest in the NFL). The Ravens have held opponents under 65 rushing yards in seven of their last nine games, but the Dolphins are 7-0 when rushing for 95 yards or more.
However, pass protection will also be valuable for the Dolphins' O-line, as Miami's ability to keep Ryan Tannehill clean has had a direct impact on the team's wins and losses this season. During the six-game win streak, Tannehill has only been sacked nine times. In the Dolphins' 1-4 start, the fifth-year quarterback was sacked 17 times. The first matchup on the line to watch is right guard Jermon Bushrod vs. defensive end Lawrence Guy and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan. Bushrod has allowed five sacks, 28 QB disruptions and committed six penalties this season, according to Pro Football Focus. The second matchup to keep an eye on is right tackle Ja'Wuan James vs. linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who has been battling a foot injury this season. James will have his hands full with the pass rusher and it doesn't help that he's allowed five sacks, 25 QB disruptions and had six penalties in 2016.
These two storied franchises are linked in so many ways, from ownership with the Rooney and Mara families on down to players past and present. Front and center stand Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger -- forever linked by the 2004 NFL Draft. Their offenses are also tied for second-best when it comes to sacks allowed this season, and you can bet the Giants' defense will be doing their best to make sure Big Ben is not standing long in the pocket this week -- Big Blue's unit has had a sudden outburst of QB harassment (21 sacks in the last six games). The Giants have been the most improved scoring defense, giving up 8.2 fewer points per game this season than in 2015. Since Week 7, New York has the top-ranked defense in points per game allowed (16.4), third-down percentage (29.6), INTs (eight) and passer rating allowed (69.7).
A big help for the Steelers has been their run game in the last two weeks. It's featured Le'Veon Bell and his back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances. Bell leads the NFL in scrimmage yards per game (142) this season and has recorded at least 100 yards from scrimmage in seven of his eight outings in 2016. The offensive line -- LT Alejandro Villanueva, LG Ramon Foster, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David DeCastro and RT Marcus Gilbert -- haven't allowed a sack in two straight games (both wins). This week, though, Gilbert will have his hands full against Jason Pierre-Paul, who has seven sacks (5.5 in the last two games), 17 QB hits and 60 QB disruptions, according to PFF. Villanueva is tasked with offseason addition Olivier Vernon, who has six sacks and 57 QB disruptions on the season.
This game could have a new and different twist this week, as quarterback Trevor Siemian hasn't participated in Broncos practice due to a foot sprain. It's possible first-round pick Paxton Lynch could get the start, which would put a lot of pressure on the offensive line -- LT Russell Okung, LG Max Garcia, C Matt Paradis, RG Michael Schofield and RT Donald Stephenson. The unit struggled to protect Siemian against Kansas City last week and allowed five sacks. Ironically, that's the same number of sacks the Jaguars had on Tyrod Taylorlast week. Maybe Malik Jackson can get rid of his "sobering" feeling this weekend and lead the Jags to their first win since Week 6. It'd feel pretty nice to beat his former team.
The Broncos will need to find their run game, which has escaped them since C.J. Anderson went on IR. Rookie Devontae Booker has averaged a mere 3 yards per carry in his four starts. This will put a large emphasis on Denver's 22nd-ranked passing game -- that might be led by Lynch. This won't help much as the Jaguars' strength is their pass defense (third-best in the NFL).
On the other side of the field, the Jaguars have struggled to keep quarterback Blake Bortles upright. He's been sacked 23 times this season and shares the lead in the one category no QB wants to ... interceptions (13). Protecting Bortles will be a tough challenge, as Denver's defense is fourth overall, fifth on third down and tops in the league in sacks and against the pass. The Broncos' D leads all teams in QB hits (89) and has not allowed a 100-yard receiver this season. Right tackle Jermey Parnell must have a big game if the Jags want a chance to break their losing streak, as he has the unenviable job of blocking Von Miller (who leads the NFL in sacks with 12.5).
But look on the bright side, Jags fans: At least this game isn't in London.