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Prioritizing Team Needs: Is Offense More Important Than Defense?

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With needs at EDGE, WR, and iOL, which position should be the Titans’ top priority this offseason?

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NFL: Tennessee Titans-Training Camp Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

As we meander our way slowly through the 2019 offseason (January has already come and gone!), there will certainly be plenty more discussion concerning which positions the Titans might try to upgrade this offseason.

Ask any Titans fan and they’ll tell you about the three clear weaknesses on Tennessee’s roster: wide receiver, interior offensive line, and edge rusher.

In this salary cap league, a team can only afford to be good in so many areas. How should the Titans’ front office go about prioritizing these three key needs? Where should resources be most allocated to best improve the overall product on the field?

Allow me to make the case for each of these positions as the team’s number one need...

The Argument for Edge Rusher(s)

A strong argument can be made that edge rusher should be the top focus for the Titans. The incumbent starting outside linebackers in Tennessee’s 3-4 defense over the past four seasons both appear to be moving on this offseason, with Brian Orakpo entering retirement and Derrick Morgan’s contract expiring.

There is a chance the team could re-sign Morgan, but even if they did, it would likely be in a rotational role as he enters the later stages of his career. And returning the same group of pass rushers as last season, minus Orakpo, could be a mistake given the Titans’ inability to generate pressure without sending extra defenders in 2018.

Overall, the Titans ranked just 18th in pressure percentage last season, applying pressure on just 30.1% of opponents’ dropbacks.

The Titans’ defense allowed the 3rd-fewest points in the league despite finishing 22nd in takeaways with only 17 total (barely more than 1 per game). Imagine how good this defense could be if they generated more pressure. It might create more turnovers. They might even become... elite.

While in general it has been shown that investing resources in defensive talent can be somewhat futile due to the lack of carry-over in defensive performance from year to year, there is one defensive statistic that holds fairly constant from season to season: applied pressure.

Josh Hermsmeyer of FiveThirtyEight writes:

One of the most stable defensive stats is hits on the quarterback, which has a relatively impressive year-to-year r-squared of 0.21 — better even than total offensive DVOA, which is the gold standard for stability in team metrics. Quarterback hits include sacks — 43.5 percent of QB hits end in a sack, and those by themselves tend to not be predictive — but also plays in which the passer is contacted after the pass is thrown, and that contact is incredibly disruptive to a passing offense.

The hope is that Harold Landry will continue to develop, but even so, if the Titans want to generate more pressure next season, they need to add some juice to the pass rush.

I mentioned that the Titans finished third in scoring defense last season, but that ranking might be a bit of a mirage. The majority of the credit for that stat can be traced to the defense’s outstanding performance in the red zone, where they ranked 2nd in the league in touchdown percentage allowed. Between the 20s, they weren’t nearly as effective, finishing just 18th in Football Outsiders’ overall Defensive DVOA metric.

While the red zone performance of last season is impressive, it also raises some concerns going forward because red zone performance from year to year — on both offense and defense — has shown to be almost completely random. Much like turnovers, the expectation should be that the Titans defense will regress towards the mean in this particularly volatile statistic. Therefore, it would be unwise to expect them to continue that level of play.

The Titans allowed a touchdown on just 21 out of 47 opposing red zone trips, an impressive 45% success rate. The average success rate allowed was 59%. If regression towards that number is to be expected, last year’s overall defensive performance may not be sustainable if improvements aren’t made to the roster.

Anyway, this discussion isn’t about if pass rusher is a need, because obviously it is. The question is whether it’s worth prioritizing this need over the other big needs, like offensive line and wide receiver.

Mike has done a good deal of research into this subject, so I asked him to contribute some of his thoughts here. Take it away, Mike...

I believe there are several arguments you could make for why edge rusher (or pass rushing defensive line) should be the top priority for the Titans in the first round of the draft. First, finding outstanding pass rushers late in the draft or through free agency is more difficult than it is for other positions. Out of the top 15 sack artists in the NFL in 2018, 12 of them were former first round picks. Compare that to wide receiver, where just 4 of the top 15 receivers (ranked by receiving yards) in the NFL last season were first round picks and offensive line where 6 of the top 15 offensive lineman (as graded by PFF) were top picks. Difference making pass rushers are exceedingly hard to find and even if you believe that Harold Landry will become one — like I do — you still need at least one more.

As Justin mentioned, the Titans success on defense without being able to create pressure with just four pass rushers is likely unsustainable to a large degree. The lack of pressure is also at least partially responsible for the lack of turnovers created by the Titans defense in 2018. There is no better way to increase turnovers from your opponent than turning up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks. If the Titans can find a way to get more pressure it could make a good defense a great one and having one elite unit is generally better than having two mediocre ones (even if it’s on the less preferable side of the ball).

Lastly, this is an all-time great pass rushing class. If you can get the kind of talent usually reserved for top 10 picks at 19 at a position that is both extremely valuable and a position of need for your team, you should probably take advantage of it. Grabbing a first round player on defense does not mean abandoning the needs of Marcus Mariota and the offense. There will still be good offensive linemen and receivers available on Day 2.

It’s not that I’m opposed to taking an offensive player in the first round. If the best on the Titans board is a lineman or receiver then so be it, but from an allocation of resources standpoint it makes a ton of sense for the team to land a difference making pass rusher early and then commit resources to the offense later on.

The Chicago Bears make for an interesting case study. Chicago added Khalil Mack just before last season started, and they progressed from 10th in total defense and 9th in points allowed in 2017 to 3rd in total defense and 1st in points allowed in 2018. That rise corresponded with an increase in forced turnovers, as they improved from 22 takeaways in 2017 to a league-leading 36 takeaways in 2018. This could perhaps be traced to an increased pressure rate, where the Bears jumped from 22nd in the league in 2017 to the 3rd-highest rate in 2018. Clearly, Khalil Mack made a difference.

The key pieces of the Bears defense — aside from Mack — are pretty similar to those of the Titans. They have a do-it-all safety like with a nose for the football like Kevin Byard in Eddie Jackson, a promising young speed rusher like Harold Landry in Leonard Floyd, an underrated, disruptive interior defender like Jurrell Casey in Akiem Hicks, a fast and aggressive inside linebacker duo like Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans in Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith, and a plus trio of cornerbacks.

The Bears traded for Khalil Mack, and suddenly they became the number 1 defense according to Football Outsiders DVOA.

Signing Mack to a huge extension in August didn’t prevent the Bears from also signing Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Trey Burton in free agency nor from drafting receivers Anthony Miller and Javon Wims. But even adding all those players on offense, along with Matt Nagy’s prowess, still resulted in the Bears finishing with just the 20th-ranked offense according to DVOA.

The Bears became a playoff team on the strength of their defense, made possible by the addition of Khalil Mack. The Titans need to find their own Khalil Mack, or at the very least, someone on defense who can make an impact rushing the passer.

As Mike noted, this particular draft class is loaded with top-rated edge rushers. Nick Bosa, Clelin Ferrell, Josh Allen, Rashan Gary, Brian Burns, Jachai Polite, Montez Sweat, Zach Allen, and even Charles Omenihu have all received some amount of first-round buzz. That likely means there will be a high-level player at this position of need on the board when the Titans pick at No. 19 in the upcoming draft.

But way before that happens, a bevy of talented pass rushers will hit free agency in March. While the likes of Jadeveon Clowney, Dee Ford, and Demarcus Lawrence will probably be franchise-tagged, there could still be a sizable group of talented edge players on the market.

That includes a handful of young players like Frank Clark, Za’Darius Smith, and Trey Flowers, a selection of aging veterans, such as Cameron Wake, Terrell Suggs, and Brandon Graham, and even a few reclamation project-types, notably Dante Fowler, Jr. and Shane Ray.

With around $34M to spend on free agents this offseason, the Titans could add an experienced pass rusher and still have room for a veteran receiver or offensive linemen.

If the opportunity to add a highly rated player in the draft presents itself, general manager Jon Robinson has to take it.

The Argument for Wide Receiver(s)

It’s not difficult to fashion an argument for wide receiver as the top need for the Titans.

Not only did Robinson spend his top three picks on defense in the 2018 NFL draft, he traded up with each of those selections, effectively using six picks to acquire three defensive players last year. Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry already project as reliable starters, if not better, for years to come, and Dane Cruikshank looks like a solid special teams player with the potential to develop into a contributing third safety.

Additionally, the past two offseasons have seen the Titans sign defensive backs Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler, Johnathan Cyprien, and Kenny Vaccaro to contracts totaling an average annual value of $30,000,000.

All those investments resulted in a defense that gave up the 8th-fewest yards and 3rd-fewest points in the league last season. Perhaps the team has invested enough resources recently in the defense?

Meanwhile, the Titans’ offense was just 25th in total yards and 27th in scoring in 2018 after Robinson basically ignored the receiver position around this time last year. While Corey Davis should continue to develop into a reliable pass-catcher, the other receivers have not shown as much to be encouraged about from this point forward.

The second-leading receiver for the Titans last year was Dion Lewis. The non-Corey Davis receivers on the roster combined for 965 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns. The Titans top eight leaders in receptions consisted of just three receivers, with three tight ends and two running backs, and that was with Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker missing 15 of 16 games.

Jim Armstrong wrote an article for Football Outsiders in 2004 about the dangers of investing long-term assets in defense instead of offense. From his findings:

A defense’s tendency to force turnovers is fairly important to the team’s success, but it seems to be even more unpredictable. In general, a team’s ability to force fumbles seems to be almost entirely luck. There is a little bit more persistence in a team’s ability to force interceptions, though it isn’t clear how much of this ability is just a residual effect of general defensive ability. Again, this only pertains to the team level. Whether there are some individual players with a special ability to force turnovers significantly above average rates would be an interesting subject for further study.

In any event, the implication of these numbers is that a general manager should be very cautious about attempting to build a perennial championship contender around a dominating defensive unit unless he has a deeper understanding of why defensive performance is so relatively unpredictable.

This was 15 years ago, yet it feels just as applicable, if not more, to the modern NFL that so favors offensive output.

Maybe you prefer a more recent study with a similar conclusion? Reacting to the success of the league’s four highest scoring offenses all reaching the conference finals, FiveThirtyEight’s Josh Hermsmeyer dug into the value of investing in offense over defense in the below article.

An excerpt from Josh’s article reveals the same conclusions that Jim Armstrong discovered 15 years ago.

We shouldn’t be surprised that great offensive teams have made it this far. Teams are more reliably good — and bad — from game to game and year to year on offense than on defense. Individual defenders often have wild swings in performance from season to season, and defensive units forecast to be dominant often end up being merely average. The Jacksonville Jaguars’ defense took them as far as the AFC championship a year ago, but that same defense led them to five wins this season. Meanwhile, performance on offense is generally easier to forecast, making investments on that side of the ball more reliable.

Alright, we’ve determined that the Titans are close to having an “elite” defense.

So. What?

It’s true, prioritizing edge rusher might push the Titans defense over the top, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the bottom line - AKA, the win column.

Does a better defense add any wins if the offense is still subpar?

Aside from point differential, the stat that most correlates to winning is points for (+0.748).

Scoring points is the number one objective. To hammer that idea home, here’s more words from Josh:

Stats [with high year-to-year carry over] like QB hits are rare to find on defense. And because of the high variance in defensive performance, teams built with a defense-first mindset end up controlling their own destinies less than we might expect. When it comes to team-building, this suggests that investments on offense are better long-term bets for stability. Lighting up scoreboards by focusing on scoring points instead of preventing them has proved to be both successful and incredibly entertaining to watch.

Last summer, Mike tried to determine the statistics that have the strongest correlation to wins from the perspective of roster construction.

He found that not only is offensive success more strongly correlated to win totals than defensive success, the strongest correlation (+.703) is actually an effective passing attack.

Passing DVOA vs Regular Season Wins for each team from 2008 through 2017.
Data: Football Outsiders. Chart: “Building a Winner by the Numbers” by Mike Herndon

The Titans were not a good passing team in 2018 (or 2017 for that matter). Tennessee finished 25th in Football Outsider’s Passing DVOA metric, 31st in total pass attempts, 29th in total passing yards, and 28th in total passing touchdowns last season. The fact that they managed 9 wins given these circumstances is actually quite impressive.

Regardless of the root of the Titans’ struggles in the passing game. the receiver position needs to be addressed. According to Pro Football Focus’s 2018 season grades, the Titans fielded the #34 (Davis), #70 (Taywan Taylor), #102 (Cameron Batson), #131 (Tajae Sharpe), and #195 (Darius Jennings) rated receivers in the NFL in 2018.

Where did the four conference championship contenders stand in this regard?

Kansas City had 2 receivers in PFF’s top 40, including the #5 receiver in Tyreek Hill (not to mention PFF’s #2 tight end). The Rams had three receivers ranked in PFF’s top 30, including #8 (Robert Woods). The Saints had PFF’s #2 ranked receiver Michael Thomas along with Alvin Kamara, and the Patriots had three receivers in PFF’s top 50 (plus James White, who ranked 15th overall in the NFL in receptions in the regular season with more than any Titans receiver, and Rob Gronkowski).

Marcus Mariota is going to be the quarterback next season. If the Titans wants to be proactive about improving the passing attack and break through the 9-win barrier, the best thing they can do (aside from hoping their quarterback stays healthy) is heavily invest in the wide receiver position.

Even if Mariota proves he isn’t the long-term answer, the team would be better positioned to get high-level play from a young quarterback down the road if that newcomer can step into a situation with a strong supporting cast of playmakers. No matter how you slice it, this team needs better weapons in the passing game.

Much like at pass rusher, the 2019 draft class offers a number of playmaking receiver prospects. Jon Robinson might not be afraid to use a high pick on one, considering that he reportedly offered a first-rounder — along with a second round swap — to acquire Amari Cooper, despite spending No. 5 overall on Corey Davis just two years ago

While the team certainly needs to add talent however they can, acquiring one or more pass-catchers through the draft would leave an incredibly inexperienced group. Unfortunately, the free agent market isn’t nearly as exciting as the draft class. Even so, the Titans might look to bring in a veteran presence to lead their wide receiver room.

An entire overhaul of the Titans receiving corps over the next few months is not outside the realm of possibility. With the exception of Corey Davis, no receiver’s role on this team is safe.

(If you’re still not convinced or want to learn more about the Titans’ wide receiver problem, I recommend you read the wide receiver edition of Mike’s offseason roster breakdown series if you missed it.)

The Argument for Interior Offensive Line

The case for offense over defense is easy to make, but with two glaring weaknesses on offense, why should offensive line be a higher priority than wide receiver?

Many would argue that the best way to build a football team is from the inside out, meaning that it all starts in the trenches, offensive line and defensive line.

We saw above how important offense has become to winning in today’s NFL. And the Titans offensive line has struggled mightily for the last two seasons.

Inspired by Mike’s research into the correlation between DVOA and wins, I decided to dive further into this study, specifically to see how much offensive line performance impacted win totals. Using Football Outsider’s offensive line rankings. I looked into the correlation between those numbers and regular season victories.

After seeing the above tweet from Evan Silva, I started by looking at the correlation for the 2018 season alone. Football Outsiders splits their offensive line metric into run blocking efficiency and pass block efficiency, so I averaged the two efficiency rankings for each team to determine the aggregate offensive line rank and then plotted those rankings against 2018 win totals. The correlation coefficient of +0.55 suggests a fairly strong correlation, considering all the random variables that can affect a game.

Aggregate Offensive Line Rank vs Regular Season Wins (2018)
Football Outsiders

The outliers can be explained fairly easily; Houston has a tremendous defensive front and an elusive quarterback. Chicago forced more turnovers than any other team. San Francisco played most of the season without their starting quarterback.

In general, the teams above the line (exceeding their win expectation) either have quality quarterbacks or stifling defenses (if not both). Conversely, the teams below the line (falling short of their win expectation) are generally worse on defense or lack a trusted signal-caller.

Next, I wanted to adjust for small sample size problems, so I extended my range to cover the last ten seasons, 2009-2018. I isolated pass blocking efficiency and run blocking efficiency to determine if either revealed a stronger correlation to wins.

Bear with me as I attempt to explain the math, because it gets a little confusing...

I decided the most useful way to understand this data would be to aggregate the rankings over the 10 year period, reducing my plot from 320 data points to 32 data points (so unlike the above plot, no individual team stats are reflected in the next two charts).

The X-axis represents the efficiency ranking according to Football Outsiders, ranging from the worst ranking, #32, on the far left to #1 on the far right. The Y-axis shows the total wins achieved by the teams finishing with each ranking over the ten-year period.

So in the below chart, you’ll see that rank 32 represents 62 total wins (the leftmost point). In other words, the 32nd-ranked team in Football Outsider’s pass blocking efficiency won 11 games in 2018, 4 games in 2017, 1 game in 2016, and so on and so on for a total of 62 wins since 2009. Meanwhile, the top-ranked teams (rightmost point) managed 102 total wins over the same time period.

Pass Blocking Efficiency Rank vs Total Regular Season Wins from 2009 through 2018.
Football Outsiders.

Pass-blocking efficiency ranking plotted against regular season wins from 2009-2018 revealed a correlation coefficient of +0.321.

Run-blocking efficiency ranking revealed a correlation coefficient of +0.402, stronger than the pass blocking ranking.

Run Blocking Efficiency Rank vs Total Regular Season Wins from 2009 through 2018.
Football Outsiders.

From there, I averaged the rankings together, which revealed a correlation coefficient of +0.463 — not as strong as 2018 by itself, but certainly indicating that better offensive lines lead to higher win totals (who would’ve guessed?).

Average Offensive Line Efficiency Ranking vs Total Regular Season Wins from 2009 through 2018.
Football Outsiders.

Granted, this correlation isn’t nearly as strong as, say, Points For vs. Regular Season Wins (+0.748), or Offensive DVOA vs Regular Season Wins (+0.702), but as far as breaking down the components of an offense, a +0.463 is a relatively strong correlation (even if that scatter plot does look a bit, well, scattered).

When we compare 2009-2018 Average Offensive Line Rankings to Offensive DVOA, we get a much stronger correlation of +0.618.

Average Offensive Line Efficiency Rankings vs Offensive DVOA from 2009 through 2018.
Football Outsiders.

The Titans finished 2018 ranked 17th in run blocking efficiency and 29th in pass blocking efficiency, for an average ranking of 23. That means they outperformed their expected win totals — purely according to offensive line rankings — by a good deal (about 2.5 wins), thanks almost entirely to the strength of their defense.

While the offensive weapons also need improvement, another year in the system should benefit the young pass catchers tremendously. Adding more inexperienced receivers who don’t know the system could even be counter-productive.

Meanwhile, the interior offensive linemen are not young, developing players, but they are bad.

Obligatory PFF disclaimer aside, the Titans interior offensive linemen were not highly thought of by PFF’s grading system (be sure to check out “How we grade offensive and defensive linemen” to gain a better understanding of what these grades mean).

Quinton Spain checked in as PFF’s No. 35-ranked guard (centers excluded) with a 2018 season grade of 62.3 (his lowest single-season grade in his 4-year career).

Josh Kline’s 2018 grade of 58.0 was good for 51st-best in the NFL (also the lowest graded season of his 6-year career).

Ben Jones was actually PFF’s 12th-ranked center with a season grade of 69.8, which was his lowest career grade since he was a rookie in 2012.

When it comes to actual statistics (rather than somewhat-arbitrary PFF grades), Ben Jones led all Titans in “allowed sacks” at 5 with Josh Kline right on his heels at 4 sacks allowed. Spain allowed just 1 sack all season.

Josh Kline also allowed 34 hurries in 2018, which was tied for the 5th-most hurries allowed in the league, a glaring concern when you consider the Titans were 31st in pass attempts. Ben Jones allowed 15 hurries and Quinton Spain allowed 14.

Clearly, Kline is the weak link. At center, the Titans are pretty average. But center is a position where it would be really nice to field an elite-level player.

When we take this theoretical conversation and look at actual players the Titans could target to replace their interior offensive linemen, the conversation starts to become more tangible, and much more compelling.

Garrett Bradbury is a highly-rated center prospect out of North Carolina State. A converted tight end, Bradbury has only been playing center for two years, but he has tremendous movement skills and is the best prospect for a zone blocking scheme we’ve seen enter the draft in some time.

While some project him as a second-round pick, others think he could go much higher.

The Titans do have other needs and a bevy of talented pass rushers should be on the table, but Bradbury has the appearance of a special prospect that the Titans might not want to risk missing by the time they pick in the second round.

As you may have noticed, our old friend Superhorn has a pretty strong opinion on the edge vs. WR vs. iOL debate, so I reached out to him to get some of his thoughts regarding the Titans and the importance of upgrading the interior offensive line:

Fix the offense. Until that’s done, nothing else matters. This is the ethos the team needs to take if it’s going to progress. What’s the plan otherwise? Are they going to sack their way through the division against Luck and Watson? That’s not a reliable strategy.

And, at the core of the offense is the offensive line. Somehow over time, with more 11 personnel and spread offense, this has somehow become forgotten. But, absent a consistent, healthy, top 5-10 QB that can hide weaknesses, the offensive line needs to be the engine that makes everything go.

As currently constructed, this team has two long term answers at tackle, a LG that’s going to be a free agent, a below average center, and a RG that makes me want to die inside. I think every fan would agree that this is a problem. The disconnect appears to be in the level of resources that should be allocated to fixing this problem.

This point really shocks me, if we’re honest about it. I mean, I assume these same people clamoring for edge are probably pimping their ride and not changing the oil. Looks great sitting in your driveway in January, even though it can’t run.

Bad analogies aside, the root of my discussion with Graver on this topic centers around Garrett Bradbury. He’s the best zone blocking center prospect I’ve ever studied. That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. He is a complete game changer that has the potential to transform the outside zone run game, and play at an All Pro level. If that type of player is available, you take him and never look back.

Start there, make it a priority to get at least one of the top guards in free agency, and let the remaining group - which hopefully doesn’t include Kline - compete for the other guard spot. All of the other shiny things are nice, and no doubt help. But, they won’t add wins until the offensive line becomes a strength that allows the team to consistently generate points.

Ben Jones proved that he can be an effective guard in the second half of the Titans’ week 13 matchup with the New York Jets if the Titans want to upgrade at center. Moving him there would allow the team to retain familiarity and a reliable veteran presence along the interior while simultaneously upping the talent level of the group.

Josh Kline is under contract and likely to be on the roster next year, but that doesn’t mean he has to keep his starting job.

Quinton Spain’s future is very murky and right now it doesn’t seem as if the Titans plan to bring him back.

It would hardly be surprising to see the Titans add two or three players to the interior of the offensive line with the expectation that they would be competing for a starting job.

Is first round a bit rich for a center? Maybe so, but look at how Travis Frederick transformed the Cowboys’ offensive line after they used a first rounder on him in 2013, moving from the 22nd-best run blocking team (according to Football Outsiders) in 2012 to 4th-best in that metric during his rookie season.

Ryan Kelly was the No. 18 overall pick for the Indianapolis Colts in 2016. Indianapolis improved from the 27th-ranked run blocking team in 2015 to the 2nd-best team during Kelly’s rookie campaign. Kelly missed a bunch of games in 2017, and Indianapolis’s run-block rank predictably dropped to #18 for that year. But with his return in 2018 (and the huge addition of Quenton Nelson), the Colts jumped back up to the 4th-best run blocking team this past season (and 2nd-best in pass blocking).

The only other center drafted in the first round since 2013 is Billy Price, who only played 10 games last year for the struggling and oft-injured Cincinnati Bengals.

Rookie centers (and guards for that matter) can have a strong impact on a team’s ability to run the football, something the Titans struggled with mightily in 2018 until Derrick Henry started to run through opposing defenses over the final quarter of the season.

If the Titans want to protect Marcus Mariota, they’d be well advised to start by improving his protection. Left tackle is obviously locked down by superstar Taylor Lewan. It’s about time the Titans had a great center anchoring things in the middle.

So which argument is the strongest?

The thing I love about this particular debate (iOL vs. WR vs. edge) is that all three points of view are well supported by strong and compelling evidence.

The Titans truly need to improve all three areas. There are a multitude of ways they can go about doing so with many possible combinations.

In your opinion, what is most important:

Pushing the defense to near-elite status? Adding playmakers and pass catchers to the receiving corps? Or upgrading the interior of the offensive line?