Todd Gurley is touted as an MVP contender. Jared Goff ranks among the top QBs in yardage and TD throws. Sean McVay already owns one NFL Coach of the Year award.
Here are some lesser-known names that are also a big part of why the Los Angeles Rams are 8-0 this season: Andrew Whitworth, Rodger Saffold, John Sullivan, Austin Blythe and Rob Havenstein.
They are the five guys who are opening running lanes for Gurley, do their best to keep Goff’s jersey clean, make McVay’s play designs work — and were an overwhelming pick as the NFL’s top offensive line in voting by a panel of 10 football writers for The Associated Press.
The Rams got eight first-place votes and finished with a total of 92 of a possible 100 points in balloting released Friday.
“It’s no coincidence that arguably the NFL’s best and most dynamic offense has the league’s top offensive line leading the way, with big boys up front such as left tackle Andrew Whitworth and left guard Rodger Saffold,” New York-based AP voter Dennis Waszak Jr. said.
The New Orleans Saints finished second with 76 points, followed by the Pittsburgh Steelers with 73. Then there was a big drop-off, with the reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs tied for fourth with 47.
The Steelers and Eagles each received one of the remaining first-place votes.
A total of 20 teams were named on at least one ballot. The Rams, Saints and Steelers were the only offensive lines that appeared on every ballot.
The AP voters looked at each line as a unit.
Whitworth, a first-team All-Pro pick last season, has “been the anchor” for the Rams up front, said AP voter Rob Maaddi, who is based in Philadelphia.
Saffold made the All-Pro second team. Otherwise, LA’s linemen might not necessarily be among the highest-rated at their positions, but they work together so well.
“I believe that it’s a case where these guys understand what we’re trying to get done. … They have a better understanding of what’s happening, and where the quarterback is in pass-protection downs, and what the runner’s intent is in the running game,” Rams offensive line coach Aaron Kromer said. “I think when everybody does that, then you have a chance to — whoever’s grading — grade out better than you think.”
One key has been continuity.
The Rams employed the same starting five for 15 games last season — including Whitworth at left tackle, Saffold at left guard, Sullivan at center, and Havenstein at right tackle — before resting everybody in Week 17. And, plugging in Blythe for the suspended Jamon Brown at right guard to begin this season, they have used the same starting O-line in every game so far.
Under McVay’s guidance, the team currently ranks second in points per game at 33, second in yards per game at 442.6 and first in rushing yards at 150.9.
Gurley’s excellence helps, of course. But he also has had help from Whitworth and Co. along the way to leading the NFL in rushing with 800 yards and in touchdowns with 15, 11 on the ground.
The Saints’ line has the benefit of playing in front of some stars, too.
“Yes, Drew Brees makes everyone around him better,” Nashville-based voter Teresa M. Walker said. “But the Saints have allowed both a league-low nine sacks and the fewest quarterback hits with 22. They also have an NFL-high 12 TDs rushing.”
And the best argument for rating the Steelers’ line among the elite might very well be noting who has not been in uniform for them this season: running back Le’Veon Bell.
While he has been sitting out, backup James Conner has been superb, topping AFC runners with 599 yards and scoring nine touchdowns, taking advantage of space created by the likes of David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey.
As Maaddi explained: “They’ve helped James Conner put up Le’Veon Bell numbers. Enough said.”
4. (tie) Eagles
4. (tie) Chiefs
AP Sports Writer Greg Beacham in Thousand Oaks, California, contributed to this report.