Ben Roethlisberger's ability to perform under a heavy pass rush remains critical to Pittsburgh's offensive success.
10 Nov 2007
by Doug Farrar
It took only one play for Cleveland's 2006 offensive line to fall apart.
On July 28, during the first 11-on-11 drill of the Browns' training camp, new center LeCharles Bentley engaged defensive tackle Ted Washington for a brief moment on an off-tackle run before falling to the ground and yelling in pain. Bentley, who had played at a Pro Bowl level with the Saints since winning the starting job in 2004, was carted off the field with a towel over his head to hide his frustration and sadness. He had torn his left patellar tendon, a serious knee injury that prevents him from playing to this day.
It was a crushing blow to a Cleveland team that had thrown out major dollars to upgrade its offensive line. Bentley signed a six-year, $36 million contract in March of 2006 which featured $12.5 million in guaranteed money. The Browns had also signed ex-Falcons left tackle Kevin Shaffer in the 2006 preseason to add to the Cosey Coleman and Joe Andruzzi signings from the previous year that were supposed to be the starting points of a new era in line play for the team.
In 2006, nothing went as planned. Shaffer led the league in holding penalties with seven. Only the Detroit Lions finished the season with fewer Adjusted Line Yards, and Cleveland's 54 sacks allowed was third-worst in the NFL, behind only Detroit and Oakland. Cleveland acquired veteran center Hank Fraley from Philadelphia just before the season started, and only Fraley, Shaffer and tight end Kellen Winslow started all 16 games for their offense.
In 2007, general manager Phil Savage tried again. He got on board with the new age of zillionaire guards by signing former Cincinnati star Eric Steinbach to a seven-year, $49.5 million contract with $17 million guaranteed. And with the thought in mind that a player of Steinbach's caliber deserved a slightly better accompanist than Shaffer, the Browns drafted Combine star Joe Thomas out of Wisconsin with the third overall pick. Thomas was regarded as the best lineman (and perhaps the best player) of the 2007 draft class. Coleman and Andruzzi were gone (Andruzzi is currently undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma), Fraley continued to take Bentley's place, Shaffer moved to right tackle, and journeyman Seth McKinney would take the right guard spot. With the additions of Thomas and Steinbach, and with an above-average player in Shaffer, Cleveland's line (and the offense) should improve. Ryan Tucker's four-game steroid suspension was a step in the wrong direction, but the outlook was hopeful.
However, early reports indicated that growing pains were evident. The Browns couldn't decide between quarterbacks Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson in the short term after drafting Notre Dame's Brady Quinn, and Thomas appeared overwhelmed by linebacker Kamerion Wimbley in early practices. As the days went on, Thomas started to find his feet, but Frye and Anderson seemed to be competing for the best spot on the bench as opposed to the starting job. Coach Romeo Crennel announced that Frye would start the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a move that lasted exactly one and one-half quarters. Five sacks later, a shellshocked Frye left the field and went by trade to the Seahawks. Anderson had the job, but it seemed at the time that a position behind a line that had allowed that level of quarterback pressure was far from a cherished concept.
Release quickness is the most obvious difference between Frye and Anderson. Anderson is able to read quickly and zoom the ball to an area, while Frye appeared to have graduated from the Trent Green "Too Much Stickum on the Ball" school. The change was graphic, and Cleveland's formerly nonexistent offense was about to go on a thrill-ride. After losing 34-7 to Pittsburgh, the Browns' offense exploded for 2,808 yards and 220 points in the next seven games. Anderson has thrown more touchdown passes than any quarterback not named Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger or Tony Romo, and his ranking of third in DPAR behind Brady and Peyton Manning speaks to his effectiveness. Since those five Frye sacks, the Browns' line has only allowed eight. All the numbers are up -- up to ninth in Adjusted Line Yards from 31st in 2006, and 11th in Adjusted Sack Rate, from 26th last year.
There's been plenty of talk about Anderson, receivers Braylon Edwards and Joe Jurevicius, tight end Kellen Winslow, and running back Jamal Lewis. What people are also starting to notice is that the offensive line is a big part of the equation for an offense that is carrying the team; the Browns go into Sunday's rematch with the Steelers at 5-3. With a win, they'll tie Pittsburgh for the AFC North lead. Nobody could have imagined this back in the second quarter of that early Pittsburgh beatdown, but here we are.
The Browns got here, in part, by beating the Seattle Seahawks 33-30 in overtime last Sunday. The Seahawks are a team that will put pressure on quarterbacks. They finished first in sacks in 2005 with 50, sixth in 2006 with 41, and they're tied for fourth in 2007 with 23. How many sacks did they get against the Browns? None, and Anderson threw the ball 48 times. Clearly, it's time to take a look at Cleveland's offensive line, and how it works.
Left tackle Joe Thomas
One thing to note before talking about Thomas -- I haven't seen much of him specifically involved as a run blocker. In fact, the only time I saw him in a running play against the Seahawks was on a third-and-9 with five minutes gone in the first quarter. Seahawks middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu broke through the right side on a blitz, Anderson had to run left, and there was Thomas, blocking defensive tackle Rocky Bernard as if the play had been going his way the whole time. When Seattle left tackle Walter Jones was at his best in 2005, one of his few weaknesses was a tendency to give up on plays that went to the right side, leaving him vulnerable to backside rushers on a reversed field. There's none of that with Thomas -- this is a man trained to finish his blocks at all times.
Thomas' pass-protection skills are incredible for a rookie. Actually, we can remove that qualifier and just call his skills incredible. The last time Seattle defensive end Darryl Tapp was on a field, he racked up four sacks against the Rams. Tapp embarrassed right tackle Milford Brown and left tackle Alex "Eventually, they're going to name the false start penalty after me" Barron for two on each side of the line. Against Thomas, Tapp was virtually negated. Though the first quarter, he tried the simple speed rushes and spin moves that proved so effective against Brown and Barron. No dice. Thomas is as good as any tackle in the game at fanning out, extending a rusher's line as he tries to get around, and moving the end away from the play.
On the first play of the second quarter, Tapp and Rocky Bernard tried a simple twist -- Tapp got inside on Steinbach, leaving Thomas and Steinbach to deal with Bernard, who almost beat the double team outside. Tapp was very near a sack on that play after darting past Fraley, but Anderson's quick release on a swing pass to Jamal Lewis defeated him. The only other time I saw Tapp get the better of Thomas was on a first-and-10 with 5:02 left in the first half. Either Thomas was trying to go low on Tapp or he just lost his footing and fell down, but Tapp shed the "block" and got near Anderson. Anderson was doing another one of his three-step-drop-and-throw plays (there were many of them), and Tapp couldn't get there in time.
Toward the end of the first half, Thomas used a bit more force when dealing with Tapp in passing situations - - he avoided the temptation to strike forward and risk losing the defender, instead showing a great mixture of dropback pass protection and aggressive hand movement. When I covered the 2007 Scouting Combine, we heard Thomas' name most often, and I'm not sure there's a rookie I'd rather have on my team. I tend to show a bias toward great offensive linemen, but I'd probably take Thomas over Adrian Peterson if I were a general manager with that option. That's how great I believe Thomas will be. 6 feet 7 and 311 pounds at the Combine, Thomas could put on a few more pounds without losing quickness. If he does that, and his run-blocking matches his acumen on pass plays, we're looking at a potential all-timer here.
Left guard Eric Steinbach
When the Browns signed this free agent guard away from the Bengals, it did two things: It gave their longtime in-state rival a heavy case of heartburn, and it allowed Cleveland to boast perhaps the most athletic left side in the league. In Steinbach's case, I use the word "athletic" as both a compliment and a disclaimer. While it's great to have a guard that can get downfield at tackle speed on a screen and help gain yardage (as he did on the overtime pass to Lewis that set up the game-wining field goal), I'm a bit concerned about Steinbach's run-blocking abilities. On more than one occasion in this game, I saw him get pushed back on running plays. Steinbach weighs 295 pounds at 6 feet 6, and scouting reports point to a lack of lower-body strength. He has to be a master technician, because he doesn't have the bulk to bull his way out of a bad block. He's not a mauler who can just fall on a guy and fake his way through a play.
The most graphic example of this was a pitch left to Lewis with 5:42 left in the second quarter. Rookie defensive tackle Brandon Mebane absolutely erased Steinbach and dropped Lewis for a four-yard loss. However, Steinbach is great in pass protection -- his speed, intelligence and use of leverage make this so. When he and Thomas fire out man-on-man, it's a tough duo to get past.
Where the size issue seems to get in the way, and I think this applies to the entire Cleveland line, is that this doesn't strike me as a line that can power block. I didn't see a lot of sticking to blocks and getting to the second level. This was very apparent on just about every rushing play, when Seattle's linebackers would turn the line of scrimmage into a big defensive gumbo.
Center Hank Fraley
Though he was acquired as a consolation prize for a line decimated by the Bentley injury, Fraley has become an integral part of his current team. A tough, stocky veteran, he's the kind of center I like. He can get effectively physical right after reading a stunt and making a line call. As a longtime Seahawks observer, I can tell you that if you have to choose one, it's better at Fraley's position to have a player with intelligence over pure physical talent. Current Seattle center Chris Spencer is a great athlete who could one day be a stellar center, but the team desperately misses Robbie Tobeck, who retired after the 2006 season, having put together a 14-year career with brains, baling wire and the occasional holding penalty. That's no knock on Spencer, just the fact that you can't learn what a veteran knows overnight.
The Browns signed Fraley to a new four-year contract in March of 2007, and he was named a team captain in September. He's good at handling a goal-line bull rush (he had an impact in all four of Lewis' short touchdown runs). If you don't put a tackle right over him, he's very quick at sliding off left or right and double-teaming. He will get lost in some power situations, and he doesn't seem to have a lot of lateral quickness, but he's the kind of "mind-over-matter" player the Browns want on their offensive line.
Right guard Seth McKinney
If this line has one obvious weakness, it's at the right guard position. I simply saw McKinney get pushed back too often on both run and pass plays. Tapp's first-quarter interception came after McKinney got overwhelmed at the point and Tapp was moving left. Bernard was often on McKinney, and Bernard has a great, quick first step, with the ability to beat people up over time. Because of that, I'm willing to concede that I may have seen McKinney against a superior opponent. But if this is the level of McKinney's usual play, the Browns need to find a solution. When I see that the Browns currently rank 24th in Adjusted Line Yards to the right inside, and 30th to right tackle, I think I know where the problem is.
Right tackle Kevin Shaffer
Shaffer's seven holding penalties as the Browns' starting left tackle in 2006 tell you why he's currently over on the right side, but it doesn't mark him as an inferior player. The only time teams will generally put their best tackle on the right side is if a left-handed quarterback is their starter, or so that a young player can learn the ropes at the "easier" position.
In this game, Shaffer took defensive end Patrick Kerney out of the picture, but it's difficult to know how meaningful that is. Kerney's been a disappointment as a speed rusher in Seattle, and he suffered an oblique injury in this game. More telling was the fact that Shaffer was able to keep Tapp out of the backfield when Tapp moved to the left side. What I like about Shaffer on this line is that he's the most effectively physical player from the perspective of hitting and firing out. At 6 feet 5 and 325 pounds, he brings a guard attitude to the position. He's nowhere near as smooth and "finished" with his blocks as Thomas is. If he was, Thomas might be elsewhere.
When it comes to pass-blocking, I like this line with this quarterback. The technical ability to stop initial defensive attacks is mitigated by a tendency to get pushed back at times, but it's less of an issue with Anderson's quick release. The Browns have seen what happens when they match their line with a quarterback who takes too much time to get rid of the ball. Anderson is fine with an incompletion over a sack, and he's good at throwing it away without being obvious about it.
What keeps the Cleveland line from the NFL's elite is a real problem with consistent run-blocking. When I look at Jamal Lewis' numbers, and Cleveland's current Adjusted Line Yards stats, something doesn't seem to mesh.
Afterword: Jamal Lewis and the Occasional Mirage of Adjusted Line Yards
We've seen that the Browns rank ninth in Adjusted Line Yards, but what doesn't make sense on the surface is that ALY is a statistic connected to running and successful run blocking, and Lewis has had only one good game this season. That was a Week 3 romp against the Bengals. Lewis ran for 216 yards, but this was when the Bengals were practically going door-to-door looking for linebackers. Outside of that game, he's rushed 87 times for 264 yards and a 3.03 yards-per-carry average. Lewis currently ranks 39th in DPAR -- at 0.4, he's literally as close to replacement level as you can get.
So, how do we explain that high ALY ranking? First, there is a sample-size hangover in Cleveland's 10-plus-yards ranking of 21 percent, eighth-best in the league. If you remove Lewis' three long runs against the Bengals, that 21 percent falls to 8 percent. Second, only Miami has had a higher percentage of running plays in goal-to-go situations than the Browns at 11.8 percent -- the Patriots are third. Lewis' four touchdowns against the Seahawks gained a total of six yards. In addition, the Browns don't really run the ball behind their own 40-yard line, and Adjusted Line Yards are tweaked higher in the red zone for obvious reasons -- you can't break free for a long run in a short, constricted area, and rushing plays of 0 to 4 yards are reflected most positively for linemen. As a result, Cleveland's split between Line Yards and "Adjusted" Line Yards is the NFL's largest.
That doesn't mean that Lewis can't be effective, just that he hasn't been this season against any defense that can stop the run. If things stay as they are for the Browns, we're going to see just how far a team can go with an offense optimized for superior passing results ... and not much else.
20 comments, Last at 12 Nov 2007, 1:02pm by Brooklyn Bengal