Finding Browns' Building Blocks
NFL Week 16 - The Cleveland Browns suffered a tough loss on Christmas against the Green Bay Packers. At the end of the day they couldn't overcome four interceptions from Baker Mayfield. Cleveland did a lot of things well, particularly in the running game, but the turnovers were simply too costly.
Even though the quarterback deservedly got the lion's share of the blame, Cleveland's offensive line wasn't perfect either. The running game was effective as ever, but the pass-blocking wasn't great. Green Bay's defense notched five sacks.
Cleveland's offensive line has gone through a wringer as of late. Starting right tackle Jack Conklin suffered a season-ending knee injury. Center JC Tretter and left tackle Jedrick Wills were both out this week with COVID protocol issues. I think missing those three guys was a big part of Cleveland's struggles in pass-blocking.
I thought reserve left guard Michael Dunn struggled in pass protection quite a bit last Saturday. Here, that's him and regular left guard Joel Bitonio (moved outside to left tackle to replace Wills) failing to pass off a twist. This is a tough deal—one guy is playing out of position and the other is a backup. Not an ideal situation.
Both guys share blame on this sack. Dunn needs to do a better job of recognizing that his rusher (Dean Lowry, 94) isn't rushing like someone that isn't involved in a game. He starts wide and only gets wider. Dunn needs to feel that and make sure he widens the defender even more to knock him from his left tackle's inside hip to a more head-up position with Bitonio. Speaking of Bitonio, he is kicking out too wide and doesn't have any feel that a twist is coming until it's too late.
If you're going to pass off a twist, early recognition is key. It's tougher to recognize stunts when you aren't used to seeing them. Bitonio has seen plenty of line games, but this stint replacing Wills is his first action at tackle since college, and he didn't have a great feel for what a twist stunt looks like coming from outside. Dunn has played some this year, but hasn't had anywhere near the amount of snaps as Bitonio has on the inside. This sack is what happens when two guys that aren't used to playing next to each other see a stunt too late.
This is Dunn (68) getting beat along with right tackle Blake Hance (62, filling in for Conklin). Let's start with Hance since he had an easier block. He steps down too hard considering he's going to have inside help from Wyatt Teller (77). Then he continues to try to fight inside even though his defender is looping outside. Eventually he just gets beat because his outside leg doesn't hold up and his hips get pushed open. There's no excuse to get beat outside like this on a play where you have that much inside help.
Dunn gets beat quicker than Hance, but he also has a much tougher job. Pulling across the formation and blocking this edge rusher in space isn't easy, but Dunn doesn't give himself much of a chance. He never throttles down and sinks his hips to get into a decent pass-blocking position. He's trying to run around and out-athlete the defensive end (Rashan Gary, 52), and backup guards aren't going to out-athlete NFL pass-rushers in space. Rather than run straight at the edge, Dunn needs to get to the spot between the quarterback and the defensive end and get in a solid pass-blocking position. That's one of the advantages of being on offense: you know where the quarterback is going to be, so you shouldn't have to chase defensive ends. Get to your spot and make them run around you.
Still, even with some of the issues in pass-protection, it was fun to watch this unit run block. Despite having three starters out and another playing a position he's never played professionally, the Browns got after the Packers' ass on the ground. If they got anything from their quarterback they probably would've won on the strength of the running game.
The Browns killed the Packers with Sweep all night, which is certainly ironic. They had to rack up over 50 yards on this one play, including a big third-and-10 conversion in the fourth quarter. This was from the first time Cleveland called the play in the first quarter. Everyone on this play does their job, so we'll work right to left and touch on the whole line.
At right tackle, Hance (62) gets just enough of a seal on the wide 3-technique. Teller (77) at right guard kicks out the force player, who probably should've been flagged for cutting Teller. You can see Teller look back at the refs and ask for the flag. That has been an interesting subplot for this season, with offensive linemen being the ones that appeal to the officials in the middle of the play for a flag.
Backup center Nick Harris (53) is the real star of the play. I love a good center pulling play. Harris gets up in the alley (the lane between the right tackle and Teller's kick-out block) and absolutely wipes the safety out. Harris wasn't perfect on Christmas, but this was a great play. The left side of the line gets cut blocks that at least slow down the back-side pursuit.
The Browns attacked the outside of Green Bay's defense all day and had a lot of success. This is Toss Bunch Crunch from the I-formation and twins, as opposed to bunch trips, which is what most teams run. Hats off to Donovan Peoples-Jones (11) for getting in the way and taking one for the team, but if he gets a decent block this play might go.
Left guard Michael Dunn (68) may have struggled in pass-protection, but this a heck of a block to reach a 5I technique (a defender lined up inside shade of the tackle). That's tough to do, especially considering he false-steps a little bit at the start. Bitonio also is really good here. He gets out and tracks down a cornerback that is actively retreating from him.
This next play might be the final snap I write about for the 2021 Cleveland Browns, and this line was too good not to go out on a high note—in particular, a well-run outside zone. The Browns got the ball with a chance to win the game with 2:05 left and opened up with three straight runs because of how much faith they had in their running game (or lack of faith in the quarterback). This was the second play of that final drive and picked up a first down.
The combination between the right guard and center is textbook here. Teller is slow off the line and kind of feels his way into the defensive tackle (Kenny Clark, 97). Once he feels his center though, look at him accelerate to the second level and pick up the linebacker (Krys Barnes, 51). Harris at center does a great job of widening that defensive tackle. He widens him from the outside of the hash to the inside of the numbers.
The back-side combination isn't as good, but it is effective. Bitonio gets flat (and almost loses ground) across the line of scrimmage to cut off the back-side 3-technique (Dean Lowry, 94). Dunn is holding up that defensive tackle with one arm to give Bitonio a chance, while tracking to his linebacker (De'Vondre Campbell, 59). Once the linebacker fills back-side, Dunn wheels back and helps seal off the defensive tackle completely.
This wasn't a home run, or the best-blocked play the Browns ran all night. But it was a simple, well-blocked outside zone that went for 10 yards. Nothing sexy, but that's what good offensive line play looks like. Five guys working together to move the ball down the field. The Browns offensive line this year wasn't an all-time great unit or anything, but they were a good group and definitely fun to watch. Hopefully they can find a way to play some more in the postseason.