Word of Muth

Dive into the details of offensive line play with a former all-PAC-10 left tackle

Word of Muth: Browns Step Back

by Ben Muth

Welcome back to Word of Muth. After a bye week for the column I was excited to jump back into it. We're going to be focusing the Browns' game against the Bengals from last Thursday (despite the game being a week old by the time you're reading this).

I didn't think the Browns' offensive line played very well against the Bengals. In fact, it was probably the worst game I have seen them play this year. Part of it was that they couldn't get in a rhythm at all in the second half (they went three-and-out on four straight possessions to open the half) and part of it was a quarterback whose pocket presence doesn't do the offensive line a lot of favors. But even if the quarterback play had been better, it was not a strong performance by a typically good unit.

The guy that I really thought struggled was Joel Bitonio at left guard. He was not nearly as physical as I have seen him throughout the year. He looked lethargic in the running game and consistently gave up too much penetration in the passing game. He wasn't terrible, but he's a good player so it was surprising to see him play below average.

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This play from the fourth quarter was Bitonio's worst. When he slides inside his feet are completely even with each other so he doesn't have a ton of power (ideally you want a bit of a stagger so you have a brace leg). His hands are too wide and he's catching the defender instead of delivering a blow. It's just a bad football play. The fact that they gave up a sack against a three-man pass rush is usually a good indication that someone, and usually two people (where are you drifting to Alex Mack?), screwed the pooch.

Bitonio wasn't the only one who played below his usual standards. Joe Thomas certainly didn't have a night to remember. I don't think he gave up any sacks, but there was just way more leakage coming from the left edge than you're used to seeing. Some of it was due to Johnny Manziel's tendency to drift back at the top of his drops (this hurt right tackle Mitchell Schwartz too), but even if Tom Brady was behind him Thomas still would have been beat more than he has been all year. It wasn't any one thing from Thomas that was poor in particular, it was just an off night.

One thing that I always like to look for is what a team does on the first drive of the second half. You come into the week with a game plan, try to give the defense a few different looks in the first 15 plays or so, and then game situation (down-and-distance, field position, score) or pre-game feeling usually dictate how you call the rest of the half. At halftime the coaching staff gets a chance to regroup and see what really worked from an on-field standpoint and get back to some stuff they had scripted earlier but maybe got away from for one reason or another.

The Browns only ran outside zone once in the first half, but they gained 13 yards on it through a huge hole. So, it makes sense that they would want to open the second half of the game with it. Let's take a look at both plays and dissect them.

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On the first play, everyone does a great job except Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle, who gets away with a pretty obvious hold that might have sprung the play. Center Alex Mack did a good job of getting the defensive tackle moving sideways, and right guard John Greco did a great job of sealing off the linebacker (I love Greco's first step). But without the hold by the backside tackle, I'm not sure the play goes for big yards.

The second play (the one that opened the second half) was obviously nowhere near as successful, but it was almost as well blocked. I think Mack does a good job again of covering up the play-side defensive tackle. The backside guard (this time Joel Bitonio) covers up the back-side linebacker -- not as great as Greco, but that's a winning block. The difference is that Joe Thomas doesn't hold the back-side defensive tackle and so he doesn't seal him off. As a result, the back can't cut off the center and back-side guard's block, and the play gets strung out for a loss.

No one could blame the Browns for opening up with outside zone after what they saw in the first half, but the play was a disaster because the blocking (by Joe Thomas of all people) was poor. So, the staff can blame execution, when really the execution on both plays was very similar, it's just that the bad block on the first play (a hold that should have been a loss of 10) opened the whole thing up, and a bad block from the same position on the second play caused a 4-yard loss.

I guess the point of this whole thing was to show sometimes execution is just luck in disguise.

Something I've enjoyed about the Browns this year is that they run a lot of stuff on offense, and as a result, run some interesting stuff. Some of it is stuff I really like (I love some of their pre-snap movement for instance), some of it leaves me a little puzzled. Take this packaged play concept from last Thursday.

Packaged plays are all the rage in football because they do a great job of putting defenders in conflict. A packaged play is where you can run two (or three) plays at the same time. So the offensive linemen and running back will run a running play (like inside zone) and a wide receiver might run a quick slant. The quarterback reads the linebacker or defensive back to the side of the slant. If he looks like he's playing the pass, the quarterback hands it off; if he looks like he's coming up to stop the run, the quarterback throws the slant. I imagine if you read my column you're familiar with this concept.

The wham play has been seeing an increase in popularity because it's a great way to slow down or take advantage of explosive defensive tackles. It's basically a version of the old trap play where you leave a defensive tackle unblocked at the snap and then blindside him with a blocker he doesn't see coming. On the trap it used to be a pulling guard; on the wham it's a fullback or tight end.

I'm a big fan of both play concepts. And both are being run a lot throughout the NFL. I'm just not sure I would combine the two because, well, we'll get to that.

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If that defensive tackle is a step quicker, he's getting a great shot on the quarterback. If he's two steps quicker, he's sacking the quarterback. Maybe if the quarterback had been in the pistol, so you had a little distance between the defensive tackle and the quarterback, I could live with it. But imagine calling this play against someone like Aaron Donald.

Before we go, I want touch on a play that I found amusing. I'm not sure if anyone else will, but it made me chuckle.

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Look at Joe Thomas on this play. I love this play because it goes great with the Yakety Sax score I constantly have playing in my head, but is also a great example of how humbling it can be to play on the offensive line. Here is one of the best left tackles of all time and a no doubt Hall of Famer, chasing a defensive end all over the field (he probably should have been flagged for an illegal man downfield), trying to play patty cake with him. It's a good reminder that no matter how good you are as a football player or an athlete, playing offensive line will make you look like a goof occasionally.

Thomas has a great reason for slap-fighting a defensive end instead of trying to pass block him though. He's trying to come over the top and pin the defender's hands down because it's a three-step drop and a quick-release play. Usually, offensive tackles will cut block on these plays, but defensive ends have gotten really good at playing off those cuts and immediately getting their hands up into the passing lane. I actually think what Thomas is doing is genius and I bet we start seeing more tackles do it. It just looks a lot funnier than a traditional cut block.


10 comments, Last at 13 Nov 2015, 8:52pm

1 Re: Word of Muth: Browns Step Back

by Independent George // Nov 12, 2015 - 2:23pm

There's no way to know for certain, but I can't help but think this was at least partly the inevitable result of learning that at least two of them (including their best player) were not only on the trade block, but in fact came very close to being traded.

It's probably not a conscious decision, but when management gives up on you, it's hard to really give it your all.

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5 Re: Word of Muth: Browns Step Back

by OSS117 // Nov 12, 2015 - 6:34pm

I thought the same thing. Probably hard to get up for a game when not even half way thru the year the entire organization institutionally Franced the remainer of the season.

I see a half dozen or more package plays per most teams per game. And almost half should be flagged for OL downfield. Pick plays are something else that happens even more frequently and gets flagged less. Even tho it was a point of lip service, er, I mean emphasis a couple years ago.

Funny watching that Oak/Pit game last week. Both teams were shamelessly running pick after pick. Never flagged...... until Pit converted a late 3rd down that would've salted the game. Yeah it's a penalty. But it was a penalty the other 20 times that game.

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2 Re: Word of Muth: Browns Step Back

by garion333 // Nov 12, 2015 - 2:23pm

Glad to have this feature back this week.

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3 Re: Word of Muth: Browns Step Back

by Raiderfan // Nov 12, 2015 - 5:13pm

Great stuff, as always.
It is unfortunate you cannot do an occasional one off on other teams. I would love an analysis of the OL play in the PITT-OAK game. It seemed they both did a good job of keeping off pressure and opening lanes. I was especially impressed with the Raider OL as the Steelers have been getting after the QB very well lately. But all that is just eyeballs from a fan.
And I would also be interested in a professional opinion of why the NWE offense has not gone to crap with all the losses and JAG replacements they have. Something more enlightening than #12 is God, and some observations why it seems every other team is more impacted by losses.

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4 Re: Word of Muth: Browns Step Back

by Anonymouse // Nov 12, 2015 - 5:31pm

Regarding the illegal man downfield, the ball was snapped from the 30, and it looks like Thomas back-peddled a few yards, and then chased his defender to the 31 or so. Isn't the O-line allowed one yard past the LoS?

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6 Re: Word of Muth: Browns Step Back

by Xrayvision // Nov 12, 2015 - 8:28pm

Again, great column. A couple of observations -

1. The "wham" play involves bringing a blocker the defender didn't see coming, right? I think there is a misprint saying it is a defender.

2. It would be really useful to include jersey numbers for some of the players the first time they are mentioned - helps me keep track of who is who.

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7 Re: Word of Muth: Browns Step Back

by Vincent Verhei // Nov 12, 2015 - 10:31pm

1. Fixed.

2. We will try to remember this.

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8 Re: Word of Muth: Browns Step Back

by tuluse // Nov 13, 2015 - 1:45am

I can't help but think a lot of sloppy play is due to usual Thursday doldrums. I wonder if Mr Muth might be able to try to avoid writing about TNF in the future. I'm not sure we get a representative display of any team's capabilities from them.

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9 Re: Word of Muth: Browns Step Back

by wadingshorebird // Nov 13, 2015 - 11:50am

@ #1 - It's also a Thursday night game, which seems to lead to sloppier play from teams generally.

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10 Re: Word of Muth: Browns Step Back

by Jerry // Nov 13, 2015 - 8:52pm

I saw that Bitonio is out for Sunday's game in Pittsburgh. Maybe that explains some of his struggles last week.

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