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

Word of Muth: Bye-Bye Browns

by Ben Muth

It's getting to be the time of year where I have to start writing off the teams I've been covering that are not going to make the playoffs. That means this is going to be my last column that focuses on the Cleveland Browns. Thankfully, the Browns played well against the 49ers, because this column was going to be pretty positive no matter what, and I just feel better being positive about a team after a win.

The reason this column was always going to be positive is because I've really enjoyed watching the Browns' offensive line this year. They have a surefire Hall of Fame left tackle in Joe Thomas, who is still among the top two or three in the game. I was very pleasantly surprised with Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle. I think he benefits from playing across from Thomas (when the Browns can send help to an edge, the send it to Schwartz 80 percent of the time), but Schwartz more than held up in pass protection when he was left on his own too. I can't speak for all 32 teams, but I've been writing about NFL offensive lines long enough to recognize that the Browns' pair of tackles may be the best in the league.

The interior line was a little disappointing but still a solid group of players. At center, Alex Mack looked a little rusty early but seemed to get better as the year went along. Mack is going to be a free agent next year and most signs seem to point to him playing elsewhere in 2016. I'll be interested in seeing what kind of deal he gets in free agency as he's still a good player, but I'm not sure he's a true difference maker on the interior of a line. Just a good player, who may not find the market someone with his pedigree is expecting.

At left guard, Joel Bitonio started off the year strong but seemed to get worse as the season went along. I know he was put on IR after the Week 13 game, so maybe he was banged up, but I think Bitonio took a step back from a very impressive rookie year. It'll be interesting to see how he plays in 2016, and if he can get his career path back on track to potential All-Pro as opposed to just being a solid player.

John Greco was the last of the interior guys and probably the most consistent of the three. Coming into the season there were some (myself included) who thought rookie Cameron Erving might push Greco for his job. That wasn't the case at all as Greco had a nice season and looks to be the Browns' right guard moving forward. I should mention that when Erving did play this year he looked a bit overmatched (in an admittedly small sample size of snaps). I assume the Browns' plan is to replace Mack with Erving at center next year, but Erving is going to have show more in the offseason than he did this fall if he's going to live up to his draft position.

But like I said in the opening, it was a good unit in 2015 and I think they'll be a good unit next year too, even if Mack leaves. Thomas was the only truly elite lineman in the group, but I think even the guy who had the worst year (probably Mack, maybe Bitonio) could safely be described as above average. One depressing thing about the column this year is that I think Dallas (another one of the teams I cover) and Cleveland have two of the top five or so offensive lines in the NFL, but that hasn't helped either team win many games.

Narrowing the focus a bit, let's get to the game from Saturday. The Browns' offense looked good overall. They only had one three-and-out, and the only real reasons the 49ers were in the game were a couple of fumbles and a blocked field goal.

One area the Browns had a lot of success in was with the running game from shotgun formations.

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This is just an inside zone with a lock concept on the backside (that's why right tackle Schwartz (72) stays locked on to the defensive end instead of climbing to the second level). The right guard Greco (77) makes the play go by reaching the backside defensive tackle.

I also love what Alex Mack (55) does at center. He steps to help the left guard, but keeps his eyes on his 'backer and comes off just in time to cover the linebacker up. Cleveland doesn't create a huge hole here, but they get a hat on a hat and give the running back just enough of a seam to burst through for a 50-yard gain.

Most of Cleveland's success on the ground came from the shotgun, but there was one notable exception. Late in the fourth quarter the Browns busted off another 50-plus-yard run, and this one just about clinched the game for Cleveland.

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This is a single-back power scheme that Cleveland just blocks really well. It starts with the double-team from Joe Thomas (73) and Austin Pasztor (67, filling in for the injured Bitonio) get on the defensive tackle. Thomas excels at creating movement against defensive tackles, whether it's on the front side of power, like this play, or on the backside of inside zone. He 's so good at playing with pad level, and placing his far hand right on the defender's near hip. I know I've talked about this before with Thomas, but so many guys try to overpower guys up top, but it's a leverage game and if you can get your hands on a hip, you'll move just about anyone. Just textbook technique from a guy who I'm really going to miss watching play.

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The other great block on the play comes from Greco pulling across and leading into the hole. First, he throws a shoulder into the defensive end who is starting to come off the tight end's block, then he swallows up the linebacker at the second level. Some guards might have tried to pull outside the tight end's block, but Greco does a nice job of recognizing that there's enough of a hole there, it just needs to be cleaned up a little bit. Really an excellent job by him.

Of course, the big story for Cleveland's offense these last few games will be the play of Johnny Manziel at quarterback. Manziel did a nice job of creating big plays in the passing game, but I'm not sure Cleveland's offensive line is getting enough credit for how great they were in pass protection. A lot of the plays Manziel made came after the Browns' line held up in pass protection for more than a 5-Mississippi count.

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That's a solid-looking pocket by the Browns that lets the quarterback hang in, step up, and deliver a ball down the field. I love the anchor shown by both offensive tackles. Both get knocked back initially, but are able to settle in and stop bull rushers before they can cause the quarterback any real discomfort. If you're going to play offensive line in this league, being able to recover and anchor down on a bull rush may be the most important skill an O-lineman can have.

Even when the Browns did give up pressure, it was very rarely a total jailbreak. It was usually a single rusher who was more of a nuisance than a threat to get to the quarterback.

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Here, Schwartz gives up a little pressure at right tackle. He does a great job with his initial set, but loses a hand battle and gets beat inside eventually. But even this pressure comes only because a defender breaks his rush lane and gets to a spot 6 yards behind the center and 3 yards in front of the top of Manziel's drop. This is the easiest type of pressure to escape if you're a quarterback. It barely even qualifies as pressure and may not even go down as a hurry. Manziel does a nice job of moving to his right and unleashing a strike downfield for a 24-yard gain.

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This is from a crucial third-and-1 late in the game, and the GIF speaks for itself. I mean, the Browns are in empty and the pocket is absolutely pristine. That's 7 seconds before Manziel decides to take off and pick up the first with his legs. It's a big conversion by Manziel, but there are 100 quarterbacks who could pick up a third-and-1 when the line blocks like this in empty. That's just utter domination by the Browns' five guys up front.

The Browns' offensive line wasn't that dominant all year, but they had their moments and won more battles up front than they lost. I'm going to miss watching them on the All-22.

Comments

16 comments, Last at 03 Mar 2016, 3:16am

1 Re: Word of Muth: Bye-Bye Browns

It is discouraging to me as well to see two teams with offensive lines of this quality have such bad seasons. It helps to play defense, of course, but then you start thinking about the cap implications of havng top tier o-line talent, along with top tier defensive talent. This is how teams end up taking stupid flyers on qbs high in the 1st round, even if they don't have confidence that the guy is worth it; the temptation to talk yourself into it must be pretty strong.

4 Re: Word of Muth: Bye-Bye Browns

Every team needs good QBing first and foremost, and good defense. I wonder if the cap calculation should be offensive line vs skill position instead of offensive line vs defense. I can't really think of any good examples of a team clearly doing this though (with at least moderate QBing).

13 Re: Word of Muth: Bye-Bye Browns

and if you have a young QB then you want an atmosphere where the QB can have some stability... (manning, warner, ben, manning, wilson etc)

But the Browns choose a 42 year old rookie (he will have the future!) and a guy with suspect grasp of responsibilities. So they avoid what they need and get more of what they don't need.
They could've gone wit ANY 22 year old or ANY guy that was at least serious and got better results.
Yes. Johhny Football can clown around there for 1 or 2 more years and then it's over. Because he'll have as many headcoaches as team suspensions.

2 Re: Word of Muth: Bye-Bye Browns

This game is brought to you the niners' pass rush without their only decent rusher, Aaron Lynch. The only other guy who has flashed at all is Arik Armstead, the player in the sleeves who creates the one, solitary pressure in Ben's gifs.

Also brought to you by Eric Mangini, who only managed to get back onto an NFL staff as a tight ends coach for the niners last year and was then made DC because nobody else would take the job under Tomsula.

14 Re: Word of Muth: Bye-Bye Browns

He's playing contain. Mangini's wonderful idea being that of course the left side of the line (featuring probable hall of famed Joe Thomas at left tackle) won't put pick up the blitz and so all he needs to do is run down Manziel. Inquiring minds might ask why a 320 lbs lineman is expected to bring Manziel down.

The niners' coaches are idiots.

3 Re: Word of Muth: Bye-Bye Browns

Joe Thomas deserves better quarterbacking.

It's really a shame Romo got hurt this year, I think Dallas could have done something interesting even against very good teams.

6 Re: Word of Muth: Bye-Bye Browns

What seems a bit surprising is that these two good offensive lines don't even perform well on the FO metrics (including adjusted line yards). The dismal performance of both teams isn't just about bad defenses. Some possible reasons:
1) Bad QB play allows defenses to focus on stopping the run.
2) Neither team had a top-quality running back. The problems are with RB skill/decisiveness.
3) Offensive play-calling is as important as good blocking.
Now all of these are partly true, but I think the lack of a quality running back that fits the offensive system is hurting both teams, but especially the Browns. It doesn't matter if you open up holes if the RB doesn't get there with the right timing.

9 Re: Word of Muth: Bye-Bye Browns

The QBing in Cleveland has not been a disaster this year (take out Austin Davis' start). McCown and Manziel have combined for 48 DYAR passing and 40 DYAR rushing, which whilst below average, is not what is obviously sinking this offence. There does seem to be a skill position deficit in Cleveland that good blocking and slightly-above-replacement-level QB play cannot mask. I can't comment on the play-calling.

10 Re: Word of Muth: Bye-Bye Browns

What's sinking this offense are the fumbles. They not only lead the league in highest percentage of drives ending with lost fumbles, but actually have the highest rate relative to the league average in the last 9 years. McCown leads the way with six strip sacks, but everyone on the team is contributing to it. Apparently a running back called Glenn Winston, who only saw seven snaps on offense in the first 12 games, got his first NFL carry against the Niners and promptly fumbled it away; you have to admire their consistency at least.

16 Re: Word of Muth: Bye-Bye Browns

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