by Ben Muth
After Sunday's win against the Tennessee Titans, most of the focus around the Cleveland Browns this week was on the upcoming quarterback decision. People talked about how much Johnny Manziel has improved in the offseason, people talked about how bad Josh McCown was last year, people talked about how Manziel seems to drop the ball on the ground every time he's hit, and people talked about a defensive head coach preferring the supposedly steadier hand of a veteran. Oh, and if you were a fantasy writer, you might have done a Travis Benjamin piece. That all makes sense, because a quarterback controversy (especially one featuring a wildly polarizing former Heisman winner) is always going to lead coverage, but I'm glad this column gets to focus on something a little different: the Cleveland Browns' offensive line.
It was a bit of an up-and-down game for the unit overall. After a quarter and a half I was ready to declare my undying love and support to them, because I thought they came out absolutely gangbusters. Then they got bogged down a little in third quarter, before putting together a hell of a final drive to seal the game. The fact the offense ebbed and flowed almost entirely on the line's performance probably means that the quarterback controversy isn't as all-important as it may appear. I think the Browns offense is going to go as far as the offensive line can take them.
One area where there was no ebb and flow, only unrelenting awesomeness, was left tackle. Joe Thomas was fantastic throughout the game, particularly while run blocking. The Browns ran the same inside zone scheme, from the same formation, with the same motion a half-dozen times, and Thomas made the play go no matter the back or defensive look.
That's Joe Thomas and left guard Joel Bitonio absolutely collapsing the backside of Tennessee's front, and it's a great job by both men. Bitonio does a nice job of feeling that 3-technique closing with him, so he slows down and covers the defender up to prevent penetration. But notice, he always has his eyes on and is working towards the linebacker. When that linebacker goes to fill the A gap, Bitonio comes off and picks him up.
Thomas feels the defensive tackle moving away hard at the snap, so rather than try to cover him up completely, he aims for the defender's hip and just drives him as far down inside as possible. If you can get your hands right on that hip, you're going to be able to move anyone. Also, both Thomas' and Bitonio's first steps are absolutely perfect. Both gain about six inches of ground, so they can get their second foot in the ground before contact, and are at the perfect angle.
One guy in the play above I don't love is Alex Mack at center. He doesn't really try to cover up the nose tackle and just tries to kick him out right off the snap. Mack knows how the defense is aligned and knows that 93 percent of the time the play is going to go back-side, so what he does makes sense (and may even be coached), but he's predetermining the running back's read and is essentially making it a cutback-or-nothing play. If he can cover that nose tackle up, there's the possibility of a two-way go.
No, that's not the same play from a different angle -- that's a different play that had the exact same result. I wanted to include this, not to make Titans fans relive their pain, but because you get a better angle of Thomas' and Bitonio's upper bodies. Look at Thomas' left hand shoot right for the hip of the defensive tackle -- that's a great view of it. It takes power to play in the NFL, but it takes technique to last.
What I love about Bitonio is how he fights to keep his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage and drive into the defensive tackle while never taking his eyes off the linebacker. By staying square he's preventing any penetration, which allows Thomas to focus on getting as much lateral push as possible. Also, notice how he's doing it all with that left flipper. Doesn't want to get the right hand too involved, because then it would be harder to come off on the linebacker.
Here's the same play with a different defensive look. Thomas has a head-up 5-technique, so he's one-on-one. The key here is that you want to cover your man up and let the back make you right in the end. Thomas takes a good first step inside (you can't get beat across your face on the back side of inside zone) and slows up a bit to get facemask-to-facemask with the defensive end. Then he just keeps fighting down the line with him, trying to give the back a two-way go. The back does a great job of giving a little head-fake out the back door, which causes the defensive end to peek outside, and then the back cuts right off of Thomas' block. That cut is why your first hope on inside zone is to cover guys up -- it allows the back to make you look great.
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Also notice Bitonio, uncovered, working in combination with the center Alex Mack. Where does his left hand go? Right to the hip of the guy he's doubling, and they drive him from the center of the field to outside the hash mark.
The last thing I want to bring up about these plays is that they're technically all run away from Thomas and Bitonio. But if you're running zone schemes, the back side is often more important than the front side of the play. So next time you're screaming at your team to run behind your best offensive lineman, remember that zone plays are going to hit where the line is winning. So if they're not hitting behind your best lineman, he may not actually be your best lineman.
The one thing all of those plays had in common was how good Cleveland's line looked blocking in combination with each other. It shouldn't be too surprising since everyone is back from last year, and other than Bitonio they were all in Cleveland in 2013 as well. (Bitonio was still in college in 2013.) Football Outsiders talks about how important offensive line continuity is in the NFL and this Browns unit is a great example. Take a look at this blitz pick-up, for example:
This is a man protection scheme, so the Browns' line has the four down linemen and the Mike linebacker. Now, the "well, actually" brigade may point out that Tennessee only has two down linemen at the snap. A down lineman is really just a euphemism for a likely rusher based on position/body type/film work. Here, Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan may be standing up, but anyone who has ever seen football knows that they are likely to rush from that alignment, so they count as down linemen. The Mike is designated by the quarterback.
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At the snap Derrick Morgan (No. 91 for Tennessee) actually drops, and the defensive tackle loops outside as the contain rusher. Right guard John Greco works with his defensive tackle outside until he sees that Mitchell Schwartz has him. Then Greco, being an intelligent football player, realizes that if only one guy is coming to the offense's right, there's probably some crazy stuff going on the other way. So he works back inside, and sure enough, falls right into a looping defensive end. You can see Mack trying to get back to pick up Orakpo too, but a three-man game is hard to pick up man-to-man, so having a right guard who understands how blitzes work turns out to be a lifesaver.
What I love about the GIF is how you can see how much Cleveland's linemen are communicating before the snap. Calling out the Mike; designating Orakpo as a down lineman; pointing out an overhang player with a defensive back right over the top, meaning one of the two is probably coming. I love how Greco sets with his inside hand posted, knowing that a walked-up linebacker means a good possibility of a twist (the twist goes to the other side, but it's good to be prepared). Just a sharp-looking blitz pickup by a bunch of guys who have been around the block together.
Finally I want to get into something that I found interesting schematically. Basically on outside zone BOSS (back on strong safety) plays, the tight end and fullback are working in combination despite not double-teaming anyone. What I mean is that they're truly zone-blocking the outside linebacker and the strong safety. Here's how it looks:
Notice the tight end is looking to block the outside linebacker. His eyes are right on him, he even starts to shoot his hands, but when the linebacker dives inside, the tight end just calmly climbs to the safety. I like the idea in theory because it allows your tight end to attack the edge with much more confidence, because he doesn't have to worry about a stunt. But I'd be worried about exactly what happened on that play -- mainly, the outside linebacker kicking the fullback's ass in the backfield and making the play. But it also looked good at other times.
Here the safety starts walking up, so the tight end (Jim Dray) goes to him immediately, and the fullback picks up the outside linebacker. When it works like that it looks like a great way to get to the edge and gain some easy yards. I just think it could be tough on fullbacks. Either way, I thought it was interesting and look forward to seeing it more as the season progresses.