Monday, May 21, 2012

Not quite yet for the OL
In light of some of the platitudes being handed out to the Browns’ relatively new-look offensive line, time to take a different look at the men up front.

Different as in more realistic. Different as in let’s not get too carried away.

There is no question the Cleveland offensive line will be better this season. But in relative terms, that’s not saying very much because that group of plug uglies up front was bad last season. So there’s nowhere to go but up.

They had problems protecting their quarterback. They had problems opening holes for their running backs. It started early in the season and remained throughout. Their ineffectiveness was their only consistency.

Losing guard Eric Steinbach for the season to back surgery didn’t help. He and tackle Joe Thomas formed a formidable left side of the line. Playing next to rookie Jason Pinkston had a detrimental effect on Thomas’ performance last season.

Yes, he was elected to the Pro Bowl team again and was named on a few All-Pro teams. That’s what a solid reputation will do for a player.

But Thomas was not the best offensive tackle in the National Football League last season. While he is far and away the Browns’ best offensive lineman, his play has leveled off the last couple of seasons.

Jason Peters of Philadelphia, Atlanta’s Tyson Clabo, Jake Long of Miami and the Tennessee Titans’ David Stewart had better seasons with Cincinnati’s Andrew Whitworth and Branden Albert of Kansas City not far behind.

We have a tendency to be loyal to our own to an almost total disregard to everyone else. Thomas was beaten several times last by quick pass rushers and picked up a few false start penalties, a problem he avoided his first few seasons.

Reason for the optimism this season is the return of veteran center Alex Mack, Pinkston and fellow guard Shawn Lauvao, and the drafting of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. Pinkston and Lauvao, coming off their first season as a starter, are ostensibly one year smarter and one year better.

Schwartz, on the other hand, arrives with a reputation of playing with attitude, which can never be mistaken for a weakness. He brings size (6-6, 320 pounds) and is thought to be the missing piece to the offensive line puzzle.

For the first time in way too many years, the Browns will start the season with at least 80% of the offensive line intact from the previous season. In the world of professional football, unit familiarity is extremely important.

In order to be effective, an offensive line needs to be cohesive in all aspects. All the parts need to be working in unison. One slipup, one mistake and it all falls apart. All it takes is one error.

That’s why it is important that Pinkston and Lauvao must avoid the inconsistencies of 2011. They need to improve their games substantially in order for the line to have a chance at living up to expectations.

Frankly, I don’t see that happening. There weren’t enough glimpses of hope from the play of Pinkston and Lauvao last season to lead me to believe that’s going to happen this season. Unless, of course, they surprise everyone and hike their games to unexpected levels.

Schwartz will run into typical rookie problems. Playing the strong-side tackle, he’ll face his share of quick edge rushers. And that’s the weakest part of his game. He’s a grinder in the ground game, but his footwork in pass protection leaves a lot to be desired.

It’s difficult to see where all that optimism about the offensive line comes from. Perhaps it’s that the Browns’ line is one of the youngest in the NFL, averaging 24½ years old. Thomas is the graybeard at 27, Mack is 26, Pinkston and Lauvao are 24 and Schwartz is 22.

With youth, however, come mistakes. Along with those mistakes, especially on the offensive line, come losses. How quickly this line matures will go a long way in stemming the losing tide that has gripped Browns Nation.

This might be the unit that eventually leads the way to bigger and better things. But it might just take a little longer than most people think or want to believe.

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