How important can the absence of one member of the Browns’ offensive line be? When it’s center Alex Mack, the correct answer is extremely.
When Mack went down with a broken leg in the first half of the big victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers a few weeks ago, a feeling of uncertainty immediately appeared in the 2014 season picture.
Make no mistake about it. Mack is the club’s best offensive lineman. Joe Thomas gets most of the praise when compliments are doled out for the sluggers up front. He is one of the best offensive tackles in the National Football League.
But Mack is better at what he does and much more valuable as the line’s linchpin. We’re beginning to find that out now in his absence. All you have to do is check how the offense has fared since he went down.
It’s not a coincidence the numbers have dived dramatically in the last two games. Or since Mack was carted off midway through the Steelers game.
When John Greco slid from right guard and took over at the pivot for Mack and Paul McQuistan came off the bench and was inserted at right guard, the Browns didn’t appear to miss a beat for the rest of that game.
The Browns led, 14-3, at that point midway through the second quarter and scored 17 more points in the 31-10 victory. Not to worry, some said. The skeptics advised them to wait.
After two games sans Mack, the results are in and the skeptics have won.
Before Mack went down, the Browns’ offense compiled 111 first downs (22.2 average), 1,916 total yards (383.2 per game) and 732 yards on the ground (146.3 a game) in the first five games.
In the stunning loss to Jacksonville and subsequent victory Sunday over Oakland, that offense totaled a meager 28 first downs (only one shy of the total accumulated in the Tennessee victory), 572 yards of offense (286 a game) and a mere 108 yards on the ground.
The rhythm of the latest iteration of the offense has looked ragged at best, sloppy at worst in the last two outings. There was absolutely no rhythm. And offense is all about rhythm.
The large holes that were there for running backs Ben Tate, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell disappeared. Jacksonville’s defense blew up the Cleveland offensive line and Oakland’s neutralized it.
It was 2013 all over again with Willis McGahee, Chris Ogbonnaya, Edwin Baker, Trent Richardson (for two games) and Fozzy Whitaker pounding away in total frustration and futility and gaining next to nothing.
The Browns scored just four touchdowns infantry style last season. Crowell alone has four of the club’s nine touchdowns this season.
Yes, it can be argued that Mack was a member of the line last season. So what’s the difference? Offensive coordinator Norv Turner, that’s what. Turner loves to throw the football. And he proved it last season when the Browns put the ball up a staggering 681 times. That’s 42.5 times a game.
Kyle Shanahan is the polar opposite of Turner philosophically. He believes the run sets up the pass and the excellent numbers in the first five games back that up. But the run game, of course, depends heavily on the offensive line.
It was more than obvious in the Jaguars loss that the Greco-McQuistan combo was not working. McQuistan was pushed around all afternoon. So the coaching staff put Greco back where he is more effective and brought up Nick McDonald from the practice squad to play center.
The line played better against the Raiders in a comparative sense. It didn’t play well, but its performance was an improvement over Jacksonville. How much a comeback the running game can make depends solely now on how much McDonald improves on a weekly basis.
With Mack lending a hand from a mental and preparatory standpoint, McDonald can’t get anything but better. But now fans have a better understanding why Mack is clearly the most valuable member of the offensive line.
* * *
When safety Donte Whitner signed as a free agent with the Browns, it was expected he would add some attitude to the defense. His reputation as a hit man (in the football sense) preceded him and was welcomed by a fan base that craved such a physical presence.
But for some reason, Mike Pettine envisioned the Glenville High School and Ohio State University product as more of a cover safety, an element of the game that was somewhat foreign to him. He was much more of a physical strong safety with Buffalo and San Francisco.
Whitner’s role seems now to be changing at least based on what we saw in the Oakland victory. He’s been seen more in the box, where he can take advantage of his truculent approach to the game. It paid off against the Raiders.
With the Browns clinging to a 9-6 lead late in the third quarter and the Raiders in the midst of their longest drive of the game, Whitner imposed his will on the visitors and instantly turned the game around with one play.
His well-placed helmet collided with a football that nestled in the arms of Oakland running back Darren McFadden at the Cleveland 25-yard line and exploded it out into the waiting arms of Joe Haden at the 13. The cornerback returned it 34 yards to the Cleveland 47.
Four plays later, the Browns extended their lead to 16-6 on a short touchdown pass from Brian Hoyer to Andrew Hawkins and the Raiders were, for all practical purposes, finished. It was Whitner’s first contribution as a game changer.
* * *
The secondary, tested 56 times by Oakland quarterback Derek Carr, played very well for the first time this season despite being hampered by a pass rush that gave the rookie quarterback way too much time to throw.
At times, it appeared as though Carr had as many as seven or eight seconds to get rid of the ball. Improved coverage in the defensive backfield accounted for much of his indecision and contributed later on to three Paul Kruger sacks.
Haden had his strongest game in run support and led the club with nine tackles (eight solo) while playing nearly flawless coverage. Tashaun Gipson had his usual interception, Buster Skrine played tenaciously all over the field and rookie Justin Gilbert seemed to be more comfortable.
* * *
After being shut out in the second Pittsburgh game, Hawkins has made a nice comeback with 12 catches for 200 yards in the last two games and scored his first touchdown of the season against Oakland. And rookie wide receiver Taylor Gabriel continues to be a big-play guy. He caught only two Hoyer passes, but totaled 60 yards, one of them a 48-yarder.
* * *
The Browns ran only four plays in no-huddle mode against the Raiders. Tate was stopped for no gain in the first quarter; he gained seven yards on the next series; Hoyer threw an incompletion in the third quarter; and Tate gained a yard right before Hawkins scored his touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
* * *
Notebook: With the victory, the Browns matched their win total from last season and the season before. They are 4-3 for the first time since 2007, when they finished 10-6. . . . McDonald had a very good first game at center from a snapping standpoint. No bad snaps in 54, of which 26 were from either the shotgun or pistol. . . . Pettine, on Hoyer, who was erratic despite his 19-28-275-1 TD line: “He made the plays when he needed to make them.” Where were those plays early in the game? Left on the field. Three of those nine incompletions were drops by Oakland defenders. . . . Quick question: Why was Crowell designated the third running back behind Tate and West? The only possible answer is the coaches don’t trust his pass protection skills.