Exhibition #3 leftovers
The key to the success of any offense in the game of football lies in the performance of the grunts who play up front.
They play well, said offense has a better than decent chance to play well, too, if not better.
That said, fans of the Browns are witnessing a work in progress when it comes to the club’s offensive line. It was clearly on display in the 5-0 exhibition victory over the Philadelphia Eagles Thursday night.
It doesn’t take much scrutiny to determine that the offensive line right now is not very good – being kind here – with one game remaining in the exhibition season. That’s not the way you want to enter the regular season.
It is a line in a stage of flux, especially while protecting whoever is at quarterback, that will get better because it can’t get any worse.
Joel Bitonio, a tackle in college who switched to guard with the Browns the last four seasons, is brand new at left tackle. Rookie Austin Corbett, a tackle in college, is brand new at left guard.
Shane Drango is filling in less than adequately at right guard until Kevin Zeitler recovers from a calf injury. And Chris Hubbard is brand new at right tackle. The only constant right now is center JC Tretter.
When you have two players playing a position in the National Football League they have never played before and arguably your best lineman (Zeitler) hurt, consistency cannot be reasonably expected.
The offensive line is unique in that in order to be successful, all five men have to play rhythmically and with excellent timing. One breakdown generally means failure. Missing an assignment is usually disastrous.
Critics would push the notion that this line isn’t that bad at all when discussing the ground game. That argument gathered momentum the last two exhibitions with 302 yards infantry style.
Considering the Browns’ run game was terrible the last two seasons in an offense coordinated by head coach Hue Jackson, what we’ve seen the last two games under new offensive coordinator Todd Haley gives fans hope.
Pass protection has been mediocre at best. Rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield has shown an innate ability to protect himself in the pocket, showing uncommon presence for someone so young to keep his eyes downfield and his feet moving to extend plays.
That cannot be said of Tyrod Taylor, who seems to be confused when forced to remain in the pocket. His delivery is slower than Mayfield’s right now. Perhaps it’s learning and adjusting to a new offense after several seasons in Buffalo.
Whatever the case, Mayfield has been the better quarterback thus far. His ability to find the open man and deliver with amazing accuracy is surprising considering operating an NFL offense is radically different than in college.
This is not to suggest Mayfield open the season as the starting quarterback against Pittsburgh in a couple of weeks. That won’t happen unless someone convinces Jackson otherwise and the likelihood of that happening is all but dead.
So with Taylor at the helm, it is incumbent on an offensive line that has played the equivalent of a little less than one game in games that don’t count to make certain he is vertical and healthy enough to play game two in New Orleans.
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A lot of Mayfield fans clamored for their man to play with the club’s starters. If didn’t look as though they would get their wish until Taylor departed the Eagles game with a sore left wrist and it was later revealed a dislocated pinky finger midway through the first quarter.
Working with the ones, Mayfield ran two possessions, 11 snaps gaining 26 net yards before Taylor returned. The first possession gained 27 yards in seven plays and ended on downs.
The second, after Emmanuel Ogbah recovered a fumble on a strip sack of Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles at the Eagles 35, went in reverse for a yard in three plays before Zane Gonzalez booted a 54-yard field goal to give the Browns a 5-0 lead.
Mayfield’s stats with the ones: Five pass attempts, two completions for 19 yards, one sack and two scrambles totaling seven yards. He fumbled when sacked with Hubbard fortunately recovering after a loss of eight yards. It took only 4:30 off the clock.
A small sampling with which the rookie was not nearly satisfied. “I would never say it is a good opportunity when our leader and captain goes down,” he said. “ . . . I did that and that is why I am disappointed in myself. I did not take advantage. . . . I have to get the ball out quicker.”
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The pick Mayfield threw early in the fourth quarter nearly turned into what would have been the go-ahead touchdown for the Eagles. After Eagles defensive back Avonte Maddox swiped the poorly thrown pass at the Eagles 16, he set sail down the left sideline.
Derrick Willies, for whom the pass was intended, circled back, chased Maddox down, lunged in desperation and barely tripped him up at the Cleveland 48. Otherwise, Maddox would have had an 84-yard pick six.
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Myles Garrett looked in mid-season form with three solo tackles, two sacks (one for a safety), two tackles for loss, two knockdowns of Foles and a whole bunch of hurries. And that was in just 23 snaps.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the defensive end lined up most of the time against backup Halapoulivaati Vaitai, subbing for injured All-Pro Jason Peters. “I got may ass kicked,” said the young veteran. “I was out of control. I just got beat.”
If that is a portent of things to come this season, Garrett’s goal of leading the NFL in sacks should be attainable.
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Rookie linebacker Genard Avery contributed a sack and caused fumble (recovered by Ogbah) to the defensive statistics as he made a case for more playing time in a linebackers corps that is very deep and talented.
It will be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Gregg Williams uses Avery in the many and varied sub packages he now has at his disposal. The kid, who pulled a hamstring in the fourth quarter, seems to have a nose for the football and puts himself in position to make plays.
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The Browns are anxiously awaiting an MRI on Denzel Ward’s back after the rookie cornerback injured it after tackling Eagles tight end Zach Ertz on the defense’s fifth play of the game. The club’s fourth selection of the draft awkwardly twisted his back while bringing down Ertz, but left the game under his own power.
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Finally . . . Remember last season when nearly two-thirds of the Browns’ offense was a forward pass? Half the plays called against the Eagles were designed run plays. Look for that to be relatively commonplace during the regular season. . . . Cleveland quarterbacks threw 31 passes against Philly. Jarvis Landry was the target on 10 of them, including three from the Eagles 1 on the second possession of the game. . . . Briean Boddy-Calhoun acquitted himself well after replacing Damarious Randall when the free safety’s knee locked up during warmups. BBC made three tackles and picked off a Foles pass. . . . Three of the Browns’ seven sacks were made by players who probably won’t make the final cut: Linebacker B. J. Bello, defensive tackle Daniel Ekuale and defensive end Chris Smith. . . . Believe it or not, the Browns committed only one penalty against the Eagles, a relatively harmless defensive hold, after compiling 20 for 211 yards in the first two exhibitions.