The life blood of any successful football team’s offense flows through the guys up front. It’s really that simple.
As the offensive line plays, so, too, does the entire offense. And right now, you can trace the Browns’ sudden woes on that side of the football to the ragged play of those guys up front.
When you have a raw rookie starting at the most important position on the front line, the gatekeeper of the quarterback’s blind side, and an inconsistent performer on the other side, that’s a problem.
Desmond Harrison at left tackle has been lauded for his athleticism. Truth of the matter is he won the starting job because no one was better at the position in training camp and the coaching staff was prepared to deal with his growing pains.
Chris Hubbard, who played so well as an injury fill-in last season with Pittsburgh, has not played up to those standards with the Browns, encountering way too many problems for someone who has been around the National Football League for five seasons.
It doesn’t get much better in between with the three interior linemen. Guards Joel Bitonio and Kevin Zeitler, especially the latter, have not played up to their normal high efficiency standards.
Playing next to a pair of problematic tackles very well might have a deleterious effect on Bitonio and Zeitler, whose efforts to help them out in pass protection has affected their performance.
The best (relatively speaking) and most consistent (ditto) performer on the line has been center JC Tretter, whose improvement from last season has been palpable, especially dealing with pass-rushing defensive interior linemen.
Protecting rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield has been a sizable chore for this line and it has failed spectacularly in the last three games, during which the Browns have managed to score only 46 points.
On at least two occasions, this line has failed to score a touchdown when faced with a goal-to-go situation with as few as two yards to gain. A simple quarterback sneak from the one-yard line failed against Tampa Bay Sunday. That’s unforgivable.
This group has difficulty opening up holes – and maintaining them – through which running backs can make a play. If there is a slight timing problem with the handoff, the hole disappears quickly and the result is usually a one- or two-yard gain at best.
As for the ability to run successful screen plays, the antidote to a strong opposing pass rush, it’s not there with the Browns. For whatever reason, the OL seems incapable of making it work.
As for pass protection, surrendering 15 sacks in the last three games is all you need to know about one of the major weaknesses of this line. They are on pace to give up a team-record 71 sacks this season.
Unless Mayfield can get the ball out by the time you are halfway between two and three when counting, something negative is about to happen. Try that counting method Sunday against Pittsburgh and see how often it works out that way.
One of the reasons is Mayfield’s inability to quickly spot open receivers and not paying attention to the clock in his head that warns either get out of the pocket or unload the ball in order to avoid a sack.
Quick-developing pass plays is the panacea that will keep him vertical, but that requires twitchy-quick reaction and exquisite timing by the receivers. And, of course, good hands, which is not always a given with this group.
During his early success after taking over for the concussed Tyrod Taylor in game three, Mayfield was much more decisive with his throws. The ball was gone in plenty of time for receivers to make a play. In the last three games, indecision has replaced that decisiveness.
At this rate, we might see Taylor again this season unless Mayfield proves to be superhuman and survives the weekly onslaught of up close and personal visits from opposing defensive linemen.
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There seems to be some disconnect between the Browns’ coaching staff and the players somewhere between their last-minute talk in the locker room prior to the game and their opening possession of the game.
How else can one explain why the Browns are the only NFL team that hasn’t scored a touchdown in the first quarter this season? Seven games in and the offense is still looking for a touchdown somewhere, anywhere, in the first 15 minutes.
Many teams script the first dozen or so plays at the beginning of games. Not certain if the Browns fall into that category. Assuming they do, it stands as an indictment and should be abandoned considering the results in favor of something else. Anything else.
The defense pitched in a little to the first-quarter point total with a safety last Sunday against Tampa Bay, upping it to a booming eight. And since the offense cannot produce quickly, maybe the defense can break the touchdown-less streak with a pick six or fumble return for a score.
For those keeping score, the Browns in seven games have had 20 first-quarter possessions and emerged with just the six points. The following are their deepest first-quarter penetrations in each of those games:
Pittsburgh’s 48-yard line in the first game; New Orleans’ 21 in the second (close enough for a Zane Gonzalez 39-yard field goal); the 48 of the New York Jets; Oakland’s 1-yard line (first and goal at the 1) on a 15-play, 68-yard drive, settling for a Greg Joseph 25-yard field goal after winding up back at the 7; Baltimore’s 35; the 34 of the Los Angeles Chargers; and Tampa Bay’s 49 last Sunday.
If it’s any consolation, at least the offense managed to cross midfield in every game. Yeah, probably not,
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If nothing else, the Browns lead the NFL in one category: Most tight ends on one roster. Pharaoh Brown was promoted from the practice squad Tuesday, joining fellow tight ends David Njoku, Darren Fells, Seth DeValve and Orson Charles. Perhaps offensive coordinator Todd Haley can come up with the first all tight end pass formation. Now that would be truly unique.
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Scraps . . . Notice something different about Mayfield in the Buccaneers game? Yep, the full beard is gone at least for the time being. The only hint of a hirsute appearance was what looked like a three-day growth. . . . . By holding the Browns to 23 points, the Bucs shaved two points off their points-against average (34.6 to 32.6). . . . Another reason for the offensive ineptitude: 32.1% success rate on third down, fourth-worst in the league ahead of only Dallas, Buffalo and Arizona. . . . They have converted only three fourth-down conversions in 10 attempts. Time perhaps for Hue Jackson to think about kicking field goals on fourth down. . . . Conversely, the defense ranks sixth on third-down success at 33.3%. . . . Of Mayfield’s 34 pass attempts against Tampa Bay, he targeted wide receiver Jarvis Landry and Njoku nearly 62% of the time. . . . And finally, Britton Colquitt by far leads the league in number of punts with 54 (nearly eight a game), a whopping 12 more than Arizona’s Andy Lee. He also owns the longest punt with his 79-yarder against the Bucs, nine yards longer than one by Minnesota’s Matt Wile.