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5 Observations: Coaches, players evaluate Browns O-line through 7 games

1) Coaches evaluate offensive line play through 7 games

It's hard to find a stat with more variables in it than sacks. All sorts of factors go into how they happen. Multiple parties along the offensive line can be at fault. It could be one player's mistake. The quarterback could hold on to the ball too long. The defender could make an outstanding play. The secondary could lock down all of the receiving options.

It's why, when it comes to evaluating the Browns offensive line's performance through seven games, you won't hear much handwringing over the 26 sacks Cleveland has surrendered this season. Instead, the focus centers on consistency from all five members on every play in every game.

The takeaway from last week's game at St. Louis has been unanimous from individual members of the group as they've talked with reporters throughout the week. The goal moving forward, simply put, is to be better.

"Last week we, as an offensive line, didn't block as well as our expectations are and we got Josh (McCown) hit too much," Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said. "That's the first time I think that that's happened this year. We're disappointed with how we played as a unit and our expectations are higher than that. We're going to hope to play better this week and protect Josh the way we had been in the previous weeks."

Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and coach Mike Pettine each used the word "inconsistent" when asked to evaluate the group's performance thus far. DeFilippo stressed those inconsistent moments have come in spurts and hasn't plagued the group the majority of the time.

Other factors are at play, too, he said.

"Part of the product has been because we have had to throw the football some. Sacks are going to come when you have to throw the football 40 times or however many we threw it against Baltimore and the other teams we have played.

"We have hit a stretch here where in my nine-year NFL career, this is probably as long of a stretch of elite pass rushers that I have gone against, personally. I think that is a piece of it, too."

The Browns minimized the impact of the past two, as Denver's Von Miller and St. Louis' Robert Quinn had little impact on their respective games against Cleveland. Still, others were able to penetrate and deliver big hits on McCown, who is "day to day" with a shoulder injury heading into Sunday's game against the Cardinals.

On the flip side, the Browns are averaging 90.4 rushing yards per game. Cleveland is using similar blocking schemes as it did last year but has incorporated more inside zone and gap-scheme runs in recent weeks, Thomas said. Pettine said the adjustment comes with a learning curve but expressed his confidence in the group.

"I think at times they have played extremely well and then other times have not and have left some plays out there and missed some opportunities," Pettine said. "That is a tough-minded group, a competitive group. If they have a performance you would consider sub-par, then A) they will the first to tell you and B) they will be very much looking forward to getting back out there to bounce back from it."

A look at Browns uniforms, from the franchise's inception to current-day.

2) McCown update

McCown, who did not participate in Wednesday's practice, was a limited participant at Thursday's.

DeFilippo echoed what Pettine said Wednesday, stressing McCown's advanced handle of the offense didn't require extensive repetitions leading into Sunday's game against the Cardinals.

"He's a tough guy," Thomas said. "I think we've figured that out in the short year we've been together. Just going back to what he's done since the spring, he's definitely a tough guy. He's old school and he's going to do what he has to do to get out there no matter what the circumstances."

3) No holding Haden back

Haden's experienced plenty of nicks and bruises throughout his football career, but the concussion he suffered in the fourth quarter Week 5 against the Ravens was unchartered territory.

So, too, was the NFL's concussion protocol. The Pro Bowl cornerback came away with a new appreciation for it as he reflected on his two weeks away from the field after Thursday's practice.

"They really take care of you with your head now," Haden said. "I can tell that for sure. I have had a lot of injuries, but that is one they definitely look out for a lot. I am glad to be back."

Though Haden's repetitions were limited at practice Wednesday, he said he had no interest of being "eased" back into the flow of things. If he's all clear Sunday, he'll be matched up against his close friend Larry Fitzgerald.

"If I am out there, I am playing," Haden said. "I got clearance, so I am working on doing what I do for the team and helping us be better and helping us win. Whatever the coaches want me to do I am going to be ready for whatever."

4) Browns brace for dangerous kick returner

No one in the NFL has been better on kickoff returns than Arizona rookie David Johnson, who has averaged 32.7 yards on the 10 he's been able to take out of the end zone. In Arizona's Week 2 rout of Chicago, Johnson returned a kick 108 yards for his first career touchdown.

"We have a big challenge there," Browns special teams coordinator Chris Tabor said.

Browns kicker Travis Coons has one touchback in his last eight kicks. Tabor said he's been working with Coons to "shorten some things up" since he went without a touchback in six kicks against the Broncos.

Tabor liked what he saw last week against the Rams.

"I thought the contact was better than what it was the previous week," Tabor said. "I am encouraged by that."

5) Shelton aiming high to play lower

Rookie defensive lineman Danny Shelton said he's made a point to play with better pad level, and defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil said last week's game at St. Louis was the best display of it.

"He did some really good things for us," O'Neil said. "He's a guy that we want out there 60, 70 percent of the snaps. We're hoping that we're going to keep him building off last week's performance and get him out there tomorrow now that he's feeling healthier and all that."

Shelton, who was listed as questionable with a knee injury heading into the Rams game, played 21 snaps (40 percent) at St. Louis. He brushed off the injury and focused heavily on his pad level, which he said has always been too high because he was able to get away with it in high school and college.

"I was usually the taller guy, so it was easy to just throw guys around," Shelton said. "In the league, you can't really get away with doing that consistently. Just emphasizing staying low and getting in the backfield, it's been helping me out this last past week."

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