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On the Offense

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Browns O-line doesn't seek praise but has full appreciation of those closest to it

The big men up front have been the foundation for the Browns’ dominance in both the run game and passing attack 

The Browns' 2020 offense has put itself in the company of one of the best units the franchise has ever assembled.

Cleveland's 152 rushing yards per game is the most by a Browns team since 1978. The team's 43 scrimmage touchdowns are already tied for sixth-most in franchise history, and the 368 total points this year are seventh-most by a Browns team.

Those numbers are a credit to the run game and passing attack, which have battered defenses over the course of the Browns 10-win season and recent 5-1 stretch.

But both of those units owe a large chunk of their success to a group that's easy to overlook on a winning football team: the offensive line.

No Browns position group arguably has been more consistent than the five big men up front. They've ascended into one of the top-ranked offensive lines in the NFL, and their ability to protect the pocket and steamroll through any defensive line has been the true backbone behind the Browns' offensive success.

"They are always on point when it comes to everything," offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said last week. "They are always prepared. That is a group of guys up front I am really proud of."

Coaches and players have raved about the offensive line all season, and their play has always backed them up. Guards Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio have been ranked among the best linemen in football, according to Pro Football Focus, while tackles Jedrick Wills Jr. and Jack Conklin and center JC Tretter have marvelously managed their week-by-week assignments.

In pass protection, they've helped give quarterback Baker Mayfield a league-leading 2.7 seconds of time in the pocket. That's up from 2.3 seconds in the pocket last season, which ranked 27th in the league. The unit has allowed just one sack since Week 13, the fewest in the NFL.

In the run game, there's plenty of stats to show their worth. Running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are the only running backs on the same team this season to have over 790 rushing yards. The Browns have rushed for 100 or more yards in all but two games this season, and the offensive line has made several highlight reel-worthy blocks that have led to chunk plays on the ground.

"I love those boys up front," Mayfield said. "It's unbelievable. We have a great group that is extremely focused."

Check out the best photos from the Browns win over the Giants last week by the Browns photo team

The group has found success no matter who's on the field, too. All five starters have made heavy contributions, but the depth play of Kendall Lamm, Nick Harris and Chris Hubbard, who played in 11 games but was placed Tuesday on Injured Reserve after suffering a knee injury last week, has helped keep the group afloat.

Lamm, for instance, caught a touchdown pass in the Browns' Week 13 first-half scoring explosion against the Tennessee Titans. Before his injury, Hubbard had excelled as a substitute at right tackle and right guard. When he went down Sunday against the Giants, rookie Nick Harris filled in and provided the same level of superb protection against New York's ninth-ranked defense.

"For (Harris) to be able to step up and play a different position is tremendous," Mayfield said. "Hats off to him for mentally being ready and being able to come out there and play well."

The group's cornerstones, though, have been Bitonio and Tretter, the two longest tenured and most experienced players. Bitonio, who was voted to the 2021 Pro Bowl, has been the vocal leader and constant glue of an offense that has seen plenty of change since he was drafted in 2014. 

Tretter, meanwhile, is the group's biggest leader at the line of scrimmage. His ability to dissect a defense and work in accordance of Mayfield's cadence — the duo has made offside and encroachment penalties on the opposing defense a weekly occurrence — has been instrumental in keeping the offense on the same page.

"They lead that room," Mayfield said of both Bitonio and Tretter. "They are smart players. Having familiar faces is always great because you have that open line of communication and some things are just understood where you do not have to speak on it. They're very different but both good players."

The three other starters have all played some of their best football, too. Conklin has allowed just one sack this season and has a PFF grade of 83.1. Teller has risen to one of the best linemen in football — he's led PFF's individual player grades for almost the entire season. And Wills has made considerable strides in his transition from right tackle, where he played at all three seasons in Alabama before becoming the Browns' 2020 first-round pick, to left tackle. 

"I owe everything to those guys up front," said Chubb, who was also voted to the 2021 Pro Bowl. "Those guys are the ones who make it happen. It makes it possible for me to score any touchdown or break any long run because of the way they block so well. I'm extremely proud of them. A lot of credit has to go to them."

That group might be the biggest reason why the Browns are close to their first trip to the playoffs since 2002. The offense is playing at a pace the Browns haven't seen in decades, and their cohesion has only appeared to grow as they continue to stack wins toward what's already been their most successful season since 2007.

But the credit doesn't only belong to skill-position players. The men in the trenches need their credit, too.

"They're really playing for each other and playing for this team," Mayfield said. "I truly do appreciate every single one of them."

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