Fresh off an improvement up front, offensive line prepares for tall task ahead vs. Rams

After one week of regular season action, Browns fans were concerned about the offensive line.

Rightfully so, if one only watched the game after two key events forced the Browns to play their right tackle on the left side and a backup guard at right tackle. Then again, most teams wouldn’t be able to weather such circumstances.

Week 2 brought the return of Cleveland’s starting offensive line, and it showed. The first shred of evidence: Baker Mayfield’s 33-yard completion to Odell Beckham Jr. on the game’s opening possession.

The highlight is the Beckham grab, a one-handed sideline-tight-roping masterpiece, but it wouldn’t be possible if the Browns hadn’t effectively picked up New York’s blitz. The Jets sent two blitzers crossing into both sides of the A gap, where center JC Tretter managed to keep both from achieving notable penetration while running back Nick Chubb stepped up into the open rush lane and stonewalled linebacker Neville Hewitt in the gap. Joel Bitonio did an equally stellar job of taking on pressure from linebacker Blake Cashman, keeping him at bay and swiveling toward Leonard Williams off the edge. 

Essentially, two linemen stopped three rushers (with the important assistance of Chubb), while right tackle Chris Hubbard blocked defensive end Henry Anderson. The traffic created at the line of scrimmage by Bitonio and Tretter kept the fifth rusher, safety Jamal Adams, from getting anywhere near Mayfield.

The protection started, ironically, with Chubb’s blitz pickup, because if he fails to execute the block, Hewitt gets to Mayfield well before he can release the ball. The rest of the offensive line’s job doesn’t matter if that happens.

“There’s not much time to think,” Chubb said when asked to describe the blitz pickup from his perspective. “You’ve got to just attack and got to hit him right there on the line of scrimmage. That’s what I did. I saw him coming full speed so I had to stick my nose in there and take whatever he was giving.”

Check out photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Rams Sunday by team photographer Matt Starkey

The Browns gained an important chunk of momentum on the play, while their offensive line demonstrated they can protect their quarterback amid the chaos dialed up by Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. They continued to do so all night.

After a Week 1 in which a patchwork offensive line allowed a pressure rate of 36 percent and was responsible for six sacks and 11 QB hurries, the starting five vaulted back into the top 10 of the NFL in Week 2, cutting the pressure percentage down to 28.6 and sacks allowed just two, per Pro Football Focus. Cleveland owned the third best pass-protecting unit in Week 2, again according to PFF, with a team grade of 84.6.

Through two weeks, they’re the No. 12 group in pass protection in terms of overall grade. Their pressure percentage of 32.6 percent of dropbacks leaves them tied with Denver for 13th in the NFL.

These numbers include the work of Chubb and fellow running back D’Ernest Johnson, who has also proven he’s not afraid to take on a blitzer with a full head of steam. So far, they’ve been a key part of buying Mayfield time to connect with his big-play artists downfield, and Chubb’s development in this department is an unheralded achievement. It’s also an excellent example of what cohesion over multiple seasons can do for a football team.

“It’s so much easier, so much more natural,” Chubb said when asked if he’s grown more comfortable as a pass blocker in his second season. “I see it happening way faster. I’m able to be there a lot quicker to pick it up.”

The most demonstrative play in Week 2, though, was a run.

Chubb had received a handful of carries in the first quarter and frequently met clogged running lanes on inside zone runs and when the Browns tried to play the perimeter, their zone stretch runs were strung out by an inspired Jets defense. But by the second quarter, Chubb saw the light.

Chubb’s run, capped by him bowling over the last Jets defender standing between him and the end zone, required his vision, speed, explosion and physical running style to complete. It also needed the assistance of a couple key blockers.

That’s where Bitonio and Eric Kush came into the picture.  

The play was a zone stretch to the left, requiring each blocker up front to move upfield at an angle, blocking whatever crosses his path along that track. Cashman followed with the flow of the play and directly into the target zone of Bitonio, who drove him out of the play while Chubb cut upfield off Bitonio’s inside hip. Following a similar path from the opposite guard position, Kush found himself in line with Hewitt, who realized he slightly over-pursued. Kush took advantage of that, nudging him outside of the running lane just enough for Chubb to sprint past him and through Brian Poole’s tackle attempt into the end zone.

It was the first big breaker on the ground for this offense in 2019, and it was especially invigorating because of how well it was blocked downfield. It was the type of zone run one uses to teach zone blocking.

“The one thing that those guys will do is they will finish down the field,” head coach Freddie Kitchens said of his offensive linemen. “I was very impressed. Those are touchdown blocks of finishing down the field, securing the first level and reading up to their next level. They did an excellent job of that. To answer your question, I was very happy to see it.”

The task ahead is much greater, though, than the front presented by the injured Jets. In Week 3, the Browns will play host to the Los Angeles Rams, who feature two-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. He strikes fear, or at the very least respect, in each offensive lineman he faces. Even Browns who won’t block him are aware of his potential impact on their meeting.

“He’s probably the best player in the league,” Beckham said of Donald. … “Ninety-nine has to be accounted for. The game plan starts right there.”

Need an explanation of why the Browns must account for Donald? Here’s a nugget from Bitonio’s master class.

“He is the best player in the league I think. He is strong against the run; he is strong against the pass. He does everything well,” Bitonio said. “People say coming out he was undersized slightly, things like that, but he has all of the power you need, all of the leverage you need. He has speed when you think you are going to trench off the speed move and he can counter with his power move. That first step has people panic and then when people panic, you overset him or move too quick and he moves inside and he kind of plays everywhere. He is on the left, he is on the right, he lines up outside sometimes, and they move him around. 

“You can kind of tell with their defense, he is definitely a focal point for a lot of teams so sometimes he does not have the stats. I think he only has two tackles this year but if you watch the film, he is making plays.”

Sometimes, Donald’s plays open opportunities for his teammates, who aren’t slouches. Los Angeles boasts plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, and the Browns will have to account for more than just Donald in both the run and pass games. 

"It is a tremendous challenge for our guys up front, to keep him under routes," Kitchens said. "Make the disruption that he (Donald) causes. Put that on a very minuscule level. Of course it all starts with protection. Everything we do starts with protection. They have a tremendous challenge on their hands. And it is not just him, they have two edge rushers (Clay) Matthews and Dante Fowler, then they bring in other guys that can get after the passer. We have our work cut out for us."

Fresh off an improved performance, the Browns have the confidence and ability up front to develop a game plan for Donald and Co. The work toward such an achievement begins Wednesday.

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