In case you were wondering, that is football’s most overused pun making an appearance in the headline. While writing instructors constantly harp on the fact that clichés are to be avoided like the plague, sometimes reality calls for that rule to be broken. The Cleveland Browns offensive line performance through the first two games of the season has officially reached that point.
It’s one thing when a team’s offensive line performs terribly and constantly puts their team’s skill players in the backfield at risk. It’s another issue entirely when that offensive line is supposed to be a team strength and one of the best units in the NFL. The Browns entered the season believing that their line would be able to protect second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden, giving him the time he needed to be successful in Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner’s downfield passing attack. With a healthy Trent Richardson, the running game figured to be much improved as well.
Why would Joe Banner’s front office and Rob Chudzinski’s front office have doubted that they would be able to lean on their offensive line? Left tackle Joe Thomas is a perennial All-Pro; center Alex Mack is Pro Bowl caliber; right tackle Mitchell Schwartz showed promise in his rookie campaign; John Greco signed a long-term contract extension in training camp after solidifying himself as a starting guard last season; and Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao – both of whom have been NFL starters – were set to battle for the right guard job.
Both Pinkston and Lauvao were injured during the preseason, but such is the nature of professional football. As is so often said in the NFL, it was time for the “next man up.” Still, even with one fill-in to begin the season, 80 percent of a talented offensive line should have still put the Browns among the 10 best units in the league.
Instead, Brandon Weeden has challenged the NFL record for most grass stains sustained over the first two games of a season. Trent Richardson has rushed the ball just 31 times for 105 yards through two games. That comes out to a 3.4-yard average, even lower than the uninspiring 3.6 he posted in his rookie season.
Where have these problems come from? As has been pretty plain to see, the right side of the line has been a gaping sieve against the Dolphins and Ravens. Pro Football Focus has given Mitchell Schwartz a -8.2 grade through two weeks. That ranks him as the league’s 67th best tackle – out of 68 graded. Schwartz, who struggles against speedy edge rushers, has had to face two of the best in Miami’s Cameron Wake and new Raven Elvis Dumervil. Those matchups have led to a -9.4 grade in pass protection from PFF, by far the worst of any NFL tackle. Norv Turner’s offensive game plans have many times left Schwartz on an island against these talented pass rushers. While he must improve, Turner would do well to give him more help in the form of a chip from a tight end or a running back staying in to protect.
Schwartz’s companion on the right side has somehow managed to be even worse. Oniel Cousins is the third or fourth option at right guard, but through two games he has looked as if he doesn’t even belong on an NFL roster. Pro Football Focus grades him at a -13.7 thus far, also good for 67th out of 68 graded guards. Unlike Schwartz, who has struggled in pass protection but been average in run blocking, Cousins is an equal opportunity failure. He has graded at -7.6 in pass protection, -4.8 in run blocking, and -1.3 in penalties. While he should be commended for owning his poor performance after the Miami game and vowing that he would be better against Baltimore, he made only the most modest of gains in week two, improving his -7.0 against the Dolphins to a -6.7 this past Sunday. It is a troubling sign when fans are able to notice a guard making repeated mistakes, and the amount of times I’ve screamed his name in anger suggests that I can’t be the only one.
The right side hasn’t been the only problem though. John Greco has been below average, grading out at a -2.2 over the first two weeks (47th ranked guard). Even star Joe Thomas has not quite been up to his usual lofty standards. He has a +2.8 rating, but that only makes him the 18th best tackle to this point. Alex Mack ranks a serviceable seventh amongst centers. He has been good (+1.6) in run blocking and just slightly below average in protection (-0.1), although that number looks sparkling when compared to his linemates.
As putrid as the line has been, the play calling hasn’t cut them many breaks. Despite the Browns trailing by one score or less for all but seven minutes they have played thus far, Norv Turner has called for 90 passes in two games. Brandon Weeden threw the ball 53 times in one game when the Browns did not go down by more than one score until there were under seven minutes left in the fourth quarter. That is absolutely ludicrous.
Further, the other blockers on the Browns offense have been almost as ineffective. Richardson has a -1.3 grade for blocking. Chris Ogbonnaya, the Browns fullback/third-down back hybrid, has a -1.8 for blocking and a -4.3 overall. Pro Football Focus still lists him as a halfback, and that grade puts him at 58…out of 58.
The lone position that Browns fans can smile at is tight end, where Jordan Cameron is tied as PFF’s 2nd ranked player with a +2.7. That number is based largely on his pass catching, but his blocking has been average at least (+0.4 pass blocking, -0.3 run blocking). Gary Barnidge, who Turner uses as a blocking tight end/H-back, has been bad in the running game (-2.4), but his +1.2 pass blocking is tops in the entire NFL.
The Browns defense has been stellar. Allowing an average of 18.5 points should give your team a chance to win each and every week. Now, the offense must catch up and put the necessary points on the board to win football games. The offensive line was supposed to be the backbone of this offense. If that unit can’t find its spine and drastically improve their play, then this season will be a long one for Browns quarterbacks, running backs, and fans alike.