The Big Uglies: Week 9

The Big Uglies: Week 9

Sobo is back, and he's fired up about what he saw from the offensive line against the Steelers. Get the analysis that starts -and finishes - in the trenches...

I'm BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACK. I'm back in the saddle again. I'm BAAAAAAAAAAACK.

Problem lies in the fact I have hitched my saddle to a dead horse and I can do nothing but wonder why I put myself through this week in and week out. After suffering through computer malfunctions, VCR screw ups, a TIVO acquisition, and finally having my football season end quite unmercifully; I am FINALLY able to put the nose back on the grindstone and enjoy that beautiful violent ballet we call offensive line play. And while it is a bad pun that is used over and over again, it most certainly is offensive.

Before I begin to ramble on about all the thoughts I have in my head not just about the O-line but the offense in general, I have been gone for a few weeks so let us touch upon the grading scale quickly.

Simple as this, every lineman starts with a 100%. If he does his job the entire game and does what is asked of him without any missed assignments; he keeps that 100%. Now that never happens, and I assess plays based on negatives and positives for the individuals. For the most part the grade depends on the negatives:  missed blocks, missed assignments, penalties, sacks, etc.  A positive play will only be awarded when I see an individual's play as being exceptional for that particular snap. Now, the negatives certainly outweigh the positives, and it takes two exceptional plays to negate one negative play. So with all that in mind let us get this show on the road….


The Offensive Line: Part, Not All, of the Offensive Problem

Handling the Zone Blitz

When playing the Pittsburgh Steelers, the zone blitz is the number one concern going into the game for any offense. 

And while I know every one wants to blame EVERY thing on the offensive line, let's look at this from another angle.

Yes, the Cleveland Browns' offensive line is poor and there is not much respect for them around the league; but whose responsibility is it to pick up the unaccounted for blitzer when a side is overloaded?  To answer my own question….the quarterback, that is who.

One of the most popular quotes of the year is Butch Davis calling Jeff Garcia 'skittish'. Opposing teams take note of this stuff. They realize Garcia is not audibling at the line scrimmage. They realize Garcia is prone to fumbles and bad throws when scrambling. They realize Terrelle Smith is not in the game on passing downs to protect Garcia's back as the last line of 'defense'. And guess what, they are looking to take advantage of all those things.

Despite what announcers are saying, they want Garcia to get happy feet. Why? One reason being our receivers do not help Garcia out and make plays themselves. Linemen cannot compensate when they do not know where their quarterback is at. And when we try to take advantage and roll out, defenses are hedging their bets that they are blitzing to the side the offense is rolling out. So I simply cannot lay ALL the blame on the offensive line. I am not excusing their play, but there are certainly other factors at work other than the offensive line. 

Making the task of protecting the quarterback even harder, our running backs cannot block for the life of them. The tight ends, without Winslow, are average receivers and marginal blockers at best. The Browns do not have receivers that are consistent play makers. It is domino effect on our offense that starts with the O-line and does not really improve anywhere else.

Exploiting the Weaknesses: Two Examples

Now, I am not one who focuses entirely on Butch Davis and the current staff but that is exactly where the next step in my thought process takes me. Do the Browns need to do better offensively? Most certainly. But there were two cases in the game where I felt the Browns offense was simply exploited by superior schemes on the part of the Steelers.  Two instances where all I could do was shake my head because of how perfectly played it was by the Steeler defense and how inept the Browns offense looked.

First instance was the sack given up on third down in the first offensive series for the Browns. The offense come to the line of scrimmage in a twins right set. The ‘Y' receiver is brought in motion (Northcutt in this case). The defensive back follows Northcutt. So what does that indicate RIGHT off the bat? Now Garcia knows the Steeler secondary is in man coverage and blitzing from somewhere. The *best* part of the play as a result of the motion was the fact Northcutt went from the zone blocking side of the offensive line to the man blocking side. So who was it that blitzed? Well it just happened to be that same corner who was covering Northcutt.  Northcutt who at the time had a nasty split.  So not only is the corner closer to the quarterback because of the receiver split, but there is no blocker to account for him when he does blitz because the running back goes out in a pattern. The result you ask? A sack which was as easy as stealing candy from a baby. So instead of easily picking up a blitz by the zone side of our offensive line, the Steelers recognized the offense and made a big play.

Now as frustrating as the previous play was for me personally, the next play was even more of an example of Pittsburgh's superior strategy.

In the second half, you might remember a jailbreak blitz by the Steelers where three - this is not an exaggeration - THREE Steelers came through the middle of the line unabated.  I had rewind the play at least a dozen times to make sure I was seeing it right. I honestly could not figure out what happened and why it broke down like it did.

The play call was a designed roll out for Garcia. The right side of the line took zone steps to the right and as a result only had one player to block. The zone steps right did nothing to pull the Steelers to that side. It was another zone twister blitz by their inside linebackers.

All the zone steps did was open the way to Garcia like Moses parted the Red Sea. 

To make matters even worse was the horrible play on the left side of the line where Demar and Verba were blocking hat on hat. Demar decides to pick up a down lineman, then recognizes the blitz, lets the down lineman go, only to completely miss BOTH of the blitzing linebackers.  Add to the fact Verba was doing nothing more than picking his butt watching Shea block the defensive end by himself and you get Garcia running for his life. It was one of the worst plays I have seen in a long time. Steelers took advantage and thank God Garcia could get rid of the ball before he was smacked.

To quickly recap my random thoughts:  lack of execution, lack of talent, and simply being out schemed make the Browns a loser more times than not (six out of nine times to be exact).

Okay, I think my rambling is officially done. Now it is time to do what we all came here for and look at the play of the offensive line in particular…..

 

Ross Verba

First Half:  I have decided from this point forward when discussing each lineman's performance, I will point out their positives first, because quite frankly, they are few and far between.   Ross does a good job on down blocks. He had a pretty crushing down block for a pancake. Okay, that was the impressive feat of the first half for Ross. Now what did he do wrong?  Let us start with the first play of the game, where Verba fell off his block forcing Suggs to cutback. Luckily, the blocking overall was solid and Suggs gained solid yardage.  

One of my personal annoyances is when a lineman allows their defender to jump up and knock down the ball. Kimo Von Whathisname did just that when the offense was pinned on their goal line.  For the love of Pete, is it SO hard to punch a defender in the gut to prevent this?  Later, when Ross was sucked in by a stunt, he was able to re-establish the pocket but overall the defender still forced Garcia to scramble. And the last play I wanted to mention in the first half was the particular play where Garcia came out for the handoff wrong. Jeff was able to get the handoff to Lee Suggs. Suggs had room to run, until Verba was thrown off his block and his defender made the tackle. Okay okay I lied, I will throw in one more compliment toward Ross. He did hold a very nice contain block on one of Garcia's designed bootlegs.

Second Half:  No positives this half, I honestly did not even notice Verba for most of the half. I was starting to think he was actually doing a solid job, then the missed assignments started again. I described the ‘Red Sea' bootleg earlier (that is official trademarked folks). Again to repeat myself, Ross did a great job watching the tight end man up on the defensive end and just stand there as Garcia was running for his life. It would have been nice if Verbs recognized the blitz and when Demar passed him a defender that Ross would actually have picked him up. But I guess that is just too much to ask.

In another pass set, Verba easily gave up the inside to a blitzing linebacker. For once, Jeff Garcia got rid of the ball quickly to avoid the sack. Also on a draw later in the game, Verba almost threw the man he was blocking into a Suggs cutback. I understand it was his job to wall off the defender, but Ross has to be better prepared for cutbacks. Oh, and Ross had another nice down block I took notice of in the second half (what can I say, I am a softie and I have to try and find something nice to say)

Overall:  So, Mr. Verba, do you honestly believe you are a top three offensive tackle in this league? Maybe. Probably about as much as Ryan Tucker really is a Pro Bowl right tackle. Two peas in a pod that do not understand what the Browns really need from them is their play to be nasty and to overshadow the play of the lackluster guards Cleveland currently possesses. Verba is an average tackle in this league. Nothing more, nothing less.

Grade:  87%

 

Enoch Demar

First Half:  Seriously, where to begin?  Okay, something positive. Some….thing positive. SomeTHING posiiiiiiitive.  Yeeeeeeeeah. I am NOT going to need you to come in this weekend Enoch.  Yeeeeeeeah.  Um, Demar did a nice job ONCE picking up a stunt, and then followed it up in the same play by picking up a delayed blitz. Enoch also got to the second level a few times somewhat effectively. Okay, I wrote something positive. Now let me just rattle off the mistakes:

  • The one time Demar did a nice job on the delayed blitz mentioned earlier, well, there were at least a handful of times he did NOT pick up that blitz throughout the rest of the half.
     
  • Enoch tends to set too deep in pass protection, being in Garcia's lap even when he is not blocking anyone.
     
  • Demar had trouble peeling off onto scraping linebackers on zone plays.
     
  • He missed a down block on Hoke, letting him get in on a play
     
  • He overran a block on one occasion
     
  • Enoch just has a tendency to fall down at times. He tends to play with too wide a base.
     
  • Garcia fell down and went boom one time because Enoch stepped on his foot (usually this is attributed to the QB, but when the lineman is being blown off the ball I do not feel like being nice).
     
  • And for icing on the cake, Enoch was called for a holding penalty as well.

Second Half:  Mr.Demar did a good job reestablishing his block on one running play when he was thrown off by the defender. Now let us go back and keep rattling off what he did wrong:

  • Peeled back on a zone block, only to be knocked on his rear when he ran into a defender.  Why?  Enoch's feet were too wide again.
     
  • Demar did absolutely NOTHING to help Faine in pass protection.  He literally stood there and watched while Faine was having trouble with the nose tackles, and yet did NOTHING.
     
  • In a pass set, Enoch ran a blitzing linebacker off….exactly what he is supposed to do. What he did not do was maintain the block. No one came free downfield. Garcia could not get rid of the football. The result is obvious. It was a sack.
     
  • Time to go back to help blocks with Faine.  On an isolation behind Enoch's hip, he literally whiffed on a double team with Faine. IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE?!!! Would have been a HUGE play, if only he could get a slight chip on the nose.
     
  • Now it is time to revisit the ‘Red Sea' bootleg.  Enoch had troubled deciding which Steeler he wanted to block, so he let BOTH go! Makes complete sense to me. UGH!!!
     
  • And last but not least, the botched pickup of a blitzing linebacker which in turn forces Garcia to scramble. Tucker has a good block on Aaron Smith. Ryan does not know that Garcia is scrambling. Smith comes off the block; forces a fumble, the Steelers score a touchdown. ALL because Enoch can not pick up a simple blitz.

Overall:   Can anyone tell how frustrated I was by watching Demar's putrid play the whole game? I honestly do not even know what to say about him. All I will say is the left guard position BETTER be upgraded next season. And I will leave it at that.

Grade:  79%

 

Jeff Faine

First Half:  Faine was the only lineman this week to warrant more than one positive play. He did this by being the only lineman currently on the Browns roster who you can see actually play with some attitude. 

Second play of the game, a pancake was produced when Jeff buried Hoke two yards down field.  This was the only occasion in the first half, but I will get back to this point in the second half break down. There were multiple occasions in the first half where Jeff did a very nice job against Hoke one on one in pass protection, up until he was poked in the eye. And yes, even Faine is not immune from sub par play. His downfalls included: not chipping on a Demar down block, not getting to the second level at points, he did not get his head across near the goal line getting pushed back by Hoke, forcing a cutback by Suggs, and again being driven back into T.Smith by Hoke on a zone left.

Second Half:  This half started a bit differently than the previous half ended. First zone run of the half, Faine had driven Hoke three yards back.

Sticking with positive play, I will now go back to the attitude point I made earlier. Again in one on one pass protection against the nose tackle Hoke, Faine had successfully kept the pocket. Hoke then tried to spin back to the scrambling Garcia. Faine literally slammed Hoke down to the ground with one arm. For those of you who are or were WWE fans, he gave Hoke the ‘Rock Bottom".

Late in the game, Faine also ran up another pancake block. This one could actually be misconstrued as a pancake for Joaquin. BUT it was Faine who had driven the nose back, threw him down, and Joaquin fell on him. One other positive aspect of Faine's game that I would like to touch upon is the fact Jeff goes out of his way to finish blocks.

After watching him all his career, I started to take notice that he often gets cut down from behind by the running back or the defenders making the tackle.  Now when you think about this you might say, "How is that finishing blocks and a positive?" What you have to pay attention to is the fact Faine is looking to continuously make blocks. If a defender is trying to get in on a play, Jeff is going to block him until the end and can be rolled into when trying to continue the block downfield. Also, he is usually looking to pick up defenders downfield once he finishes his initial block.  Now I cannot sit here and tell you Faine does not have his faults or share of missed assignments. And with in mind, I will go on to what he did wrong in this half of the Steelers game. 

Like Demar, it worries me that Faine continues to drop back deep into the pocket when climbing the ladder to look for a block.  There was another occasion of note where Hoke got too much push inside in pass protection and both fell at the feet of Garcia.  With Faine in the game, the blitz recognition was better than when Fowler spelled Jeff. But on one occasion, the line did a great job picking up a blitz only to have Faine mess it up by not getting extension allowing the defender to get off the block and then getting a piece of Garcia's arm to force an errant throw.  Also there was one occasion late in the game, where I honestly was sickened by the absolute horrible angle Jeff took to a linebacker.  Obviously, the linebacker went unblocked to make the tackle. 

Overall:  Faine has officially played out his rookie year as of this Steeler game; it was his seventeenth career game. And I am already starting to hear the whispers….Faine's a bust…..Faine was a reach….Faine is undersized……Faine is not physical……Faine is not playing to the level he should be playing.

I understand many Browns fans want to jump the gun ANY time a guy does not show dominance when it is expected. I read the article when the press asked Casey Hampton what he thought about Faine, only to get a simple roll of the eyes. If based on how they played, however, I would have to say Pittsburgh does have respect for Faine.

It was when Fowler had to come in the Pittsburgh defense immediately started to attack the middle of the line. This was exactly when the first twist blitzes were unveiled. When Faine came back in the game, we saw a difference in picking up that blitz in particular.

And as I also wrote earlier, Demar is just not helping Jeff out. So while Faine might not be playing at the dominant level some expect on a consistent basis, there are definitely signs he is not a bust some already want to write him off to be and will continue to anchor this line for years to come.

Grade:  89%


Melvin Fowler

First Half:  It was not so much a half, it turned out to be nine plays. Nine plays which was all it took for Pittsburgh to start taking advantage. First two plays Fowler was in, first two times we saw the linebacker twister blitz.  The first time resulted in Fowler picking up NOBODY and Garcia barely getting rid of the ball to avoid a safety. Two things I noticed while watching this dismal nine plays: Fowler does not shoot his hands quickly after the snap and he is not very strong in the lower body. Not a good combination for any lineman, and the result was being blown off the ball. Nothing positive to say of Fowler's play, I am just glad we did not have to watch him for the rest of the game. The untold horrors we would have witnessed...

Grade:  67% (so THAT is why he wears that number. I get it now.)

 

Joaquin Gonzalez

First Half:  First play of the game, Joaquin did a very nice job getting to a scarping linebacker on a zone left. Following play, both he and Tucker allowed Aaron Smith to break their double team and make a tackle for a loss.  Then Joaquin had a nice double team with Faine.  Couple plays later, Joaquin simply tripped trying to get to the second level and as a result the linebacker made the play.

The first aspect that really popped out at me about Joaquin was the fact our coaching staff was comfortable enough to pull him to be the wall on a bootleg. On the initial such play on a third-and-five, Joaquin did a very nice job getting outside and driving Larry Foote past Jeff Garcia.  Several plays later; Joaquin leads with his head on a zone block and is easily thrown off by the nose tackle who then disrupts the play.  A couple more plays later, Joaquin does a nice job this time getting to a scraping linebacker.  Now with the offense's backs pinned to their own end zone, it was again Gonzalez doing a very nice job trapping and allowing Suggs to get a crucial first down. Next series set of downs; Joaquin takes a bad angle to a linebacker. Then when the big play finally hit on the Northcutt bomb, it was Joaquin who almost screwed it up. Gonzalez was driven back into Garcia and almost affected the throw. Now the offense was driving, Joaquin again misses a second level block. To top off his scatterbrained first half, the ‘Cuban Messiah' did not hold his block as Garcia attempted to throw to the end zone. Garcia had to throw off his back foot, and the result was an under thrown ball for an interception.

Second Half: The half did not start well for Joaquin. On the very first play of the Browns' first possession, he was driven right back into Terrelle Smith and Lee Suggs which as a result BLEW up the whole play. The shame of it was the fact there would have been a very nice lane for them to run through if Gonzalez makes that block. Next, we see a nice job sliding and picking up the twist blitz.

Later in the quarter, Joaquin is asked to trap again. This time the results were not as good.  Joaquin started by coming out too wide on the initial pull steps, almost running into Suggs. He then proceeded to lead with the wrong shoulder.  And if not for a great cut by Suggs, the first down would not have been obtained. Joaquin did earn hustle points with me by snatching up a fumble from Aaron Smith. Once Holcomb came in, the last play of note in Joaquin's game was his inability to pick up the twist blitz - in this instance getting Holcomb blasted for a sack.

Overall: So what was the final result of the ‘great experiment at right guard'?  Honestly, there were some goods things and some bad things.  We all have certainly seen worse from our guard play, but it was not a great improvement either. I am hoping we stick with Joaquin for the rest of the season, and I can only hope to see improvement. He showed some nice things like trapping effectively and solid pass blocking overall. I just hope Joaquin overcomes his bipolar play shown in this game in the following weeks.

Grade:  84%


Ryan Tucker

First Half: The game did not start out that well for ‘Mother'. On the second play, it was his double team with Joaquin that was pretty much BLOWN through by Smith and a tackle for a loss. Actually it surprised me that a solid run blocker like Tucker (who usually excels at these types of plays) was just driven back.

Later in the game, I was greatly impressed by Tucker's ability to reestablish his hands and base after being rocked in the initial pop during a play action pass. Ryan did a nice job sliding off on the backer, opening a hole, and it was Polamalu who did a nice job by flying up and stopping Suggs on a four yard gain. As I have grown to expect, there were quite a few nice crushing down blocks by Tucker. 

The one area that has always bothered me about Tucker was his pass protection and recognition. When the Steelers overloaded the right side on one occasion, Tucker recognized the blitz, slid off the wide man, and then simply whiffed on the block. Fortunately, Garcia got the ball out quickly.  Just a few plays later, Tucker was able to pick up a similar outsider linebacker blitz effectively.

Second Half:  Everyone remember that nice little polka Hoke did when he got his first career sack? It was due to Tucker's inability to get his head across when sliding down to pick up the twist blitz, allowing Hoke to spin on him, and thus a sack occurred. Very next play, Tucker had a nice pickup and recognition of a blitz.  Later on a nice run off tackle by Suggs, Tucker was driven back a yard or two by Kimo Von Whatshisname BUT was able to hold the block and thus effectively opening a lane for Suggs. In Garcia's last drive, Tucker again failed to recognize a blitz early enough.  Jeff did get whacked but was able to complete the pass.

Overall:  It is starting to become a broken record with Tucker; solid run blocker but struggles in pass protection. This game we did not see a false start out of him, so I guess that is a bonus. Tucker was the only lineman not to warrant on single positive notch in my notebook, but he also had the least amount of missed assignments. Like Verba, Tucker is a solid albeit unspectacular lineman in the NFL who can get the job done, and do not let either of them tell you otherwise. 

Grade:  90%


O-line Accessories

I am not going to point any particular player out this week, but this is an area these are certainly areas that need improvement to help our offense take the next step. I honestly do not think many realize how crucial the blocking of a back or tight end can be in a run play or a protection scheme. Like I stated, I am not going to point out any specific players this week; but I do want to touch upon one simple thing. That one thing would be that running backs absolutely HAVE to attack blitzing defenders. So many passing plays were blown up because the Browns' running back stood his ground and accepted the blow, they did not attack.  There is more I could write here, but I feel this aspect is so crucial and needs to be improved so much that it is all I am going to mention right now.


Big Ugly of the Week: None. The entire offense stunk from the QB, to the receivers, to the backs, to all of the O-line.  I will not reward a player for playing ‘not bad'.

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