Week 14 O-Line Spotlight: Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns are not in last place. With a sharp fall from early season successes and a five-game losing streak, that designation now belongs to the Cincinnati Bengals. While optimistic fans will point out Cleveland’s outside chance to sneak into the playoffs, let’s just focus on the fact that they’re not in last. Tanking for a draft pick—whether purposefully or not—is no longer in the cards for this long-suffering franchise.
A litany of factors made the Browns respectable, but the most glaring dynamic is rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield. As he continues to grow, it feels as if the entire offense grows with him, which is exactly what you’re looking for from the No. 1 overall pick. Mayfield had only four incompletions on Sunday, and three of those were drops. His passer rating in the red zone is 115.1, second in the NFL behind someone many compared Mayfield to coming out of the draft—Drew Brees. A snapshot of rookies with similar production in year one puts Mayfield in rarefied air.
Baker Mayfield is 2nd in NFL history (post-merger) in yards per game as a rookie. Only four QBs have averaged over 250 yards through their first season (min. 8 starts) #Browns pic.twitter.com/HQql3dJosr
— Justin Edwards (@Justin_Redwards) December 10, 2018
The kid is doing great work out there, plain and simple. As you might guess from the title of this article, though, I’m not heaping all my praise for Cleveland on the quarterback alone. The men up front are not only creating pockets for Mayfield to work in, but maintaining blocks long enough for him to improvise both within and outside their umbrella.
The Halfway Point
The week of October 29th, 2018 was a hectic one in Cleveland. Just one day after the team managed a meager 237 yards of total offense against Pittsburgh, the organization fired both underperforming offensive coordinator Todd Haley and head coach Hue Jackson. Gregg Williams took the interim head coaching slot, and long-time tight ends, running backs, and quarterbacks coach for the Arizona Cardinals, Freddie Kitchens, took over as the new offensive coordinator. There has been nothing short of a resurgence since that date.
Over the five games since Kitchens began calling plays, Mayfield has completed 73.2 percent of his passes for 281.2 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. The offensive line has allowed only three sacks over those five games and had a stretch of three straight games without allowing a single sack, the franchise’s longest span since 1988. The interior line has continued their strong play throughout the season. Joel Bitonio’s 89.9 grade from PFF was the highest graded performance from an offensive lineman in Week 14.
A big day for Baker Mayfield sees him named to the PFF Team of the Week.
For the full team, click below:
⬇️ ⬇️ ⬇️ https://t.co/VB6nPiY6hg
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 10, 2018
On Monday, former left tackle Joe Thomas interviewed Bitonio for local radio in Cleveland. Bitonio touched on a few interesting subjects, including his nervousness about running the Jarvis Landry sweep a second time (play is here) because of how perceptive Luke Kuechly is. What really caught my ear was his praise for Kitchens. Bitonio gushed about how his new offensive coordinator came to the offensive line room to ask which five plays the linemen wanted to run that week, something that seemed foreign to Bitonio by the way he described the interaction. He also spoke at length about playing next to Greg Robinson over the last five games, a replacement at left tackle that coincided with Kitchens taking over the offense.
From the Cleveland Browns Daily podcast, here’s Bitonio’s response to Thomas asking how the play of Robinson has affected the rest of the linemen:
You can tell when guys are athletic…he’s an athletic freak. There was a reason he was a top pick. This year he got to sit back and learn the offense, since he’s been in, Freddie’s done a good job getting us some help. Sacks and those stats are not just O-line driven. You have the ball getting out on time, you have running backs, tight ends chipping, bumping, helping guys out. Slide protections; there’s all types of things that go into protecting the quarterback. The way Greg has come in and taken the position over, it’s really fun to see. He’s a really physical guy, some of those double teams and stuff, it’s fun to block with a big ol’ guy like that.
We can’t take a ton away, but that quote is about as candid as you’ll hear a player be in the middle of a season. Robinson is best known as the No. 2 overall pick by the St. Louis Rams in 2014. He flamed out quickly and has dealt with injuries through subsequent releases by the Rams and Lions. As you can tell from Bitonio’s comments and the fact that a team would take him second overall; Robinson has the size, strength, and agility an NFL team is looking for. At 6’5” and 330 pounds with a 4.92 40-yard dash, he’s the prototype.
Robinson’s problems lie in the details, typically manifested when he doesn’t get to blow off the line in run-blocking or simply absorb a bull-rushing defender in pass protection. That’s where Bitonio’s comments come into play. The Browns are using tight ends to chip on the way out or switching Bitonio off his defender and to help Robinson via double-teams. Regardless of the methods used, Cleveland has improved since Robinson filled in for Desmond Harrison when Harrison missed Week 9 with an illness. Before that, Harrison had allowed multiple hurries in every game but one and was struggling mightily in the run game.
Below are running game splits from SharpFootballStats.com. The first visual is the Browns’ running game compared to league-average success rate through the first eight weeks of the season. As you can see, they were altogether below-average, but their worst performance was on runs behind the left tackle.
The next graphic depicts their rushing success rate from Week 9 to present.
Not only has the left tackle section produced better over the last five weeks, it is now above league average.
Moving Down the Line
J.C. Tretter (also known as Rich Hribar’s very large brother) has been exceptional in his second year at center, shoring up one of the best interior lines in the league. Sadly for Tretter and anyone who owns Nick Chubb heading into the fantasy semifinals and Championships, his high ankle sprain from October is still flaring up. Tretter went to the medical tent during Sunday’s game after being rolled up on but eventually came back and finished the game. He will sit out Wednesday’s and Thursday’s practices as a precaution, and we’ll need to keep our fingers crossed he finds some relief. The depth chart behind Tretter is a ghost land.
Right guard Kevin Zeitler had an uncharacteristic stretch near the end of the game, with two offensive holds in the same series. This is his second season with the Brownies, and he’s having a career year. Cleveland locked up Zeitler through 2021 on a five-year, $60,000,000 contract when Cincinnati refused to sign the guard long-term.
Rounding out Cleveland’s Baker-protectors is undrafted free agent Chris Hubbard, who came over after four years with Pittsburgh. He has been the biggest sore spot across the line, despite some games here and there to make you reconsider Cleveland’s need for competition at the position. When he (#74) is firing off the line and getting to the second level before the linebacker can react, it’s hard to knock him.
He just doesn’t clear paths consistently enough.
Tl;dr, What About My Fantasy Team?
As long as Mayfield continues to play out of his mind, you can lock him into these final two games as your QB2, especially in his Week 16 Championship game against the Bengals. His Week 15 game in Denver is a little trickier. As the Broncos edge rushers get pressure on the young signal-caller, Cleveland’s tackles may not be good enough to contain them. If Mayfield keeps making plays with his feet and pocket awareness, however, it may not matter.
#Browns Baker Mayfield was pressured on 29.2% of dropbacks on Sunday, but it made no difference. He went 5-for-5 for 76 yds, one TD, and a perfect 158.3 passer rating when facing pressure.
— Brian Spoon (@BrianSpoon) December 11, 2018
Denver will be in the offensive backfield, but the coverage is likely to break down quickly with cornerback Chris Harris Jr. on the sideline. I trust Mayfield will make enough big plays like the one below to keep the likes of Landry, Antonio Callaway, and David Njoku in consideration for your lineups.
I mean….this is just outside structure perfection. Mayfield climbs to slide up & left after Robinson works the high side, then delivers an elite "tight window" ball to Landry. I don't know what else to say than wow. Great ball and catch. #BrownsFilmBDN pic.twitter.com/YGDFlptB9e
— BrownsFilmBreakdown (@BrownsFilmBDN) December 10, 2018
Chubb is a much bigger question mark in Mile High. Denver hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since they were gashed by the Rams in Week 6. If you have a better option, I would let Chubb sit this weekend out. He’ll be a full go next weekend when this offensive line can push around Cincinnati’s deflated defensive line.