By the emails I have received and conversations I have had, and what I have seen and heard in the Cleveland media, as the Browns 2013 season opens up everyone’s eyes will be on the offense. If you follow the team online, in print, and on the radio, it sounds like everything is sitting on Brandon Weedon’s shoulders, and the group of young receivers the front office has assembled over the last few seasons.
I don’t agree with that. I have been on record that Brandon Weedon will be fine this season, but his success is not dictated entirely by himself and how he performs. That will be a part of it, but much of his success will depend on the performance of the heart of the offensive unit, and I am not talking about the ‘skilled position’ players. Brandon Weedon’s success this year will depend on the offensive linemen playing in front of him. A unit I am very high on.
There are certain things the offensive line must do for the Browns to be successful. If they accomplish what must be done, and they are quite capable of doing that, the season will be a success for everyone on the offensive side of the ball.
The first thing the offensive line must do is control the line of scrimmage in the ground game. Yes, more important than protecting the quarterback, although the two are closely related. Getting a push off the line, being physical and making rushing lanes for Trent Richardson and the other backs, must happen.
When an offensive line is dominating a defense to the point where backs are getting at least four yards a carry causes so many problems for a defense. First, it will usually cause a defense to get away from its game plan. No matter what a team practiced that week, in-game adjustments must be made to stop the run. An attacking 3-4 team like the Browns would settle into a more gap conscious defense. Most defensive coaches know they can’t win the game if their defenses do not dominate the line of scrimmage.
But the most important thing that happens to a defense when an offense is running the ball successfully is that the safeties have to come up and make tackles. When the safeties are needed to stop the run, the passing game opens up. Remember in the pro game, which is a terrific game that fills stadiums and glues us to our seats every Sunday, offenses attack the whole field and the defenses have to defend it. When safeties have to start cheating up because running backs are coming through the line of scrimmage untouched, that is a huge advantage for the offense and their passing game. The defensive backs in the NFL are arguably the best athletes in sports, but they are not Supermen. They can’t consistently come up and force the run then get back and cover their zones or man up on a receiver.
The next most important responsibility of the offensive line is, of course, protecting the quarterback when he is passing. Brandon Weedon is a traditional pro drop back passer, similar to Peyton or Eli Manning, Aaron Rogers, and Tom Brady. Successful pro quarterbacks are drop back quarterbacks. Michael Vick, Vince Young, etc., and other running quarterbacks in the NFL, don’t win championships. That is why the Browns are better off with Brandon Weedon than RGIII. I know RGIII is one of the darlings of the NFL right now, but he is also damaged goods, and it is uncertain if he will be able to go when the season starts. If he continues to be a running quarterback that is how his career will go, battling one injury after another.
With Weedon being a traditional drop back quarterback; both the pass blockers and the pass rushers know where he is going to set up. This can be both a plus and minus for the offensive line. Most offensive linemen prefer this. They know where their quarterback is, they can see the pass rush unfolding in front of them, and they can make the proper adjustments. The defensive linemen know where the quarterback is too, but they still have to get to him.
In most pass blocking schemes, the offensive line gets help from either a running back or tight end, depending on the offensive formation. The offensive line also gets help from the quarterback. In the pro game quarterbacks are taught that they are responsible for avoiding the first rusher that gets through, whether it’s a blitz guy or a lineman who has broken free. That is why the ability to step up into the pocket is so important.
At times last year Brandon Weedon and the offensive line meshed together well. This year all of the regulars are back, and in an offensive system better suited to Weedon’s skills. He will be in a shotgun formation more often, especially in obvious passing situations. He will be throwing more downfield, and that will take advantage of his strong passing arm. And he will be protected by a group of skilled offensive linemen, together as a group for the second year in a row, whom are all coming into the best years of his career. Joe Thomas seems to have played for the Browns forever, but is only 28 years old and entering his seventh season. He has been a Pro Bowler since his rookie year. Center Alex Mack is entering his fifth season and is 27; right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is only 24 and entering his second season; guards Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao or both only 25; and guard John Greco is the old man of the crew at 28 and entering his sixth season. All are proven NFL linemen. There is not a team in the NFL that has this many quality, young, veteran offensive linemen.
The Browns are lucky that through three different regimes, adding quality players to the offensive line has been a priority. Three of the starters are first round draft picks; two of the three returning guards were high draft picks. This unit should be entering the prime of their careers, both individually and together, and the improvement in the team should start with them. The media this year will be all about Weedon, Gordon, Richardson, and all the other skilled players, because that is who makes all the highlight plays and scores points, both real points and fantasy points. But real football people know, any and all success the Browns offense has this year starts and ends with the big guys up front.
(Greg Cielec has sixteen years experience coaching football on the college level, and is a lifelong Browns fan who has been a member of the Dawg Pound since the 1980’s. He can be reached at email@example.com. Check him out at www.gregcielec.com.)