There are two things we know about Browns left tackle Joe Thomas. First, he has been one of the best players at his position since Cleveland selected him with the third overall pick in the 2007 draft. In his rookie season, Thomas helped the Browns shoot from an Adjusted Line Yards total of 0.00 yards per carry around left end (shades of Bluto Blutarsky's GPA at Faber) in 2006 to 6.03 ALY to the same area in his initial campaign. Second, he has showed amazing pass protection technique from the very start, surrendering just one blown block that season, according to Football Outsiders game charting data. He's maintained that pace through his NFL career, and he deserves his standing as one of the most highly-regarded tackles in the game.
That said … the other thing we know about Thomas is that he is just as prone to lapses in play as any other great player. This happened in 2008, when he was called for seven penalties and racked 5.5 blown blocks, though he rebounded to surrender just 1.5 in 2009. And in Cleveland's 20-10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday, Thomas got completely schooled by veteran end John Abraham, giving up two sacks, three tackles for loss, and three quarterback hits.
Were these technique flaws on Thomas' part, or signs that Abraham was just the superior player?
The first sack came with 6:48 left in the first quarter, and the Browns has first-and-10 at their own 29-yard line. The Browns started off in an offset-I, with Jerome Harrison motioning out wide right pre-snap. Atlanta lined up in a 5-2 front with tight coverage, and Abraham playing the ROLB role. At the snap, he did a spectacular job of engaging Thomas and getting his hands inside Thomas' arms. That gave Abraham the leverage advantage, so that when Thomas started his turn to block Abraham out of the play, Abraham was instead able to bull Thomas out of power stance. Seneca Wallace moved up in the pocket, but Abraham turned on the jets and laughed off Thomas' attempt at an armbar. Thomas shouldn't let himself get overwhelmed like that, but I'd chalk that one up to Abraham's amazing strength and speed combo more than anything else.
Sack No. 2 came with 44 seconds left in the first half, with second-and-10 at the Atlanta 47. This was a shotgun set with three wide against Atlanta's 4-2 nickel defense. Abraham lined up in a wide nine-tech look (something that Kyle Vanden Bosch has popularized over the last few years – basically, the end is lined up as much as a yard off the edge of the left tackle). This positioning gave Abraham the speed advantage, and it showed as he shot off the line at the snap. I'd put this one on Thomas to a degree, because he came up late off his stance, and you simply can't do that against a guy this quick – by the time Thomas had his hands up, Abraham was already low, at full speed, and turning the corner. Thomas never had a chance. This was especially vexing because Thomas was in a two-point stance, which is a technique used precisely to counteract speed ends – the idea being that it takes less time to come up off the snap.
Then, there was Kroy Biermann's ridiculous play with 4:14 left in the game. It was the killer for the Browns, and Browns fans will have to suffer through seeing it on highlight films for a good long time. The pressure from Abraham predicated the mistake by Jake Delhomme. The Browns had third-and-7 at their own 47, lining up in another shotgun, three-wide. The Falcons looked to be sending an A-gap blitz, which seemed to royally confuse Cleveland's protection scheme. This time, Biermann was outside Abraham on the right-side defensive line, and as the tight end released into a route, Biermann came through unblocked as Thomas stayed home to block Abraham. From there, we all know how the debacle unfolded – Biermann tipped the Delhomme pass, made a great athletic play to come down with the ball, and rumbled into the end zone.
Thomas has been getting heat for that one, but unless he was making the line calls, I don't think he was really at fault. The tight end should have been directed to stay and block, or the fullback directed to alter his protection. Letting an edge defender blast through unblocked like that is simply unacceptable under any circumstances.
Whatever downside there may be to Joe Thomas' 2010 season, I think the three plays that exposed him against the Falcons are probably a pretty good indicator of where the fault actually lies. In this case, one play was a matter of the opponent simply being better. The second was poor technique on Thomas' part. And the third had as much to do with a bad line call as anything.
That's the difficulty with watching offensive linemen – unless you know what was supposed to happen, it's hard to know what actually happened.