There are probably more sensational stories to be told regarding the 2010 Browns than the play of a second-year linebacker. After all, with a disappointing season drawing to a close and the prospects of yet another offseason coaching upheaval swirling among the ranks of the Cleveland media, the strides that Marcus Benard has made in 2010 can be easily overlooked.
However, in a manner befitting his quiet off-field demeanor, Benard has turned in an understated, but solid performance in 2010.
Benard has registered 7.5 sacks on the season, which leads a team whose overall pass rush performance has declined – at least compared to 2009. Along the way, Benard has shown some amazing perseverance. Earlier in the season, Benard collapsed in the Browns' locker room, which he attributed to stress relating to the early birth of his son. However, Benard quickly rebounded and has easily been the team's best pass rusher throughout the season.
While his overall numbers may not resemble those of a Pro Bowler, it's worth noting that Benard has now collected 11.5 sacks over his 17 game NFL career. Perhaps even more impressive is the idea that Benard is essentially a part-time player on Rob Ryan's defense.
Evidence of this was found against Baltimore, where Benard only played about a dozen defensive snaps, yet still came close to impacting the overall game.
Playing primarily on third downs, Benard nearly collected another 3-4 sacks on the afternoon. Of course, the NFL truly being a game of inches, Benard's best efforts were not rewarded.
When I asked Benard how many sacks he almost had, he replied with a sheepish grin, "a lot of them."
And so it goes with NFL pass rushers.
"But that's my job – to get to the quarterback. I wish I could have recorded some and brought him (Baltimore's Joe Flacco) down, but he's a tough quarterback, a strong quarterback – but I definitely got to him a few times."
As for the plays in which Benard came close, the results could have easily been different.
Early in the second quarter, Benard was lined up as part of a three-man rush line, with Jason Trusnik and David Bowens. Benard flashed off the line and worked to the outside of Baltimore's Michael Oher. Oher couldn't contain Benard's quick burst and swim move, which nearly resulted in a sack of Flacco. However, Benard missed by a fraction of a second and Flacco completed the first of his two touchdowns on the afternoon.
Later in the quarter, Benard was lined up as a right outside linebacker in a modified 3-4 look. Benard slid over to cover Baltimore's slot receiver, then charged inside against Oher with a nice bull rush. Benard cleanly beat Oher inside, but was taken out of the play – a designed flea flicker that resulted in an incompletion.
Benard's flexibility as a pass rusher was on display here, as he showed some nice strength in pushing the mammoth Oher inside.
As for his arsenal of pass rushing moves, Benard offered the following.
"Hopefully, I'm not defined by one move. A lot of guys have a move, but I try to utilize all of it – keep my pass rushing versatile."
In the second half, Benard again beat Oher with an outside rush and managed to get to Flacco, but couldn't pull him down for the sack. Flacco escaped the pocket and ran for 13 yards, which set up a Baltimore touchdown on the next play.
Finally, Benard again came close early in the fourth quarter, as he dropped into coverage, then charged to the outside of Oher, before cutting across the field to chase a scrambling Flacco. Benard lost his footing across the field, but helped to pin Flacco along the sidelines, resulting in a Joe Haden sack.
While his stat line merely shows a half-tackle for his efforts on Sunday, Benard's play clearly showed the improvements he has made in 2010 – and throughout his very brief NFL career.
"I'm progressing," Benard said after the game. "I can always get better. I feel better this year than I did last year when I was a rookie. Things are still moving fast for me even now, but I'm a little more comfortable and I'm learning every game."
Even though there was a small sample of Benard's performance to analyze, it's obvious that the second-year linebacker is becoming more of a student of the game. Benard admitted that the most important part of his weekly preparation was trying to break down an opposing lineman's tendencies.
"I look at a lot of different things," Benard said. "First, I look at what the set is. How does he set? Is he a deep setter? Is he a lunger? Does he shoot his hands? Is he a brawler? Does he try to maul you? You know, there a lot of details when you try to break down a tackle. And Oher is a good, young tackle."
Beyond being a "good, young tackle", Oher is receiving some Pro Bowl consideration for his play in 2010. A physical and very strong left tackle, Benard attacked Oher's deep set, engaged with his hands and was able to get both an inside and outside push. Benard's initial quick burst helped to neutralize Oher's size and strength advantage and nearly led to some game-changing plays.
And with the Steelers' injury-ravaged offensive line coming to town next Sunday, it's possible that Benard's hard work will finally be rewarded.