By now, we all know that the Browns' most recent defeat to the Baltimore Ravens was the result of a triumvirate of talent, turnovers and time of possession, with a few trick plays tossed in. While the gap between the playoff-bound Ravens' level of talent and the still-rebuilding Browns was at times immense, the effort shown on Sunday speaks to a team that is still fighting to somehow salvage another losing season.
Perhaps no better example of this effort could be found than along the Browns' offensive line.
Facing one of the league's best defensive front sevens, the Browns' line managed to turn in a quietly solid performance – one that was predicated on the kind of effort that is characteristic of an Eric Mangini-coached team.
"I thought guys fought hard," right tackle John St. Clair said. "We're prideful guys – a prideful unit. Guys went out and fought hard. One thing, you have to take your hat off to that for the effort. I think we can get better."
Although the play of the offensive line was lost within the context of a turnover-plagued 20-10 defeat, the running game managed to squeak out 100 yards of production, while quarterback Colt McCoy remained upright throughout the afternoon.
Along the way, some of the Browns' offensive linemen delivered some highlight-worthy blocks….or in the case of beleaguered right tackle St. Clair, at least managed to hang on.
Upon closer inspection, the offensive line was helped early by a series of quick three-step drops by McCoy. Throughout most of the first half, the Browns' coaching staff called several quick reads, which helped the offensive line tremendously against an athletic Ravens' front seven. This strategy helped alleviate the kinds of one on one matchups between the Browns' tackles and Ravens' premier pass rushers Terrell Suggs and Jarrett Johnson.
Speaking of the tackles, the Browns' lone 2010 Pro Bowl representative Joe Thomas again showed why he is deserving of such an honor. Although never dominating, Thomas handled Suggs on a few first half plays, before playing against Johnson for the remainder of the game. Thomas consistently maintained a quick drop step and created a wide base to contain both of the Ravens' outside linebackers. In terms of the Browns' running game, Thomas showed some nice mobility and easily made it to the second level of the Ravens' defense on a few occasions.
"I thought we did a pretty decent job, holding up in protection and giving them time," Thomas said. "Giving the running backs some room – giving them a clean line of scrimmage to make their cuts."
And since we're operating in a complimentary manner, some credit has to be given to veteran right tackle John St. Clair. While certainly more of a gap-filler – at least if 24 starts over the past two years suggests such a thing – than a long-term solution, St. Clair managed to reach into his bag of veteran experience throughout the afternoon.
Late in the first quarter, St. Clair was badly beaten by the Ravens' Cory Redding, which resulted in a one-yard gain for Browns' back Mike Bell. On the play, Redding simply established position on St. Clair's right shoulder and then drove the veteran lineman aside. However, St. Clair managed to recover from the play and did a nice job on Redding throughout the rest of the game, culminating in a crushing second-half block that sprung Bell for a nine-yard gain.
As for St. Clair's Achilles Heel of pass protection, we again have to rely on the stat sheet. The numbers definitively state that the Browns did not allow a sack on the afternoon. Looking behind that positive stat, however, yields a less-appealing story.
First, it was obvious throughout the afternoon that McCoy had to rely on his scrambling ability to make plays. In this sense, St. Clair helped to create a wide pocket for McCoy – one that the rookie quarterback often slipped through to extend plays. On these occasions, St. Clair managed to stay in front of either Suggs or Johnson.
However, as the game wore on, it was becoming clear that St. Clair began to get a bit tired and had to resort to what can be only be euphemistically referred to as some "veteran resourcefulness".
Or in other words, St. Clair began holding.
The best example of this technique came one play after Brian Robiskie's nullified downfield reception. Matched up against Johnson, St. Clair was cleanly beaten to his outside and couldn't recover in time. One hog tie later and the Browns were facing a less than manageable 3rd and 27.
Of course, St. Clair's skill set is not conducive to pass protecting against the likes of the Ravens' athletic outside linebackers. To this point, the Browns employed some double tight-end sets throughout the afternoon, mostly in an attempt to slow the Ravens' pass rush. The likes of Ben Watson and Alex Smith turned in a solid performance, which lessened the burden on the offensive line. Smith in particular, combined with fullback Lawrence Vickers to handle the Ravens' Terrell Suggs on a couple of third downs.
As for the rest of offensive line, center Alex Mack turned in yet another solid performance, as at times he dominated the Ravens' Kelly Gregg. On more than a few occasions, Mack had his way with Gregg and managed to get to the second level of the Ravens' defense.
The same could be said for veteran guard Eric Steinbach, who played perhaps his most aggressive game of the season. Steinbach was helped throughout the game by Thomas, but managed a highlight reel block on Ravens' All-Pro Halota Ngata late in the first quarter. On this play, Steinbach simply got some leverage on Ngata and drove the mammoth defensive tackle into the turf.
But in the end, the Browns' offensive line couldn't do enough to help sustain any long drives. Of course, the offense's four turnovers helped to short circuit the overall team effort on the afternoon. Also, while the Browns' line managed to maintain their blocks for most of the game, the Ravens loaded up the box and seemingly always had an extra linebacker or safety waiting at the second level to make a play.
And based on what we have seen throughout the season, effort can only take this Browns' team so far.