It was a bit too easy to isolate the scapegoats of the Browns' dismal effort against the Titans on Sunday. The heels of Scott Fujita's leaden feet, Usama Young's celebration of geometric indifference or Pat Shurmur's postmodern third down play calling efforts could all be considered as ideal candidates for scorn heading into a tortuously reflective bye week.
However, when things go awry to the extent of a painfully humbling 31-13 loss, the first place to look is often the most obvious.
And since Colt McCoy attempted an astounding 61 passes on Sunday, it's worth suggesting that the Browns' offensive line was a bit exposed.
But before we dig into the O-line's overall performance, let's at least acknowledge a bit of good news.
Out of those 61 pass attempts – which could comprise three normal Browns games –the offensive line only gave up 4 sacks.
Not reassuring? How about this instead?
With the long awaited return to Tony Pashos to the starting lineup, the Browns have momentarily solved their decade-long revolving door at right tackle.
Of course, in a painful coincidence known exclusively to Browns fans, Pashos' return occurred just as rookie Jason Pinkston and second-year guard Shawn Lauvao suffered mini-meltdowns against the Titans' talented defensive tackles.
Pinkston began Sunday's game much in the same manner demonstrated during his first three NFL starts. A few solid plays are often sandwiched between ones in which Pinkston isn't able to set his feet and grab upper body position on a defender. Early on against Tennessee, Pinkston struggled in run blocking – highlighted by an embarrassing display that saw the rookie crash into a Titan defender and crumple awkwardly to the turf. Yet to Pinkston's credit, the young guard later recovered to provide help against a third-down stunt.
Throughout most of the game, both Pinkston and Lauvao appeared more effective when blocking on the move. During the drives in which Montario Hardesty was the Browns' featured runner, Lauvao was able to work his way behind center Alex Mack and pop in behind Pashos. For the most part, both players were able to gain some leverage while on the run, as opposed to more straight-line blocking.
Yet it was this point in Sunday's game that revealed the state of the Browns' offensive line and helped to cement the idea that the guard positions are clearly weak links. Even on downs in which the Titans rushed four, Pinkston was either helped out by Mack or squeezed inside as an interior blocking collective with Lauvao.
And when both players were left alone – bad things happened.
On the final of a seemingly endless parade of pseudo-promising first half drives against Tennessee, the Browns found themselves at midfield – facing at the time a not so daunting 8-point deficit.
However, on a first down pass play, Lauvao was beaten by Tennessee's Jason Jones straight off the line – leading to McCoy stepping up into the pocket and into a waiting sack. On the play, Jones ran a stunt – circling right – which caught Lauvao by surprise. Lauvao had no chance to turn his body into Jones, which resulted his flailing to the field while the Titan lineman advanced into the Browns' backfield.
Two plays later, the Browns punted and a permanent shift of momentum occurred as the Titans scored again to close out the half.
In his defense, Lauvao's blunder was nowhere near as damaging as the one that Pinkston exhibited in the second half.
With the Browns trying to salvage some pride in the third quarter, Pinkston was badly beaten inside by former Romeo Crennel favorite Shaun Smith. Smith – seemingly savoring the opportunity to gain revenge on his former team – easily pushed aside Pinkston and chased McCoy into the right flank. McCoy took a hard shot to his lower body as he released the ball – which was intercepted and returned for a soul-crushing touchdown by Tennessee's Jordan Babineaux.
Yet, for all the negative analysis of the Browns' youngest offensive line members, the veterans also deserve the searing heat of a critical spotlight.
On a series that would have made Eric Mangini's head explode, the best Browns' linemen all contributed to the derailment of a positive drive.
One play after Mack and McCoy fumbled a routine snap, the Browns' offensive line appeared to be stuck in some kind of strange football vortex. Perhaps still trying to figure out what happened on the previous play – or not anticipating the start of the next one – both Joe Thomas and Pashos each missed the snap of the ball.
Pashos was able to get a hand on his defender, while only Lauvao cleanly blocked a Titan lineman. Thomas was completely out of the play, while Mack and Pinkston simply didn't have anyone to block, considering that the Titans only rushed four. Montario Hardesty – who despite dropping an endless array of balls, was solid in blitz pickup – was able to gave McCoy just enough time to step up into the pocket – and into another sack.
Unfortunately, the Titan game was a bit of understated Murphy's Law for the Browns. While the offense struggled, it did enough to move the ball into several prime first half scoring opportunities. However, it was during these times that the Browns' line crumbled around McCoy and a shrinking field of receivers.
In the end, the blame for such disappointment fell on the backs of the Browns' principle characters. The head coach who doubles as a play caller and the Team President's hand-chosen quarterback are as easy of targets as anyone. Yet, throw in McCoy's nervous feet, Hardesty's wooden hands and the inability of any Browns' receiver to get open outside of a given set of hashmarks – and the reasons for an upstart 2-1 team suddenly falling to a more natural 2-2 are obvious.
Much in the way that overall Browns' progress still has to be measured by Fujita desperately chugging after a tight end with modest speed, it's obvious that playing two rookie guards (in the literal and virtual senses) is a recipe for occasional disaster. And even Pro Bowl talent occasionally suffers some missteps.
Especially when a quarterback throws 61 passes.