The Thanksgiving game between the Ravens and 49ers could have been a preview of what Colt McCoy is in for Sunday afternoon in Cleveland Browns Stadium.
The Ravens engulfed 49ers quarterback Alex Smith by sacking him nine times. They rendered running back Frank Gore ineffective, which made it easier to tee off on Smith.
Protection for McCoy and Cleveland's run-blocking have improved recently. Among the reasons why is the improvement of rookie left guard Jason Pinkston, according to Joe Thomas, the left tackle who has lined up next to Pinkston for all 11 games this season.
McCoy was sacked only twice Sunday in the Browns' 23-20 loss to the Bengals, although he was hit another half-dozen times. The Browns' running game averaged 4.5 yards a carry.
Pinkston was a left tackle at Pitt when he was selected by the Browns in the fifth round with the 150th overall pick. The plan was 2011 would be a developmental year, but when a back injury in August knocked Eric Steinbach out for the season, coach Pat Shurmur picked Pinkston as the replacement.
"It's tough, but that's my job, and that's what they brought me in here to do," Pinkston said. "I can't look at it as, 'Ah, I didn't have time. It's OK to be behind.' I have to do the best I can and learn on the fly and play at a high level to help the guys next to me. They're ready to win now. They can't wait on me."
Fortunately for Pinkston, he is bookended by Thomas and center Alex Mack. Thomas has been to four Pro Bowls, and Mack has been to one. They have helped Pinkston learn on the job.
"Jason has played well," Thomas said. "He hasn't made any more mistakes than any of the rest of us. He works hard in practice. He's smart. He's getting better every week."
Steinbach is recovering well from the back surgery, according to his close friend, Doug Dieken, the former Browns left tackle and current analyst during radio broadcasts. Steinbach plans on resuming his career next season, Dieken said.
Don't be surprised if Pinkston ends up playing right tackle next season. Pre-draft scouting reports projected the 6-foot-4, 304-pounder as a right tackle in the NFL, but for now, Pinkston is focused on trying to keep the Ravens in check.
"This has been a great learning experience for me," Pinkston said. "I never played guard before. You don't have as much room to make a mistake on the inside. You have to be technique-sound and on point whatever you're doing."
Pinkston said the reason there is less room for error for guards is the defensive tackle or in some cases the blitzing linebacker is closer to the quarterback than the ends whom tackles are blocking. A tackle can sometimes adjust to a misstep and loop the end around the quarterback. One false step by the guard, and he's helping the quarterback off the ground.
TRENDING: Running back Peyton Hillis returned to the lineup after missing five straight games with a hamstring injury. He carried the ball 19 times and gained 65 yards.
LINEUP WATCH: Starting linebacker Scott Fujita suffered a broken right hand Sunday. He might miss the game against the Ravens.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--K Phil Dawson kicked a season-long 54-yard field goal. It was his seventh of the season of 50-plus yards.
--WR Greg Little caught five passes for 57 yards. One was a 3-yard toss from Colt McCoy for his first NFL touchdown.
--QB Colt McCoy, after completing better than 70 percent of his passes in each of the previous two games, was 16 of 34 for 151 yards. He threw two touchdown passes and was intercepted once.
--RB Montario Hardesty was a late scratch because his calf acted up. He has missed four straight games with the injury.