BEREA—The Browns stated goal coming into the 2015 season was to be able to run the ball and control the clock.
Through seven games, the Browns are 28th in the NFL in rushing, averaging just 90.4 yards per game.
The Browns have made up for their lack of running the ball by surprisingly successfully moving the ball through the air, passing for 273.7 yards a game (8th in the NFL).
The Browns have made a concerted effort to build a dominant offensive line with three first-round draft choices among the top six players and two high-round second-round draft picks. The Browns have allocated much of their resources to the line.
The question is it paying off?
Mike Pettine was asked how the line is playing as a group.
“I would say if you asked all of them, it would be inconsistent,” Pettine said. “I think at times they have played extremely well and then other times have not and have left some plays out there and missed some opportunities. That is a tough-minded group, a competitive group. If they have a performance you would consider sub-par, then A) they will the first to tell you and B) they will be very much looking forward to getting back out there to bounce back from it.”
On paper, the Browns would seem to have a very good, if not dominant offensive line with the cast of characters.
—Left tackle Joe Thomas was the third overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft and has made the Pro Bowl in all eight of his NFL seasons. Only Jim Brown and Lou Groza have been to more Pro Bowls in team history.
—Center Alex Mack was a first-round pick by the Browns in 2009. He has been to the Pro Bowl twice and had not missed a snap in his career until he broke his leg in the sixth game of the 2014 season.
—Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz was drafted at the top of the second-round of the 2012 NFL Draft (37th overall). Schwartz made the All-Rookie team in 2012 and has not missed a snap in his career. Pro Football Focus recently named him the top right tackle in the league.
—Left guard Joel Bitonio was selected in the second-round (35th overall) in the 2014 NFL Draft and has played every offensive snap since joining the Browns. He was named to the Pro Football Writers Association All-AFC team and the PFWA All-Rookie team last year. He has been continually praised by the coaching staff for his play this season.
—Right guard John Greco is the only starter that wasn’t drafted by the Browns. He’s in his eighth year and has started 47 games for Browns since 2012, including all seven this year. Greco has been able to hold off the starting job over first-round draft pick Cameron Erving.
—Erving was the 19th overall pick by the Browns this year. He has played in every game, but has not cracked the lineup to start a game.
The line allowed the Rams last week to sack Josh McCown four times and he was hurried or knocked down at least seven other occasions.
“I think all of us could probably say on the O-line that we had one or two that we’d want back that were pretty ugly for us,” Bitonio said. “It was kind of a perfect storm in that sense. Usually, if you make one mistake, somebody can cover it up if everybody else is playing their best. We just all weren’t at our best (last week). They beat us up front. Wasn’t good enough to win, and we got Josh hit too much.”
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians praised the Browns offensive line.
“I think you start with the best left tackle in the game and then you work from there, and you have one of the best centers,” Arians said in a conference call this week. “Each week, it looks like they get better. I think for the quarterback, it’s gelling with receivers and a running game. You have to have a running game.”
If the line is not the problem, does the responsibility fall on the running backs. As a group, the backs are averaging just 3.6 yards a carry. Robert Turbin is averaging 3.6, Isaiah Crowell 3.5 and Duke Johnson is at 3.2 yards per carry.
“The run game has been inconsistent and some of that is on the running backs,” Pettine said. “The run game just doesn’t fall on the running backs. It’s on the group.”
Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said the blame goes all the way around.
“We need to be more consistent running the football,” DeFilippo said. “It falls on everybody. It falls on me, the backs and the line. We need to be more consistent and were working to fix that.”
Last year, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan employed a zone blocking scheme and the Browns were averaging over 140 yards a game until Mack broken his leg. Pettine said that the Browns are still using the zone scheme with some minor changes.
"We’ve changed our emphasis a little bit, been a little bit outside zone and gotten into some others, whether it’s inside schemes, a little bit more downhill, and there’s a learning curve with that."
However, Pettine said the offense hasn’t radically departed from the wide zone scheme.
He said the plays are similar to what was used in the past.
“It's not been a radical departure,” Pettine said. “It’s been much more subtle.”
The Browns task this week won’t be any easier. The Cardinals are seventh in the NFL against the rush, averaging allowing 97.4 yards a game.
Bitonio thinks the line is still getting better, even in the loss to the Rams.
“I think we’re growing every week, but I think we’re fine in-sync wise,” Bitonio said. “I think it was just one of those days where everybody had a mistake or two. It piled up. It was the perfect storm. Penalties really hurt us. I thought we were moving the ball actually OK. Looking at the film, we had some really good plays that were called back because of penalties and then some costly turnovers on offense. You’re not going to win very many games if you turn the ball over four times, regardless of what happens.”
McCown Limited: After sitting out Wednesday, QB Josh McCown had limited practice participation on Thursday. McCown was throwing lightly during the portion open to the media to QB Johnny Manziel.
“He’ll do some limited work and see how it goes,” Pettine said.
“We’re going to see how he looks at practice (Thursday),” DeFilippo said.
Manziel took the reps with the first team on Thursday in McCown’s absence.
McCown said missing practice Wednesday he was going to throw some and test the shoulder. Pettine confirmed that he did.
If McCown is able to continue progressing, he will likely play against the Cardinals.
Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said he’s confident if Manziel is called upon that he will be ready to go.
“Johnny hadn’t missed a beat when he went in.” DeFilippo said.
Injury Updates:WR Andrew Hawkins (concussion) Thursday as did DB Jordan Poyer (shoulder). McCown (right shoulder, ribs) was limited as were DB Tashaun Gipson (ankle), DB Joe Haden (concussion/finger) and LB Craig Robertson (ankle). TE Rob Housler (hamstring) was on the stationary bike.
Pettine sounded as though he expects Haden, Gipson and Robertson to play this week.
“Looking forward to getting all three of those guys back,” Pettine said.
Duke Back: RB Duke Johnson was back at practice Thursday after being excused for “personal reasons” on Wednesday.
Unsung Guy: One of the players expected back this week is LB Craig Robertson. He doesn’t have the Pro Bowl pedigree that the other two expected returners on defense, Haden and Gipson have.
“You start with the football piece of it,” Pettine said. “Craig was playing at a high level. There’s also a ripple effect with the special teams.”
Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil is looking forward to having Robertson back in the lineup.
“Craig is one of our best linebackers in stopping the run.”
Tough Task: Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said the Cardinals present a difficult challenge this week.
“Probably the most complete offense we’ve played this year,” O’Neil said.
The Cardinals are currently the fourth-ranked offense in the NFL.
Bowe Update: Every week, DeFilippo is asked if WR Dwayne Bowe would be involved in the week’s plans. With WR Andrew Hawkins in the concussion protocol, Bowe has a chance to be active.
“That’s a possibility,” DeFilippo said. “I let coach (Pettine) handle the inactives. We have a plan for Hawk being up and Hawk being down.”
If Bowe plays, DeFilippo was asked what he expected from him.
“Expect him to get in there and play at a high level.”
Orange Out: The Browns announced that they will wear their alternate orange jerseys for Sunday’s game with the Cardinals. The Browns haven’t worn the orange jerseys since the 2004 season.