First things first, I want to clear the air about a couple things that came to me as I re-watched the tape of this past weekend's game against the Raiders.
First and foremost, I feel like blasting the announcers. Yes at times our protection broke down, but early on when Couch was hit hard on clean blitzes the announcers jumped all over the Browns' O-line and the two incidents they were pointing out were NOT even our O-line's fault. The situation occurred where the Raiders overloaded one side of the line. Our linemen did their job by blocking inside out, stopping the first immediate threat, leaving the extra defender blitzing to the outside. Thus giving Couch as much time as they possibly could to throw the ball. They did their job in those instances and did not need to be reamed for doing their job correctly.
Secondly, the issue of the FO converting centers to become our guards has been a hotly debated subject. Go back and watch this game again, you'll come to the realization why this approach was taken. The guards in our blocking scheme are very active; trapping and pulling early and often. A certain amount of athleticism is needed to accomplish these types of blocks. As we'll see when I get to Zukauskas' game performance, it becomes obvious why the first choice was Fowler (though Zuk has played spectacularly in his replacement). Being able to move and be an athlete is the first priority when it comes to Butch's blocking schemes.
Before I go any further, a note on how I grade:
*My system for grading the O-line is simple, you grade it like it's a test. My contention is that everyone starts out perfect; they start with a grading of 100%. With every mistake that I see, a lineman receives a 5% deduction. I questioned myself as to whether this was too extreme, but one missed block by a lineman can screw up an entire play and usually does. No points are awarded for doing a job properly. A lineman's life is one on anonymity. They are expected to do their job and get no credit for it. Now I do reward if a particular play really strikes me, showing that the lineman is doing a great job. Thus they receive +1%. This is my system and thus how I grade the linemen*
On to the grades…
Jeff Faine, Center
Run Blocking: Early in the game Faine did not finish a block, and thus when Willie cut back the defender slipped off the block and made the play. It didn't happen twice. For the rest of the game, Faine did a great job blocking to through the whistle. There was one exception where Jeff did not have his neck bulled and lost a block because his head was down. But on Willie Green's touchdown in particular, Jeff had a great drive block on a linebacker and drove the defender back 5 yards into the end zone. Willie followed suit by running right off Faine's butt and a touchdown was a result. Making a great block on a LB also brings me to another point; Faine is by far our best blocker in space. He moves very well, and does a great job cutting off LB's and pulling on screens. One other play that I would like to point out where Jeff did a fantastic job was on the 3rd and inches QB sneak, he got a great push.
Pass Blocking: When it comes to pass blocking, Jeff is stellar. Only once did a defender come close to Couch that Faine was blocking. It came in the 3rd quarter, and there was a holding call (it was called on Zuk though). Faine lost his footing and pulled defender down with him. Now this might have been a penalty, but it is what every lineman is taught to do. So though he lost the block he still did the right thing. One thing I enjoy while watching Faine pass blocking is he continuously keeps his head on a swivel. If he's not covered, he is constantly looking to help out his teammates and usually finds someone to help. One other quick thing I would like to point out - I like Jeff's improvement when it comes to recognition. He is becoming much better at recognizing when a defender jumps off-sides and automatically snapping the ball. That gives the Browns an easy 5 yards.
Overall Grade: 87%
Paul Zukauskas, Right Guard
Run Blocking: Zuk has been a VERY pleasant surprise for me. He has stepped in and exceeded every expectation I had for him. He has become our best run blocker. He's just a natural drive blocker. With the addition of Zuk, our right side has become our dominant side. When the Browns need Willie to get some yards, they can just run behind Faine, Z, and Tucker. Zuk had at least 6 pancake blocks that I casually noticed. He was just blowing up people on downblocks! The combination of Zuk and Tucker on double teams just cave down the right side. It's a beautiful thing. Along with Faine, Zuk did a great job getting push on the 3rd and inches call.
As good a drive blocker as Zuk is, he is asked too often to pull. This brings to mind the reason Butch Davis may be so keen on converting centers to guard. Zuk struggles mightily when he's asked to block on the move. He does not possess great foot speed and thus has troubles with screens. He does a sub-par job on traps; on one I noticed he even trapped with the wrong shoulder. He's not the type of athlete that the team seems to feel is needed to fit into this offense, but he is definitely the road grader we've been missing.
Pass Blocking: Zuk is average in pass blocking—not special, but solid. He does a good job recognizing stunts and blitzes. His strength becomes apparent when a defender tries to swat his arms and can't even come close to breaking out of Zuk's grasp, hence you'll get a few holding calls. He doesn't play with a very good base though, and can be pushed back by bull rushes. Overall, he represents a much-needed improvement over Fowler, all around.
Overall Grade: 93%
Ryan Tucker, Right Tackle
Run Blocking: If you want to imagine a stereotypical RT in the NFL, Ryan Tucker should be the first to come to mind. He's great run blocker, yet struggles in pass protection. As mentioned earlier, his double-teams with Zuk were just devastating to the opposition. When coming off the double team, Ryan has some trouble picking up a scraping linebacker (an LB reading the play and moving parallel to the line of scrimmage). But when he does, watch out! On a couple of occasions, he just annihilated linebackers when coming off a double. On one occasion, Tucker even de-cleated a linebacker who was trying to fill the hole!
Pass Blocking: Tucker truly struggles in pass protection. Two things came to my attention watching as Ryan was being beat like a red-headed stepchild and Couch was paying the consequences. Tucker's footwork at times is absolutely putrid. I understand he's been beat a time or two by speed rushers, and thus I see Tucker oversetting almost all the time. This creates a natural two way go for the DE. And thus you see Tucker being beat underneath on multiple occasions. Secondly his initial punch tends to be late. This allows a defender to get into Tucker's body, negating his size, and giving them the defender control of the situation. As a result, you see Tucker being throw about and run around. Definitely need to see improvement in this area.
Overall Grade: 65%
Shaun O'Hara, Left Guard
Run Blocking: This was easily the best I have personally seen O'Hara play all year. Run blocking in particular, he wasn't being pushed around. He had good push early in the game, and added a very solid block on Green's touchdown in particular. Unlike Zuk, O'Hara does do a good job when asked to move. In particular he is a strong trapper. Though at times he looks lost in space, he does a good job while blocking on the move. Signs of improvement are coming to light.
Pass Blocking: O'Hara is still having trouble recognizing blitzes and stunts. And early on it appeared the blocking schemes dictated Faine helping O'Hara out. Later O'Hara seemed to pick up the movement better. One play in particular stuck in my mind when I think of O'Hara's pass blocking skills. On a quick set (the Morgan screen), he threw the defender into Couch! That is inexcusable. You only need to hold you're block of 3 seconds, and he felt the need to throw the defender?! Other than that, Shaun played a solid and quiet game.
Overall Grade: 87%
Barry Stokes, Left Tackle
Run Blocking: Speaking of playing a solid game without being noticed much, that's exactly my description of Stokes game. I give him much credit for playing with a high ankle sprain, which I hear is the most painful nagging injury you can get. He was thrown of a block or two, but I feel not having a good base is a direct result of the injury (giving the benefit of the doubt here)
Pass Blocking: Once again, Stokes did not maintain a solid base and was and a result gave up too much ground on a couple occasions. One in particular forcing Couch to throw a very bad ball. Also Barry on one play in particular was shown blitz by a LB, who was bluffing, and as a result Barry thought the LB was the first immediate threat and let the DE go. As a result, the DE got a clean smack on Couch and left Barry standing there looking like he didn't do a thing. Overall, Stokes has exceeded all expectations. He has been every bit as good as Verba at left tackle.
Overall Grade: 92%
Overall OL Grade
All the linemen received a +1% based solely on the 4th quarter drive where they hunkered down, took over the game, and drove the ball right down Oakland's collective throats. I also am a big fan of the attitude that has been shown by our linemen; they are tough as nails and work their butts off. As a unit, the Brown's O-line has continuously improved this season and at this point I can easily say they are better now than at any point during last season.