Thomas Key to Browns Success

The Browns rookie has been a big "hit" for GM Phil Savage... the kind that helps to turn franchises around. While many top offensive tackle picks have busted, Thomas has so far been the real deal...

Rookie left tackle Joe Thomas and left guard Eric Steinbach played well as a tandem the first time the Browns played the Bengals this year, and that was just the second game of the season. They and the entire offensive line are playing even better as the Browns prepare to play the Bengals Sunday in Cincinnati.

Derek Anderson has been sacked only 11 times in 13 starts. Up until now, the fewest sacks allowed were 35 in 2002. The Browns have scored 13 rushing touchdowns -- their highest total in the expansion era.

General manager Phil Savage could have selected Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, the likely NFL Rookie of the Year, with the third overall pick. He drafted Thomas instead and would not second guess his decision.

Steinbach, the player many fans thought Butch Davis should have drafted in 2003 when Davis took Jeff Faine instead, played well for four years in Cincinnati before signing with the Browns on the first day of free agency in March. Savage knew exactly what he was getting in Steinbach.

Drafting tackles can be risky.

"Joe Thomas has been a key," Savage said recently. "He's been a lynch pin to that offensive line. He has been a key piece to that front five.

"I think Joe has played better than most people would have expected a rookie left tackle to have played. That has definitely been a boost to us, in particular, the quarterback."

In 1989 the Packers thought they got an anchor on their offensive line for the rest of the millennium when they drafted Tony Mandarich from Michigan State with the second overall pick, one choice after the Cowboys drafted Troy Aikman and one pick before the Lions drafted Barry Sanders. He lasted just three years with the Packers.

More recently, the Raiders used the second pick on Robert Gallery, Steinbach's teammate at Iowa. Gallery is still with the Raiders, but he has bounced along different positions on the line and is now playing left guard.

"I'm a different player than Robert Gallery," Thomas said at the scouting combine in February. "I'm technically sound for an offensive tackle. I have a great work ethic. I study my opponent really hard and I'm a pretty athletic offensive lineman."

Fourteen games into his pro career, Thomas is proving to be exactly what he said. The Browns are 9-5. They can clinch a playoff spot by beating the Bengals and win double-digit games for the first time since 1994.

When Savage decided the Steinbach-Thomas combination is what he wanted, he made a conscious effort to transform the offensive line from one built on big bulldozer type blockers to one quicker and more athletic, similar to what the Broncos have been doing for more than a decade.

Thomas is 6-6, 315 pounds and Steinbach is 6-6, 295 pounds. In 2004 the right guard for the first six games was 6-2, 350-pound Kelvin Garmon, who was built more like a giant pumpkin than a football player.

"Eric and I are hard workers," Thomas said. "I think we're very smart players. We understand the offense. We study our position. We have some natural ability. We communicate well and we get along well off the field. I think that translates to having good communication on the field.

"I think being good athletes, we're able to do some things typical offensive linemen might not do as well. We have good balance that enables us to recover if we do make a wrong step."

Thomas said the philosophy of offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski works best with the quick line the Browns have.

PLAYER NOTES

--CB Leigh Bodden was held from practice Thursday with a back injury. He practiced Wednesday.

--RDE Robaire Smith practiced on a limited basis Thursday. He missed practice Wednesday with a back injury.

--LB Antwan Peek practiced Thursday. It was the first time he was able to work since spraining his right ankle Dec. 9 while playing the Jets. Peek is eager to play in Cincinnati, his hometown. He said 40 friends and family members will be there to watch him play.

--DL Shaun Smith practiced on a limited basis Thursday. He missed practice with a back spasms Wednesday.

--The Browns have reworked the contract of injured center LeCharles Bentley. Bentley signed a six-year, $36 million contract in 2006. He has not played a down for the Browns because of complications from a torn patellar tendon. His new contract expires after next season.


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