Quick: what was the strength of the Browns last year?
If you said offensive line, Phil Savage agrees with you. Now, what was the biggest weakness? If you said defensive line, you get a second jewel in your Browns crown.
Savage attacked that problem area in the off-season, which has been well documented. Heading up to practice last Monday night, I expected to see a good battle. I was disappointed however. It wasn't much of a ‘battle'. It was more like a one-sided thumping, and you won't believe who was on the receiving end of said thumping.
The defensive line had an easy time with their offensive counterparts. And that was sans Corey Williams, who was sitting out with muscle problems. Shaun Rogers is flat-out unblockable when he wants to be. He shoves Hank Fraley or Eric Steinbach three yards at will. He has some quickness and a touch of athleticism too. He knocked down one pass, to add to his interception last week. On the ends, Antwan Peek is giving Kevin Schaffer everything he can handle, but Thomas is just stone-walling Kamerion Wimbley. Shaun Smith just keeps getting better. His development could be the X-factor on this defense. More on that in a minute.
The feeling around press row was the same- the defensive line is ahead of the offensive line so far in camp. Now to be fair, the majority of the plays called during 11 on 11 drills are passes. In fact, the practice I saw, there were only 3 or 4 running plays called, and I believe only one was with the starting units. So that phase of the game gets an incomplete.
Wouldn't you expect the offensive line, which played together all last season to have the edge on the defensive line to this point? Particularly since several of the new pieces on the D-line are playing in a new scheme? Joe Thomas doesn't-
"Um no, that's normal for training camp. It takes a lot longer for an offensive line to pick up all the different blitzes that a def brings. Offense is just that much more complicated. They are all new together but all those guys have played for a lot of years in the NFL. This isn't their first time around the block. They all know the different defenses they play so I think they‘ve got some really good players that can gel pretty quickly."
This should be good news to Browns fans though. Assuming the O-line hasn't regressed, which it shouldn't have, this means the defensive side of the ball is catching up. At least in terms of pass rush. The strength of the offensive line is their athleticism. They are best against speed rushers and leading Jamal around the end. Steinbach and Fraley are not pro-bowl caliber against the bigger linemen. This could very well be a part of why the defense has been able to put pressure on the QB in camp.
Speaking of Rogers, the knock on him in Detroit was that he didn't give his best effort every play. He could be an all-pro for a play or two, but then he just took up space for a couple plays. I hate to admitit, but I could easily see that happening. There were two plays Monday night where the big man didn't even get set before the ball was snapped, which makes Shaun and Robaire Smith so important. If these two are able to keep Rogers rested by giving the Browns quality minutes, it could mean the difference between Rogers having a pro-bowl season and another year where questions are asked about his desire.
Another intriguing development is rookie Alex Hall. Hall figured to have a difficult time even making the roster as a 7th round draft pick, but his play has some wondering where the Browns might be able to use him. Hall had several teams contact him on draft day telling him they were very interested in signing him to an UFA deal before the Browns used their last pick on him. Strangely enough, Hall might have had an easier time making those teams. Phil Savage doesn't like to give up on his draft picks, and I have to imagine Hall will end up on the practice squad at the very least. Then again, he could be trade material if the Browns end up going after a CB.
One thing is certain, however: this line is a serious upgrade over the '07 model.
Rick Grayshock is part of the team at WaitingForNextYear.com, writing about the Browns, Indians, Cavaliers, and any other Cleveland sports subjects.