On the Line: Game 2

On Monday night, the Browns first teams lost in the trenches. But what really happened? Brent Sobleski looks at the play of each offensive and defensive lineman, offering his takes on what they did well, and where they struggled.

The Cleveland Browns 2008 primetime debyt resulted in one giant laid egg. Clearly, the team was manhandled in the trenches by the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants.

Funny thing about line play, especially along the offensive front; if one piece of the unit does not perform his function properly, everything else is shot. This was often the case as to why the first unit did so poorly in their endeavors. Also, do not overlook the missteps of other positions associated with blocking schemes. Four of the quarterback pressures are directly attributable to either the running backs or tight ends on the field.

It was not until the teams' second units were in full force that the Browns' fortunes began to turn somewhat. The second units, especially the defensive line, really stepped up their play from a week previous. As to how each individual performed…

Defensive Line

Louis Leonard – An undisclosed injury prevented the improving defensive lineman from participating.

Christian Mohr – The German national actually saw some time on the playing field this week. In his lone series, the developmental defensive end did a nice job on one play in particular. Mohr was able to use his hands properly, give ground to a cut block, maintain his feet, work his way down the line of scrimmage, and make a solo tackle. Doubt it was enough to warrant more playing time in the near future.

Chase Pittman – Should be awarded as the team's "most improved" from week one of the preseason through week two. Pittman was as solid as they come against the run. Certainly appearing much stronger at the point of attack, the Giants' second offensive line unit could not budge the end when running right at him. This week the defensive end was also much quicker off the snap and was genuinely attempting to work his way up field while throwing off blockers. Still, there are some areas which can be improved. For example, when a defensive end comes unblocked, they are generally expected to make the tackle for a loss, especially when the running back is coming right at said defender. As Pittman wore down in the fourth quarter, this is something he seemed to have forgotten. Also a complete lack of pass rush still persists. No counters in his pass rush moves appeared from the young end. One area which will drive the coaching staff crazy is Pittman's efforts from the backside of a play. On one particular instance, the defensive end was cut off backside easily. On another, he completely gave up on his pursuit angle to the running back. Pittman was much improved in his play overall, but still has plenty of room to grow into a potential contributor to the Browns defensive squad.

Melila Purcell – The Hawaiian's learning curve is working its way through stages. Early in camp, the defensive end was not doing much at all correctly. Last week, he appeared to give good effort in a lost cause. Against the New York Giants, Purcell was very active especially moving laterally against the run, while maintaining the line of scrimmage, standing up offensive linemen, and getting under their pads. Overall, the young defender was much stronger at the point of attack. While Purcell continuously achieved extension to control his particular blocker, his overall two arm shiver is not the most devastating. He really needs to deliver a blow at times, and his efforts would become all that more effective. Like his fellow draft class mate, Chase Pittman, Purcell also needs to refine his pass rush skills. The difference between the two in this game was Purcell continued to work his way up field trying to get in passing lanes. During backside pursuit, the defensive end must read his correct keys, must not get hooked, and needs to clean off the offensive lineman's hands with a proper rip technique. Like each and every defensive linemen on the second unit who participated in the Giants exhibition, Purcell stepped up his game. Now the learning curve must continue to swing upward.

Shaun Rogers – The nose tackle sat out of this game due to a sore knee.

Ahtyba Rubin – Rumblings arose during the most recent week of training camp, indicating that the neophyte nose tackle was slowly starting to turn the corner. There was certainly an upswing in his play on this particular day. After being tossed around by the Jets' backups, Rubin finally consistently came off the ball low and hard. He used his hands much better, getting good extension, and generally played with a very nice overall pad level. One area which is constant is the Iowa St. product's inability to reestablish the line of scrimmage while being moved laterally. Too often he gives ground instead of working against the pressure and playing in the opponent's backfield. Being moved or even stalemated during a zone blocking attack is a win/win for the offensive linemen. As a nose tackle, Rubin will rarely be asked to pressure the quarterback which is a plus since he has not shown the ability to collapse the pocket. Lastly, the interior defender has to work better through trash, ripping through blocks, and not being caught up in everything around his feet. Seen as a complete project just a week ago, Rubin still has a shot of making the Browns' final roster.

Brian Schaefering – Limiting playing time hindered the progress of this undrafted free agent. Schaefering saw a handful of repetitions at both nose tackle and defensive end against the Giants due to a lack of overall depth. His initial play on the field was in a short yardage situation where the end was able to blow up the run by submarining into the offensive lineman and disrupting the entire blocking scheme. Even at a mere 295 pounds, it was apparent the Giants second string offensive line had trouble moving Schaefering when lined up as a zero technique. The newly minted professional football player continues to work hard, and comes off the line of scrimmage with some authority, but has trouble shedding and reading blocks.

Robaire Smith – As the game had progressed, the play of this particular Smith continued to improve. Initially, the experienced defensive lineman was playing too high, was being pushed around when moved laterally, gave up his chest to offensive linemen, lacked a recognizable pass rush, and had trouble shedding blocks. Later, Smith was very active, much quicker off the snap, getting nice extension, continued working his way up field toward the quarterback, and showed good recognition while making a tackle or two. This is merely a small preseason sampling, but a more consistent effort by the end would certainly set one's addled mind at ease.

Shaun Smith – Filling in for the injured Shaun Rogers, the middle of the defensive line was noticeably softer with Smith starting at nose tackle. Shaun O'Hara was once considered a castoff on bad Cleveland Browns offensive lines. The Giants' pivot has since gone on to become one of the better centers in the league and handled Smith quite easily. Only on three occasions did the Giants feel the need to double or chip the fill-in nose tackle. That simply is not getting the job done at the most crucial position in the 34 defense. When asked to move laterally and make plays, Smith was noticeably driven back into his linebackers. He still has not shown any type of pass rush. His one redeeming quality, at least in this particular game, was his relentless motor to get to the ball. All and all, not a promising effort in regards to a player who will be asked to perform at a high level this year for the Cleveland Browns.

Corey Williams – The transition to the Browns' defensive scheme has been a slow one for the defensive end. While Williams did demand the most double teams by Giant linemen along the starting defensive unit, he really struggled getting off of blocks. To date his hand play has been subpar at best. It simply appears as if Williams is unsure of his responsibilities and has yet felt comfortable enough to be aggressive in his overall play. The defensive lineman who registered multiple sacks over the past two seasons has yet to appear in a Browns uniform.

Offensive Line

Nate Bennett – Each and every day, the young guard quietly and effectively goes about his business. Against the New York Giants, Bennett had a second solid preseason effort. His punch is always impressive. The former Clemson Tiger has very strong hands and obviously likes to deliver a nasty blow. It is not always one or done either, Bennett has displayed an aptitude for reestablishing his hands effectively. His overall lateral movement did look questionable, but when asked to move in space it was not awkward by any means. The interior blocker did have some trouble picking up the various Giant defensive line stunts as the game commenced. The questions become, "Does Nate Bennett fit into the Browns' system? And if he does, where does he fit?" Currently, the guard looks to be more of an in-the-box drive blocker on the outside of the roster bubble looking in.

Hank Fraley – Certainly, the game against the Giants was one Hank Fraley would like the fans to forget. The center was simply overpowered at the point of attack on numerous occasions. On the play which resulted in quarterback Derek Anderson's concussion, Fraley was slow reacting to a stunt and missed the block. Mentioning his positives seems somewhat remiss, but the pivot did work his way to the second level nicely and continued throwing blocks/cleaning off piles downfield. This performance, or overall lack thereof, should be all the motivation the veteran needs to push his own play and his unit's throughout the regular season.

Lennie Friedman – With the return of Seth McKinney to the lineup, Friedman was bumped out to left guard rather than his usual placement as the second unit's center. An unspectacular, albeit solid, effort was on display by the veteran on this particular day. The interior lineman continued to demonstrate his abilities to get to the second level successfully, working well in tandem with his fellow linemen, and good overall recognition with blitzes and stunts. The lone gripe, which has been documented on multiple occasions, is Friedman's inability to anchor well or maul at the line of scrimmage. Neither will ever be in the lineman's repertoire, but he continues to serve as a very capable role player.

Rex Hadnot – Among the starting unit, Hadnot clearly would have graded out the highest. On only one occasion did he miss or lose a block. In said particular case, Hadnot was actually tripped and fell as he was pulling down the line of scrimmage. Otherwise, the right guard displayed a strong initial punch in pass protection, decent lateral movement, and even registered a pancake block on a trap block. Solid performance by the lineman as the questions surrounding a healthy Ryan Tucker and his status start to surface.

James Lee – Multi-talented but much improvement needed. On one play, Lee looks like he is a potential diamond in the rough. The next he is being blown off the ball and looking plain awful against his opponent. What has been seen in just one week is progress. Lee definitely appeared much improved in the run game versus the Giant than he did just a week prior versus the Jets. The left tackle certainly is not the strongest at the point of attack, but he fired hard off the ball in this particular game and maintained his blocks. In his pass set, however, Lee is just all over the place. He bails out on his technique when caught off guard by a defender. The tackle will get too high, cross his feet, hands all over the place, and will just lose concentration. When this talented young player finally learns to put it all together, he certainly has all the physical tools to one day become that diamond in the rough.

Seth McKinney – Finally returning after a couple weeks of layoffs due to injury, McKinney once again assumed his spot as the second offensive unit's center. What immediately popped off the screen was McKinney's quickness shooting his hands. A trait that is absolutely crucial for any center at any level. The rust was not worn off completely though as the veteran missed a few blocks at the second level, struggled picking up stunts, and labored when asked to move in space. McKinney is a valuable presence off the bench, but where he stands currently within this roster is somewhat in question.

Derrick Morse – Note to Mr. Morse: When asked to make a block in space and as such choose to use a cut block, it is much more effective if the defender is actually knocked off his feet and not able to make the tackle. The guard failed to employ this technique twice in the limited time during his play.

Kevin Shaffer – Manning the right side of the offensive line, Shaffer's trouble with the Giant's pressure came from technique miscues. The tackle's hands were too often wide, exposing his chest to defenders, and giving them control. Once the defender had the upper hand, Shaffer was unable to anchor properly and had trouble staying out of the quarterbacks' proverbial laps. It was not until the second unit of New York's defensive line entered the game that the right tackle was able to settle down in his pass set, which is easy to do when one is not under duress every snap.

Isaac Sowells – "Plodding" was the term which came to mind when watching the right tackle work with the team's second unit. Sowells looked uncomfortable moving in space, the lateral movement in his pass set was sub par, and he does not always keep his feet pumping upon contact. Granted, the former Hoosier did look slightly better in his pass protection in this game, but mostly due to landing a solid initial punch on occasion. It has slowly become obvious why the scouting department once envisioned Sowells along the interior of the offensive line.

Eric Steinbach – There is a point when an offensive lineman's weight hits a pivotal point. A fine line must be balanced between maintaining optimum strength and girth to hold the point of attack while getting the most out of one's athletic ability. Eric Steinbach is clearly one of the most athletic offensive linemen in the NFL. This is not in question. Where he has suffered and continues to suffer is holding his ground against larger defensive linemen. This clearly came into play on numerous occasions against the Giants when Steinbach was easily driven into the backfield by defenders blowing up entire plays. At times the guard can simply be destroyed if he does not gain the upper hand with his technique. The Browns have accepted the fact Steinbach clearly is not one of the league's best drive blockers, but instead rely on his pass protection and ability to work out in space. This will never change.

Joe Thomas – To truly be considered the best at his position, Thomas must step up his game against the best competition. Against arguably the top defensive player in the National Football League, Osi Umenyiora, Thomas was not at his best. The defensive end was able to get multiple pressures on Cleveland Brown quarterbacks. Hand play was part of the problem as Thomas' punches were slow to react. Even though the tackle is one of the best at reestablishing his hands after initial contact, the speed and power Umenyiora possesses even buckled the Pro Bowl offensive lineman once. Also his footwork was not top notch for the first time in recent memory. The initial pressure by the Giant end was due in part to Thomas' inability to get a wide enough kick step to offset the speed rush. In the run game, things went much smoother for the young lineman, as he was controlling defenders at the point of attack and continued work his way up field looking for more poor souls to block. This is the first time Joe Thomas has been beaten more than once by a defender since becoming a professional. Do NOT expect it to happen again.



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