On The Line vs. St. Louis

In the soaked and sloppy conditions Aug. 21 at Cleveland Browns Stadium, another starting five for the Browns offensive line was on display. How did they perform? What about the front three on defense? OBR's Brent Sobleski has some answers after watching the game film.

Three yards and a puddle of mud. A quagmire of playing conditions bogged down what appeared to be an improving Cleveland Browns offense, according to the previous week's small sample size. Offensively, the line was transitioning with yet another new starting five. Defensively, they were generally sturdy to semi-impressive. All of this must be taken in context as the Browns' were hosting the once hapless St. Louis Rams. Now it is time to see how each individual performed up and down the line of scrimmage.

Offensive Line

Joe Thomas:  Among the sloppy conditions, Thomas was still rock solid at his left tackle position. One chink did emerge on a less than favorable night. While run blocking Thomas did a wonderful job using his hands and rolling his hips into the block, but he did not display great power to drive and uproot many Rams defenders. This can be explained, to a degree, by the field conditions or by nothing Thomas is not an exceptional run blocker, although is he not necessarily required to be.  His money is made in pass protection. When it was all said and done, the left tackle was once again a wall for which few opponents even sniffed a Browns' quarterback. Also, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll displayed one of his favorite formations where Thomas overloads the defense by lining up on the right side next to the right tackle. It has been an effective running formation the few times it has been used during the past year.

Eric Steinbach:  A long and lanky interior blocker, Steinbach's strengths and weaknesses are because of his build. At a 6-foot-7 and hovering somewhere around 290 pounds, his game has always centered around athleticism and technique. Generally speaking, most starting guards in the NFL are much more squat and weigh anywhere from 10 to 40 pounds more than Steinbach. Those same issues present themselves even against the Rams in a preseason game. For example, Steinbach is often fighting to gain leverage because of his unnatural height at the position. When he engaging blocks, St. Louis defenders were already were underneath his pads. He appeared to need better knee bend when approaching blocks. He was fighting for control and really had to bow up on multiple occasions just to hold ground.

On the flip side, Steinbach is effective pulling down the line of scrimmage and hitting his target when getting to the second level. On the Browns second attempt on fourth down, it was Steinbach's block the Rams defeated preventing the first down. Lastly, the guard is still seeing time as the immediate backup at left tackle for a series or two. In that instance it is obvious Steinbach has a higher comfort level when boxed in at guard instead of simply translating his natural athleticism out on the island to block the blindside. Part of the reason is patience and wanting to reach on his punch instead of staying patient in his pass set. All issues Steinbach has lived with, addressed, and even excelled in over the years.

Alex Mack: After watching film long enough on certain players, trends in their play begin to emerge. One may have reared its ugly head in regards to Mack. He had some issues against St. Louis when a defender was lined up directly over his shoulder and the quarterback was underneath his rump. This may have forced one, if not both, of the mishandled footballs dropped by Jake Delhomme. Furthermore, the issue may originate from a lack of comfort. Despite being in the NFL for a little more than a year, Mack spent four years snapping out of the shotgun formation in college. He clearly has a higher comfort level snapping in the shotgun formation. Mack pops into his set and positions his hands more quickly when shotgun snapping. His hands appear slower off the snap when the quarterback is underneath, which may be a side effect of the release point) and it hurt his play.

Multiple times Rams defenders were able to drive Mack back initially off the snap. He would then regain his balance, anchor, and drive the defenders down the line. Whether or not this is a full-blown issue or just a misnomer in this particular contest is not yet known. One way or another, it will make itself apparent as the preseason comes to a conclusion.

Billy Yates: Yates effort was not as horrific as initially anticipated. Under a more critical eye, the utility lineman was more reliable in his play than expected. Especially considering the false start penalty and the allowance of a sack. Yates allowed the sack because after he threw his punch, he did not land it square, he had his weight too far forward, and the defender used his own momentum against him. Otherwise, Yates displayed the most quickness off the snap.

He keeps his hands in very good positioning — high and tight. He was downfield making a block on Jerome Harrison's big gain via screen pass. Yates' versatility is a bonus, as he can shift to the second and third team's center where he appears more comfortable. Finally, Yates showed an inability to take proper angles to the second level, which can potentially negate some long runs. Yates will likely be publicly defiled because of two plays, but he was not necessarily a complete weak link filling in for a missing starter.

John St. Clair: St. Clair was solid, once again, as he currently has a leg up on the competition because of injury issues among other veterans vying for the same starting right tackle job. St. Clair will not blow the doors off anyone, nor should he be a reason to look for an upgrade. He is still a solid run blocker. He fires off the ball low with a flat back, he has the lateral movement to scoop interior defenders, and he can drive some opponents off the ball.

His biggest issue comes as a pass blocker. A potential trend appeared with St. Clair and it is evident when one watches the end zone view and compares the Browns' two tackles. Joe Thomas is always smooth in his kick step, possessing good body lean, a flat back, perfect punch  and mirrors defenders tremendously well.  St. Clair has a solid kick step, starts with a good body lean, but then will turtle up when he attempts to deliver his punch.

Against the Rams there appeared to be a lack of confidence in his post leg and a zealousness to add power to the blow. As a result, when St. Clair is set to deliver his weight will come forward, and the right tackle's upper body will be settle too far over his toes. It creates a position of imbalance for defenders to take advantage. A pass blocker's strength is derived from his vertical interior positioning, particularly if his weight is distributed properly over his post leg.  It will be interesting how the right tackle position plays out with Tony Pashos returning to the fold.

Scott Kooistra: Bouncing back and forth from right to left tackle, Kooistra continues to play relatively well among his second-line mates. This week Kooistra had no issues identifying stunts and blitzes.   Kooistra chipped off his double teams and showed the ability to get to the second level. His major issue, as seen in the past two weeks, has been an overall lack of athleticism while playing tackle. His initial pass set up is nice, but he had to open his shoulders and bail early against quicker defenders with whom he could not slide. It was another solid effort by Kooistra to keep his name in play and to stick on the Browns' roster.

Pat Murray: A blue-collar performer, Murray added another aspect to his overall game. Again playing left guard with the second unit, the interior blocker also spelled Yates late in the game at center. Murray displayed a good feel for double teams and sliding off linebackers. With his lack of playing strength, Murray was once again driven back by defenders especially if he gave up his chest early. He needs to continually work his hands, which he generally does, and attempt to anchor better to become anything more than potential practice squad fodder.

Paul Fanaika: In his first game action with the Browns, Fanaika's first snap on the field was slightly embarrassing. Fanaika fired off the ball and attempted to reach the second level. He was caught off balance and crumpled to the turf. It became a trend because he labors moving laterally. Otherwise, Fanaika appeared as a strong straight-line blocker against St. Louis. He could be powerful on down blocks and driving opponents down the line. He keeps his feet pumping to the whistle. He shoots his hands off the snap well and appears to have a strong grip. The potential is there, but is it enough to keep him active on the roster?

Casey Bender: Seeing limited playing time for a second straight week, Bender's performance on the final two series of play was uninspiring.  His punch lacked power and he also appears to lack the baseline core strength by preventing defenders from continually throwing this rookie off blocks. Any fans of Bender can only hope the practice squad looms.

John Malecki: Saw a small handful of repetitions late in the game and there is not much to write regarding this sampling.

Fullback Note:  Lawrence Vickers is an absolutely fantastic and dominating blocker at fullback who should not go unmentioned when discussing line play and overall blocking

Defensive Line

Kenyon Coleman: A run defender through and through, Coleman is as consistent as they come. Coleman delivers a good initial blow off the snap. Once engaged in the blow, he can be inconsistent shedding said blocks. Coleman does display a strong upper body, which allows him to control opposing blockers. Coleman does struggle in his pass rush by not getting extension or continually working his hands. Still, Coleman is productive and expected for the five technique.

Ahtyba Rubin: A stout and almost immovable presence in the middle of the Browns' defensive line, Rubin is rarely seen driven off the ball.  In fact, in only one instance during this game he was moved more than one yard off the line of scrimmage. That can be misleading since he was working his way laterally down the line in pursuit. Rubin continually gets under the pads of his opponents, maintains extension and works his way square down the line.  It was surprising to see him jump the gun once dipping to his knee upon feeling pressure.  Why?  It was a play-action pass. Rubin did not need to immediately resort to such an action and that slowed his push up the middle and the quarterback had a clean pocket. He did not repeat the mistake.

Later in the game, Rubin was working to get up the field against the pass, even throwing at least one effective club against the center. Each week Rubin starts at nose tackle while Shaun Rogers misses, the more likely it appears both could start simultaneously.

Robaire Smith: Constantly working and putting himself in a position to make plays, Robaire Smith currently is the most well-rounded defender along Cleveland's front line. He is quick off the snap. He continually hustles, which allows plays to be made.  For example: Smith's sack on the blown handoff by Sam Bradford. There are times, though, whether it is a mistake or by defensive design, Smith will pick a side when attacking his blocker.  This can be an issue among true two gap defenders. As good as Robaire Smith can be, he simply is not effective enough to make a tackle coming out of the backside in that instance. Still, it was another solid effort by the wily veteran.

Brian Schaefering: An eventful and productive outing for Schaefering against the Rams. He saw plenty of time on the field because of injuries along the defensive line. Schaefering has clearly been the fourth man rotated onto the field. As noted last week, Schaefering is a presence on the field each time his defensive coordinator beckons for the nickel package. He was seen rushing the passer from nose tackle and defensive end.

Consistency is an issue as a few things became present. Shaefering struggled when asked to sink his hips and anchor against down blocks. He appeared more comfortable working his way up field in a straight line. Also, when he was asked to rush the passer, it is critical he maintains his lane so passing lanes do not open. Schaefering also needs to continually work his hands to swat the opposing lineman's. And when the hot read is your lineman down blocking, you need to squeeze the hole. Most of these issues discussed were against the Rams first unit and Schaefering became much stronger as the game went along and the opposition weakened.

Derreck Robinson: Titus Adams was declared inactive against St. Louis. Robinson saw an opportunity to step up and make plays and he did not disappoint. Bouncing back and forth between nose tackle and end, Robinson was quick off the snap and fired off the ball low and hard. He displayed a solid initial punch  and rocked a couple second-team offensive linemen. At times, Robinson completely controlled Phil Trautwein, St. Louis' backup left tackle

Against the pass, Robinson had half-hearted spin move. He could have been more effective if he sold it by heading up field more.  Robinson rounded out his game with a big push, shedding the blocker and engulfing the running back on the Rams' last offensive drive. It was an all-around solid effort for a back up. Robinson could potentially turn some heads.

Swanson Miller: After an impressive effort against Green Bay, Miller came back down to earth a bit.  He got caught offside in one particular instance, and he had some trouble holding his ground against double teams, which is a crucial part of playing nose tackle. While Miller struggled against some doubles, he was a handful when blocked by a single lineman. Once again he displayed an ability to use his hands well. After less repetitions and a dip in play in week two, Miller's learning curve may be going in the wrong direction.

Brian Sanford: The rookie can simply be a handful at times. In fact, just ask former Browns center Hank Fraley, who actually struggled a bit against Cleveland's backups. Although Sanford (6-2, 280) does not fit the traditional build of a 3-4 defensive lineman, he is fitting in nicely with this current rotation. He brings something different to the table. He has a quick first step and works his way up field. Among the Browns' unproven backups, Sanford has the most natural pass rush ability. He has played nose tackle and end. He continually swats opponents' hands to clear his path. But because of his size, Sanford does struggle, at times, holding the line and working flat in pursuit. This is the second encouraging effort by one of the team's undrafted rookies.

Cliff Geathers: Against Green Bay, the sixth-round selection started slowly. Against St. Louis, he barely got a chance to get started. The only playing time he saw came late in the game first in a goal line defense and then in the last Rams' series. Geathers was able to stack and shed his blocker against a quick-hitting pass. Two players later, he got washed down inside against the run. Questions will start to be raised as to whether Geathers defensive lineman can even make the team's final roster.

Kwaku Danso: Danso is a naturally big and strong man who is far too raw for the NFL. As a result, Danso's dream and unbelievable story ended this week after being cut by the Browns.

Up next is the improving and somewhat skilled Detroit Lions. It'll certainly be a test for the offensive line against the likes of Kyle Vanden Bosch and Ndamukong Suh.

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