The offense the Cleveland Browns will employ this season utilizes space to create opportunities for their athletic skill players. This scheme has a number of advantages but it also puts a lot of pressure on the offensive line, which presents a problem.
The Browns have made substantial changes on the offensive side of the ball. In most spots, the hope is the team improved the respective position group (wide receiver, quarterback), but in the case of the offensive line, the short term outlook is murky at best- and could be downright bad out-of-the-gate, simply in the hopes that it pays off in the future.
The left side of the offensive line stays intact. Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio will adjust to a new offensive scheme without issue. Short of injury, they should continue to play at a high level and Hue Jackson’s offense has to be geared toward taking advantage of them in every way possible, be it running behind them or allowing them to do some heavy lifting in pass protection.
Center over to right tackle is a different story. Projecting the starters for those spots is unimportant and the Browns don’t know how it’s going to go right now nor do they need to know.
What the Browns do know is they know they have to find a way to block one of the best defensive lines the NFL has to offer twice this year; the Cincinnati Bengals. That defensive line gives the Bengals a decisive schematic advantage before the teams take the field.
The Bengals’ defensive line is effective at all four spots and can control the line of scrimmage. Beyond simply having good players, they have a balanced group that can hurt an opponent from all angles. The starting front four combined for 34.5 of the team’s 42 sacks in 2015 while anchoring the league’s seventh best rush defense when it comes to yards per game.
Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson have size and length on the edge while Geno Atkins is one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. It remains to be seen if Domata Peko can hold onto the nose guard spot but if he can’t, it’s not because he’s a bad player. They may have found someone better in rookie Andrew Billings, who was added in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Certainly, Joe Thomas has an advantage against Johnson or anyone else who lines up in front of him, but that’s the only spot the Browns have appear to have an advantage up front.
Bitonio is a great player but he will certainly have his hands full with Atkins at left guard in what should be a developing rivalry between the two. After that, the center and right guard are trying to move Peko or Billings off the ball at the nose and the right tackle, which could be a rookie finding himself an island going against Dunlap in the running game.
In pass protection, the Browns can hope the center, likely Cam Erving, can handle the nose alone enabling the right guard to take away the inside lane from Dunlap. That would reduce the burden being placed on the right tackle to block Dunlap, who is coming off a team leading 13.5 sacks.
If the Bengals’ defensive line plays up to its ability, they can control the line of scrimmage with just four guys. This frees up the other seven defenders to account for five skill positions the Browns have(six if the quarterback is included). This is a huge advantage.
The defense can take away the space the Browns are trying to create and suffocate them. Passing windows get tighter forcing the quarterback to hold onto the ball longer, which gives the pressure time to affect the quarterback. It’s a downward spiral that begins with controlling the line of scrimmage and stopping the run.
Incidentally, that’s exactly what happened to Robert Griffin III in Washington, which is why he was ultimately benched in favor of Kirk Cousins. He held onto the ball too long and made poor decisions.
This is the major area of vulnerability with the spread offense the Browns are trying to run and their current roster construction doesn’t give them many options to change it. They don’t have any proven options at tight end to lineup inside and really help them get a good push up front in the running game, so they are left with using motion to have an H-back come and chip a defensive end in hopes of creating some extra leverage.
This puts a ton of pressure on the five guys up front to be able to find ways to create running lanes. Certainly, the Browns can employ misdirection to try to aid their cause, but at some point, the offensive line is going to have to find a way move the guy across from them off the ball.
The Browns coaching staff, particularly Kirby Wilson, the team’s running game coordinator and Hal Hunter Jr., the offensive line coach, have their work cut out for them when it comes to getting the production they need from the right side of the line to produce in the running game. It’s a daunting task this first year with the amount of unproven talent they have.
The good news is the Browns have until Week 7 to prepare for their first meeting with the Bengals in Cincinnati. The bad news is the Browns open the season with the Philadelphia Eagles on the road, who pose the same schematic problem as the Bengals.
The Eagles are switching from a 3-4 base defense to an even front that will feature an interior with Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan. Like Atkins, Cox is one of the best in the business and Logan should benefit from the switch, letting him utilize more of his athleticism.
On the edge, the Eagles don’t have anyone on Carlos Dunlap’s level , but they offer better depth than the Bengals. They just keep coming rotating players like Connor Barwin, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry in to attack the quarterback.
The Eagles’ defense is a difficult test for Hue Jackson’s offense to start the year. This is something he and the rest of the coaching staff are fully aware and are working to devise a solution. It will be fascinating to see how prepared they are up front and how they will respond in the event the defensive line takes control of the game.
It will be an excellent preview for how the Browns will try to deal with the Bengals defense later in the year. There’s a real possibility that because of the youth on this team and the newness of the offense, they get dominated in both of those games, which is probably part of the reason why the team keeps emphasizing the long view.
The Bengals and Eagles are just two teams that pose a real problem for the Browns on offense, but they happen to run base defenses that directly counter what this scheme wants to do. There is every indication the right side of the offensive line is going to have growing pains and it could be ugly at times. The hope is they can learn from those mistakes and come out better for them, so that this offense can succeed in the future, preferably sooner than later.