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Browns' Run Blocking Grades vs. Oakland

This article takes a look at the Browns' run blocking against the Raiders and reflects on Kyle Shanahan's press conference on 10/30.

Browns center Nick McDonald
Browns center Nick McDonald
Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Shanahan made the following comments about how his offense performed run blocking against the Raiders:

"I definitely thought that we did improve -- I know it's hard to see when you look at the numbers and everything, but when you look at the tape...

"When a team commits to [defending] the run, you're gonna have tough runs -- there's gonna be some 0-yarders, some 1-yarders, some 2-yarders. But, there's gonna come a time where you got good angles on people, that you do have a chance to get a 15-yarder. We had a lot more of those in that game. I'd say we had about 7 of those opportunities, but when we did have those opportunities one guy missed.

"It takes 11 guys to run the ball and one guy was off -- and it was all different guys on all the plays -- and when they were off, we had an opportunity to get 15 yards or to get to the free hitter, which is the middle-third safety, and we didn't. Those runs right there changed the game. I think a lot of it was tough sledding, but when we did have our opportunities, we were one guy off and I think that can get fixed. Hopefully we'll get that fixed and next week when we do get that opportunity you get a 15-yarder and if the back makes the middle-third safety [miss] you can go as far as you want.

"You know eventually someone's gonna take it away and when they do it usually opens up a lot of other stuff. Now, what we gotta get better at is sometimes when they didn't take it away we still didn't make them pay. Not as much versus Jacksonville but definitely versus Oakland, I thought there were some opportunities there that we did miss. I do think that they were committed to the run -- which I think we earned as an offense because we showed people we could run the ball. That's what we want. We want people to feel like they have to commit to stop something, because when they do have to commit to stop something it makes other stuff easier. I think that's what showed on first and second down in the game. I was more disappointed with third down and with the penalities that we had."

He added the following on the topic of missed opportunities:

"Every single person, every single position had at least one play. Whether it's even a backside receiver missing a block where we cut it back one gap at a time and one guy didn't get the safety coming down and the safety was right on it. One time it was the back missing a lane. One time it's the fullback. One time it's the quarterback running it to the wrong side when we should have run the other way. One time it was our tackle not going to the safety: he was fitting up into the B-gap and staying on the defensive end. It's always one guy and every single position had their chances."

He then addressed Nick McDonald making his first start at center and John Greco moving back to guard:

"I feel solid. I thought both of them did a good job. It was McDonald's first game at center and first time playing football in a couple years -- and he's only been practicing for a couple weeks -- and he definitely wasn't the reason that we struggled in the run game. So, I was very happy with him and I hope he continues to get better now that he got the first game out.

"I thought Greco did what he's done all year at guard and he's been a good player for us."

My Response: OL Grades

I could take Kyle's word for it, but I'd rather check out the tape myself, so I decided to grade the individual Browns players involved in run blocking versus the Raiders.

In the zone blocking scheme, I grade blockers on a pass-fail system. In general, I like to get more nuanced than that with my evaluations and in assigning grades -- I break down my grades for pass rushers into four different levels of success/failure, for example -- but these running plays in a zone blocking scheme seem different to me. I'm not looking for a player to destroy the defender he's blocking, I'm looking for him to not get beat.

By that, I mean that I look for blockers to make sound positional blocks that the runner can easily read. Which way is the run going and what type of run is it? Did the blocker get the positioning (ex. outside vs. inside) on the defender that he's supposed to? It doesn't have to be pretty.

Here are my grades for the Raiders game, reported as the rates at which players made successful blocks:

Block Success Rate:
LT Joe Thomas		19/22 = 86.4%
LG Joel Bitonio 19/22 = 86.4%
C  Nick McDonald 18/23 = 78.3%
RG John Greco 18/22 = 81.8%
RT Mitchell Schwartz 21/23 = 91.3%
FB Kiero Small 10/13 = 76.9%
TE Jordan Cameron 1/5 = 20.0%
TE Jim Dray 7/14 = 50.0%
TE Gary Barnidge 5/7 = 71.4%
WR Taylor Gabriel 8/9 = 88.9%
WR Miles Austin 6/7 = 85.7%
WR Andrew Hawkins 2/2 = 100%


1. The Raiders believe in their end man on the line of scrimmage. Whether it was Khalil Mack or Benson Mayowa, the Raiders often left their end man out on an island on the edge and expected him to win against his man and maintain contain. They didn't let their coaches down. In the image below, Khalil Mack had the edge with Charles Woodson in the flat. They kept the closest inside linebacker, Miles Burris, well inside.

TrustingEnds_OAK4Q4-53_1 - Copy

2. A further look at the above image shows something else that this accomplishes: isolating the tight end on the edge. Look at where Miles Burris is. Left guard Joel Bitonio is busy with the playside defensive tackle. Center Nick McDonald has too far to go to get to Burris if he starts to pursue the play. That leaves Joe Thomas to pick him up, but that would take Thomas far away from Khalil Mack, leaving him 1-on-1 with Jim Dray. Now, if Dray and Small make their blocks, this run could go for a huge gain. Unfortunately, Mack dominated the tight ends all day long.

3. Additionally, trusting their ends allowed the Raiders to take away inside running lanes. In other games this year, the Browns faced defenses that were very concerned about the backs getting to the edge. Their linebackers and defensive backs focused on flowing laterally and, consequently, often gave up big plays even when they won on the edge due to overpursuing the play to the sideline. Oakland was much more disciplined with their pursuit, in large part due to having ends they could count on to set the edge consistently.

4. In general, an outside zone run can tolerate one missed or unsuccessful block and still be a successful play, due to the flexibility of the play and the familiarity that the running backs have with it. This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, and there are certainly circumstances where a single error can ruin the play, but this serves as a fair general rule of thumb. Assuming this is the case, let's look at the blocking grade numbers I tallied above. When I tabulate the mistakes, I count 35 total across all the players. If we divide that by two, we get 17.5. Going back to my grade sheet I see that the Browns had 13 runs of 1 yard or less, plus two 3-yard runs. That's fairly close to the estimate of 17 and a half. The Browns other 8 runs were for 4 to 7 yards, with no really big plays.

5. The Raiders had 8 or more men in the box on 73.9% of the Browns running plays (17/23).

6. Terrance West left a huge play on the field. Below you can see that West has a choice between cutting to the right with the end there to make the tackle for a moderate gain or cutting to the left where there's only a corner and the deep-middle safety to beat...and he has a receiver out in front to block for him. He cuts to the right and picks up 6 yards on the play.

West_OAK2Q10-24_1 - Copy

7. Our tight ends will be glad that we won't face Khalil Mack every week. Cameron and Dray both struggled with blocking Mack or Mayowa on the edge. Gary Barnidge had better luck, as he was often the second tight end on the field and received more favorable assignments such as blocking the box safety or an inside linebacker.

8. Miles Austin is a good run blocker and Taylor Gabriel is a really good one. When the Raiders loaded the box, the Browns often brought either Austin or Gabriel into motion, parked them behind the strong side tight end, and used them to take away the strong safety, as seen in the first picture below. In the second picture, you can see Gabriel blocking the strong safety to spring Tate for the game-sealing touchdown late in the fourth quarter. He is absolutely tiny and doesn't let that phase him one bit.

GabrielTE_1 - Copy

GabrielTE_2 - Copy

9. Nick McDonald is the real deal. He's no Alex Mack and he didn't play a flawless game, but he looked comfortable out there and he didn't embarrass himself. That's saying a lot for a guy stepping into the starting lineup after only two weeks of practice with the team. He displayed the good balance and agility he had in his Patriots days and his limited range wasn't an issue at center. He was driven back a few times, forcing the runner to change his path, but he wasn't outright blown up or tossed aside and he didn't whiff on any run blocks. I think the Browns found the answer at center and I expect him, the line, and the running game to take steps forward as the offense gets further acquainted with their new pivot man.