To say that the Browns opening day game against the Tennessee Titans was a disappointment is an understatement.
Excessive penalties, dropped passes, injured players, missed assignments, expensive watches worn, three interceptions, porous pass coverage, minimal run game, missed kicks, rookie mistakes, multiple sacks, multiple quarterback hurries and knockdowns, questionable inactive list, and a rookie head coach’s inauguration into the NFL.
But the most glaring aspect was the play of the offensive line.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield was harassed the entire game. He was sacked five times and could just as easily been sacked a dozen. On one of his many knockdowns to the turf, he suffered a wrist injury which required X-rays.
In addition to Mayfield, the Browns’ offense sports Odell Beckham, Jr., Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb, David Njoku, Rashard Higgins, and at some point Antonio Callaway and Kareem Hunt. The offense is loaded with skill position players. Loaded.
Yet all of this firepower is useless unless there is time to throw and holes to open for talented running backs. Just when Browns’ fans thought the franchise had turned the corner and the club would once again become relevant to the rest of the league, the outbursts are once again “same ole Cleveland Browns.” But remember that with 2:10 remaining in the third quarter, the score was just 15-13. The Browns simply could not stop the outside pass rush, hurt themselves with a jillion penalties, and gave the game away.
There had been signs. Two months ago, Pro Football Focus ranked Cleveland’s offensive line as 20th in the league. Athlon Sports ranked all offensive linemen for 2019 and the only Brown listed was J.C. Tretter at number 19 in the center category. During the preseason, this unit displayed it had issues. PFF then dropped them to number 21. Right before the final roster was pared down, GM John Dorsey was able to work a trade with the Buffalo Bills and obtain guard Wyatt Teller. After the final cut down, the Browns traded for Green Bay Packers guard Justin McCray.
You could sense that Dorsey was not happy with the current lineup. But the guard position is not the issue - it is offensive tackle. Both of them.
Right tackle Chris Hubbard spent the first portion of the game dealing with Titans left end Cameron Wake to no avail. Wake has a great first step and a quick burst. Hubbard should have countered Wake’s speed by driving him deep past the pocket on passing downs and thus remove him from the play. What happened in its place is that instead of Hubbard using his massive frame to block off Wake and use his strength to eventually push him out of harm’s way, was Wake would lean into Hubbard to which only his arms and then hands were used to fend the defensive end off. What ensued was that Wake would be free and now was part of the backfield instead of being pushed beyond it.
This happened over and over. Hubbard just didn’t have the time and balance to be ahead of Wake and was forced to manhandle him with hands instead of arms, body and leverage. If Wake did not get a hand on Mayfield - which he did many times - he forced the quarterback to attempt to find a hole to escape. And numerous times, the escape holes were filled.
Left tackle Greg Robinson had issues of his own. Titans’ right outside linebacker Harold Landry was utilized predominately as a pass rusher and proved to be a handful. Rarely did Robinson force Landry backwards on the pass rush. Usually, it was Landry who was moving Robinson backwards into the backfield, which helped close the pocket. On rushing downs it was quite the opposite. Robinson was able to maneuver Landry to a spot that allowed a hole for either Chubb, Dontrell Hillard or D’Ernest Johnson.
On the touchdown opening drive, tight end Njuku was used on Robinson’s side sometimes to chip Landry which provided added time and seemed to work. But if Robinson was one-on-one and it was a passing down, Landry would push him all the way backwards even though he was a smaller player.
The Titans would stunt on the leftside quite a bit with Wake taking the inside slant and then DT Casey Jurrell swinging around where Hubbard should have been. Instead of staying in position, Hubbard often would stay with Wake which essentially created a double-team that left Jurrell free. At the last moment Hubbard would leave Wake, but would either get just a hand on Jurrell or whiff completely.
The interior of the offensive line held their own. At one point in the second quarter, the Titans blitzed two linebackers which created a six on five scenario, and Mayfield was able to get a pass off, although incomplete. But many times, the quarterback was forced to leave the pocket and scramble into the flats. This happened over and over regardless of whether Mayfield threw for a completion or an incompletion.
On the safety, Hillard was lined up in the backfield and immediately ran into the right flats on the snap. Njoku was positioned next to Robinson and blocked Landry which freed up Robinson to help left guard Joel Bitonio. The Titans only rushed four, which meant the Browns had six blockers. Njoku controlled Landry, Robinson and Bitonio doubled Rashaan Evans while center J.C. Tretter and right guard Eric Kush were able to double-team Casey with ease. Where the play broke down was right off the snap Wake got a step past Hubbard who was only able to get his hands on the defensive end before he broke free to tackle Mayfield.
And when Robinson got ejected, this threw the whole shooting match out of kilter. Out of the nine offensive linemen the Browns have on their roster, for whatever reason OG Austin Corbett (who has played tackle) and Teller, were placed on the game’s inactive list. When backup tackle Kendall Lamm was inserted for Robinson, he suffered a knee injury after only four plays. This forced Hubbard, who was having a terrible game, to shift over and now play left tackle to which McCray, a true guard, was inserted to play right tackle.
The phantom in-the-grasp call of Mayfield in the fourth quarter was Titans’ backup linebacker Sharif Finch beating McCray badly to the outside. On the very next play, cornerback Logan Ryan blitzed off the corner while Johnson, left in at running back, noticed Ryan too late and couldn’t get to him in time. Despite a missed tackle via Mayfield’s athletic abilities, Wake had beaten McCray and finished off the tackle for the sack. Hubbard played better on the leftside but overall had a poor performance for the game.
One person who isn’t a problem? Bitonio, who graded out as the top left guard in Week 1 by Pro Football Focus:
The #Browns highest-graded player in yesterday’s loss to the @PFF_Titans was LG Joel Bitonio, whose 80.3 run-blocking grade ranked 3rd and 80.7 offensive grade 4th among 60 guards who’ve played thus far in Week 1— PFF CLE Browns (@PFF_Browns) September 9, 2019
So how does this get fixed? Well, there are only four options. For one, the coaching staff can hope/expect/pray that the starting tackles will simply just get better with each game. It is not like these two men are rookies, or even newbies to the Browns. Each played a significant role for the success of the club in the second part of last season in which the franchise won five of their last seven games. Secondly, one of the backups would be elevated in the hopes that he will do a better job. Third, a tight end is placed on the side of the tackle that is having the worst game. And fourth, a trade.
Although the candidates are limited at this point, a trade is a very viable option. Nobody wants to give up their bookend offensive linemen so early in the season. But the Houston Texans were able to pull off a trade with the Miami Dolphins just before opening day when they got left tackle Laremy Tunsill. Of course, the Texans mortgaged the farm in order to get him, but still, it happened.
The Washington Redskins played Sunday’s game without their left tackle Trent Williams. He has asked the team to trade or release him, but so far the Redskins have been adamant about not offering him to anyone at any price.
When healthy, he is considered one of the premier left tackles in the league and is Washington’s best offensive player. He has some downsides in that he is 31 years old and has only one more year left on his contract.
That is not to say the Redskins won’t move him, but his holdout has bled into the regular season. At some point if the player isn’t on the field and appears likely to sit out the entire season Washington would be better off getting something for him rather than what they have at this juncture – which is a disgruntled player who isn’t contributing. He still has trade value. Redskins head coach Jay Gruden has recently stated that he hasn’t talked to Williams, so there is an impasse. Williams made the decision to stay away from the Redskins for his own reasons and at some point the club is going to have to move him or lose his trade benefit.
If the Browns were somehow able to pry Williams away from the Redskins that would immediately solve the left tackle position for this season. But they won’t get him for cheap. It has been rumored that Washington has already turned down a first-round pick for the star player. Remember, the Texans gave up two firsts and a second for Tunsill. Perhaps Robinson could then move to right tackle which erases Hubbard from the equation altogether. Or maybe McCray is a better option for the rightside despite the fact that he has always been a guard.
As far as available free agent tackles, the list has been picked over pretty good by now. The best remaining are Matt Kalil (age 30), Jermey Parnell (33), Sam Young (32) and Marshall Newhouse (30).
Or perhaps a tackle from another team. The Pittsburgh Steelers have four tackles, one of which is Chukwuma Okorafor who was a three-year starter at left tackle at Western Michigan although a trade within the division is a no-no. Brandon Greene is a fine young prospect currently on the Carolina Panthers roster and could be expendable after the club drafted Greg Little from Ole Miss in this year’s draft.
Would any of these situations work? Probably. One thing for certain, the current lineup on the field isn’t. There are holes at both tackle positions and the Browns simply cannot just wait until next spring’s NFL draft to solve the issues. At this point, both Robinson and Hubbard just have to play better.
And at the conclusion of the 2019 season, the most regrettably remark would have to be the conversation about how much abundant talent the Browns’ offense had and yet it was completely wasted.