There were several reasons why the 2020 Cleveland Browns made their first playoff appearance since the 2002 season and won their first playoff game since 1995.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield elevated his play in his first year in head coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense. The wide receivers overcame the midseason loss of Odell Beckham Jr. to become a unit that was collectively better than perhaps the sum of its individual parts. Running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt combined to form the league’s best rushing tandem. An opportunistic defense forced turnovers at key times to help make up for its shortcomings.
The heart of the team, however, was the rebuilt offensive line that featured two newcomers in tackles Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills Jr., a surprise leftover in right guard Wyatt Teller, and incumbents Joel Bitonio at left guard and JC Tretter at center, who, along with an assist from offensive line coach Bill Callahan, became the league’s dominant unit.
The offensive line helped the Browns ranked No. 3 in rushing yards (an average of 148.4 per game) and allowed just 26 sacks after allowing 41 the previous season, according to clevelandbrowns.com.
That work, and the success it brought, was acknowledged on Wednesday when Pro Football Focus selected Cleveland’s offensive line as its Offensive Line of the Year and Teller as its Run-Blocker of the Year.
MVP : Aaron Rodgers— PFF (@PFF) January 20, 2021
OPOY : Travis Kelce
ROTY : Justin Jefferson
PFF's picks for NFL MVP, offensive and defensive players of the year, top rookies and more ⬇️ https://t.co/y3Q3lGTx41
For the offensive line as a whole, PFF’s Sam Monson especially highlighted the work done in the passing game:
The Browns overhauled their offensive line this past offseason, trying to significantly address a group that had been a real problem for the offense and Baker Mayfield at times. Somehow, they hit on every move, and they even found improvements on moves they didn’t make.
Right tackle Jack Conklin was the big free-agent acquisition, and he finished the season with an overall PFF grade of 84.0, the best mark of his career. Left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. was their first-round draft pick, and while his overall PFF grade was just 62.7, his pass blocking was dramatically better, allowing Mayfield to feel comfortable in the pocket and function without looking over his shoulder every dropback. J.C. Tretter and Joel Bitonio were both already good players on the interior, but Teller at right guard took a huge step forward and became the best run-blocker in the game out of nowhere.
This year, no offense allowed fewer than the 88 total pressures the Browns’ offensive line surrendered, and their pass-blocking efficiency (90.7) was second only to the Packers. A year ago, they allowed 153 total pressures and had a pass-blocking efficiency of just 85.4, 15 places worse off league-wide.
Teller finished with a run-blocking grade of 93.6 - the highest grade of any offensive lineman in the league in 2020:
One of the most surprising performances of the season came from Browns guard Wyatt Teller. There was little in his career before this season to suggest that he was about to become one of the game’s most dominant blockers, but he was evidently yet another player to benefit from the arrival of Kevin Stefanski and the scheme that came along with him.
Teller was an absolute force in the run game all season long, dominating individually and forming the most potent double team in the game with right tackle Jack Conklin alongside him. Teller ended the season with a PFF run-blocking grade of 93.6, the highest figure among all offensive linemen regardless of position, and he was part of the game’s best offensive line.
In addition to creating a dominant starting unit, injuries and COVID-19 forced the Browns to call on young players in Nick Harris, Michael Dunn and Blake Hance at times, giving them valuable playing time and helping the team build some solid depth along the line.
The best part is that each of the starting five offensive linemen are under contract for the 2021 season, and that level of continuity should make the unit even strong, Tretter told clevelandbrowns.com:
“I think offensive lines always get stronger the longer they play together and the more experience they have together. There is kind of an unspoken language on the offensive line where the more reps you get with another player, the more comfortable you are and you do not even have to say anything and you just know what the other guy is thinking. The longer a group can stay together and have that continuity, the better that group will play as the years go on.”
The Browns offensive line worked to become the league’s best unit in 2020 amid a season of continual change.
Now with a year under their belts, it is easy to anticipate the unit being even better in 2021.