Can the Cleveland Browns offensive line match 2018 success?

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 23: David Njoku #85 of the Cleveland Browns celebrates his touchdown with Greg Robinson #78 and Darren Fells #88 during the second quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 23, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 23: David Njoku #85 of the Cleveland Browns celebrates his touchdown with Greg Robinson #78 and Darren Fells #88 during the second quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 23, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images) /

Can the Cleveland Browns offensive line keep up their good health and strong play that they displayed in the second half of 2018?

The Cleveland Browns offensive line became so good by the end of last year that they may have been taken for granted to an extent. It’s a cliché that the quarterback gets too much credit when the team wins and too much blame when they lose.

The opposite is true for the linemen: the offensive line does not get enough credit when the team wins and gets not enough blame when the team loses. This year, there’s rightfully a great sense of optimism due to the acquisition by trade of Odell Beckham, Jr. among other moves.

In addition, the Browns traded Carlos Hyde in mid-season last year and suddenly were running the ball with Nick Chubb at tailback for the last half season. The other receivers and tight ends are young players getting better. But hold on, let us not forget the offensive line.

That was one of the primary reasons for the Browns’ remarkable turnaround last season.  In 2019 they are being counted on again though, in all honesty, it may be tough for them to repeat their performance, especially with the loss of underrated veteran Kevin Zeitler. Highly regarded rookie Austin Corbett is the leading candidate to step up to first string, but those shoes are much larger than might be imagined.

First, let us understand what actually happened in 2018. The OL was not consistently good throughout the season. In fact, in the opinion of this analyst, probably ranked among the league’s worst for the first eight games, and then ranked at the top of their profession the last eight games of 2018.

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Let’s look at the numbers to try to justify such an outrageous statement.

First, the Browns offensive line had only one lineup change the entire season. That’s right. Desmond Harrison came out for Greg Robinson after eight games, and that was it. There was one substitution and zero missed snaps for the entire year. According to Pro Football Reference, Joel Bitonio, J. C. Tretter, Kevin Zeitler, and Chris Hubbard all played in 100 percent of the offensive plays for the Browns.

Left tackle Desmond Harrison started the first eight games and had zero missed snaps. In came Greg Robinson in game nine, and he had zero missed snaps the rest of the way. The Browns used a sixth offensive lineman 21 times in 2018, allowing Austin Corbett, Earl Watford, and Kyle Kalis to get a few extra snaps, but nobody came out of the game for them. That’s an unbelievable performance by the OL, and in this analyst’s opinion, there should be some sort of exhibit in Canton documenting this feat.

Has this ever happened in the history of the NFL? Dawg Pound Daily readers are invited to consider whether there has ever been a line that made only one change the entire year, and if you can come up with anything comparable, please post it in the comments below.

It may be that we fans were spoiled over the years by having “iron men” like Joe Thomas, he of the 10,363 consecutive snaps, and his protégé Mitchell Schwartz, who also missed zero snaps in his Cleveland career and is now over 7,000 after moving to Kansas City. Also, Alex Mack had a streak of 5,279 consecutive snaps broken when he broke a leg in 2014.  But this kind of durability is definitely not normal.

Offensive linemen are paid to take punishment from the most destructive athletes in the world, namely defensive linemen. Those Cleveland players were all mutants or aliens from outer space, and definitely not human. Now they have been joined in the record books by incredible player durability in the 2018 season. And they did it with scarcely a mention by the national media.

If you listen to the likes of vocal analyst Colin Cowherd on Fox (though I hope you do not),  the Cleveland Browns are supposedly a mediocre team, as evidenced by their 7-8-1 record. That viewpoint is easy to understand, as an analyst like Cowherd looks at the near-.500 record and stops thinking about it.

However, the stats tell a different story. The offensive line underwent a huge change during the season, which may have been unprecedented in NFL history. The OL was downright bad for the first eight games last year, iron men or not, under famed ‘Quarterback Whisperer’ coach Hue Jackson, as well as superstar offensive coordinator Todd Haley.  First of all, they allowed 33 sacks for the first eight games last year, which is very poor.

If you extend that to 16 games (66 sacks), that would have been enough to lead the NFL in sacks allowed, edging the Houston Texans who allowed 62 sacks last year. After switching to Gregg Williams and Freddie Kitchens, the team brought the total down to five sacks over the last eight games, a ridiculously low total, which extrapolates to 10 per full season.  The Indianapolis Colts led the NFL with only 18 sacks allowed. So the Browns go from worst in the NFL to the best in terms of sacks allowed. The dotted line is a logarithmic curve fit provided by Microsoft Excel.

What about hits allowed on the quarterback? Many people like that stat because it may be a better indicator of the damage your signal-caller takes.  The first half of the year, the Browns allowed 62 hits. In the second half of the year, they allowed only 11. That’s less than one-fifth of the total under Jackson and Haley and far and away the best performance in the NFL.  Again, this is an astonishing difference.

The run game had similar effects, though not quite as dramatic. Tackles for loss is a good stat for showing how often an offensive line is getting blown away by a defense. Here again, the Browns gave up 49 TFL in the first eight games, and cut it almost in half in the last eight games with 25, which is shown graphically in the third graph below.

No doubt there are many reasons for the differences in addition to the offensive linemen themselves. One obvious reason is that Greg Robinson went in for Desmond Harrison in mid-season. Robinson and Harrison had the opposite media buzz. Harrison was discovered by Cleveland as a come-from-nowhere, undrafted prospect who overcame problems to be former coach Hue Jackson’s choice to replace superstar Thomas. It was a great feel-good story.

Robinson, on the other hand, was a grossly underachieving former second overall draft pick, banished from the Rams team that drafted him as well as the lowly Detroit Lions. Robinson committed his share of unnecessary penalties (seven) but allowed zero sacks for his eight-game season.

Harrison had a brilliant game against Oakland, but committed eight penalties and allowed four sacks. Pro Football Focus graded both Harrison (67th overall) and Robinson (63rd overall) about the same, however, and given that there are 64 first string positions around the NFL, that corresponds to marginal starters at best. This is a bit of a head-scratcher, frankly. Is Colin Cowherd a grader for Pro Football Focus?

Incidentally, PFF ranks Kendall Lamm, who comes over from the Texans (who led the NFL in sacks allowed, which is very hard to do when your quarterback is mercurial Deshaun Watson), higher than both Robinson and Harrison, and just a tick lower than Chris Hubbard, who led the team with 8.5 sacks allowed but committed just one penalty. Lamm allowed only 2.5 sacks and was assessed with four penalties. If you believe in PFF, you might think that Lamm has a real shot at being a starter.

PFF does not actually hate the Browns, however, as they rated the departed Kevin Zeitler first-team All-Pro. Joel Bitonio also received some recognition, being added to the Pro Bowl roster last season.

General manager John Dorsey apparently forgot to pay for his PFF subscription and awarded Greg Robinson a $7 million dollar contract according to, while Jackson’s stud Harrison is getting paid just $576,666. Fans, what is your opinion about okay to paying a guy who kept the meal ticket, Baker Mayfield, upright, at the expense of some additional penalties?

The OL also benefited from a scheme change, in which they used a more shallow dish pass protection scheme, rather than the more conventional deeper drop scheme used earlier in the season.

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The importance of Baker Mayfield cannot be overstated.  He was incredibly fast at making decisions and getting the ball in the air quickly. When they talk about a quarterback’s quick release, it is not just the throwing motion that is important, but also the ability to get started quickly. Rookies tend to hold onto the ball a few ticks longer than a veteran. That enabled the line to switch to the dish scheme, and made their job much easier.

Is it possible to duplicate the Browns feat of only one lineup change the entire season and four players with zero missed snaps? The answer is simple:  No.

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That was a once-in-a-lifetime performance. The Browns are probably substituting Austin Corbett — or perhaps Lamm — for the traded Kevin Zeitler. The move makes sense because the Browns needed help for superstar Myles Garrett on the D-Line, much more than they needed a star guard. But it is not fair to expect Corbett to deliver the same performance as Zeitler in his first year as a starter.

J. C. Tretter was also outstanding, though the buzz is that injuries were more of a concern for Tretter than the other linemen. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that the Browns have had him for 32 games since coming over from the Packers, and he has started 32 times. That sounds like a pretty good argument to start.

If called upon the Browns also have center/guard Eric Kush and tackle/guard Bryan Witzmann, both of whom who have legitimate NFL starting experience, but are not highly regarded. Harrison is also on the roster and might challenge for a job.

To summarize, the Browns offensive line was unbelievably good in the second half of last season, and deserve great credit for helping to turn around the team. In the opinion of this reviewer, the Browns really did play like a playoff team the second half of the season, but really did play like a last-place team the first half of last season.

The same effect is likely to carry over to an extent as Baker Mayfield and the shallow pass protection scheme is a good combination. Having only a single lineup change is too much to ask for two years in a row, but the Browns offensive lines have earned a reputation for exceptional toughness and durability.

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