Every Thursday, the FanHouse takes a look at the line play in one game for our weekly Between The Lines feature.
If you like upsets you had plenty to choose from this week. Between the Rams-Redskins, Cardinals-Cowboys and Browns-Giants, there were plenty of reminders of why suicide pools are so tough to win.
Among those upsets, the Browns-Giants may not have ranked as the biggest surprise, but it did bring up the question--where had this Browns team been during the first five weeks of the season?
In rewatching the Browns-Giants game, one thing was clear. If the Browns' offensive line plays like this the rest of the year and if Browns offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski keeps calling plays like he did on Monday night, they should be able to shut down the game's best pass rushes.
The Giants came into the game tied for third in the league in sacks. New York has done it with a very balanced pass rush. Fred Robbins (four sacks) is the only Giants who ranks in the top 20 in sacks, but eighth different Giants have picked up a sack this year.
Against the Browns, that pass rush was rendered completely ineffective. Not only was Derek Anderson never sacked in 29 pass attempts, but he was never even knocked to the ground. The Giants only quarterback hurry all night came when safety Michael Johnson got a glancing blow on Anderson just after he released a touchdown pass. The Giants never forced a turnover and never even forced the Browns to punt.
So how did the Browns do it? Some of the credit has to go to the offensive line. Joe Thomas and Ryan Tucker completely neutralized the Giants defensive ends, while the rest of the line did a good job of giving Anderson a solid pocket to step up into.
But in rewatching the game, I'd give even more credit to Chudzinski, who called a nearly perfect game.
On the first drive of the game, the Browns called four running plays, all of them were run to the middle or the right side--three of them were run right at Tuck. It seemed a little counterintuitive. The strength of the Browns offensive line is supposed to be the left side, where 2007 first-round pick Thomas and 2007 big-money free agent acquisition Eric Steinbach are considered two of the AFC's best offensive linemen. The right side of the Browns line doesn't have nearly the same pedigree. Right guard Rex Hadnot was a bargain pickup this offseason after the Dolphins let him go while right tackle Tucker is more known for missing time because of a battle with depression and a steroids suspension than for his blocking prowess. And Tuck is the Giants best defensive lineman.
But it worked. Tuck made three tackles on those four running plays, but the Browns picked up 20 yards (five yards per carry) on them. Although it was a quick pass to Braylon Edwards that turned into a 49-yard gain that was the play of the drive, the Browns established the run enough to ensure that play-action worked well the rest of the night.
While the Browns tried to neutralize Tuck by running at him, they also took advantage of the Giants defensive scheme. Defensive tackle Fred Robbins can create havoc because he's quick enough to beat an offensive guard off the snap. He shoots a gap before the linemen can recover, and then blows up running plays before they can develop. It also explains why he has four sacks and why eight of Robbins 13 tackles coming into the game had come behind the line or for no gain.
Hadnot was not quick enough to beat Robbins off of the snap, but he was quick enough to use Robbins momentum against him. Robbins would shoot a gap, and Hadnot would seal him off and then ride him out of the play, allowing Robbins to fly into the backfield, but away from the direction of Jamal Lewis' run. It worked extremely well--the Giants did not record a tackle for loss all night, and the only Browns run that was stuffed for no gain came when Anderson fumbled a snap and fell on it.
Chudzinski's play calling all night had a theme--he was going to use the Giants aggressiveness against them. The Browns ran a reverse to Jerome Harrison for 33 yards, and used a fake handoff and keeper by Joshua Cribbs (run from the Browns' version of the Dolphins Wildcat formation) for 12 yards. The Browns also found that play action rollouts created plenty of time for Anderson as the Giants linemen and linebackers were sucked in by the threat of a Lewis' run.
But Chudzinski's best decision was to base the passing attack on getting the ball out before the Giants' pass rush could get there. In the first half, the Browns relied almost entirely on three-step drops. By doing that, it not only neutralized the Giants' pass rush, but turned blitzes into opportunities for the Browns. On the first big play of the game, the Giants had brought eight men up to the line, leaving the cornerbacks in man coverage with only one safety for deep help. The Browns actually sent four men out into the pattern, while the Giants rushed six. If Cleveland had chosen to set up with a five or seven-step drop, the Giants play call may have worked. But with Anderson taking a simple three step drop before turning and hitting Braylon Edwards on a simple slant-in, the Giants pass rush was turned into a liability--it just left plenty of open room for Edwards to run once he beat Aaron Ross. The line did an excellent job of giving Anderson the second he needed, and running back Jason Wright made the play work by coming up to pick up blitzing linebacker Gerris Wilkerson.
The Browns next big play came because Chudzinski once again took advantage of the Giants aggressiveness. On a first and 10, the Browns lined up with two backs, a tight end on the left side of the line and wide receiver Joshua Cribbs lined up just off the tight end's hip. With Braylon Edwards lined up as the only wide receiver split out, it looked like a running formation, and considering the situation, the Giants were right to expect a handoff to Jamal Lewis.
Because of the formation and the Giants concern about the Browns' running game, nine of the Giants defenders were bunched up near the line. And safety Kenny Phillips, while lined up deep 10 yards off the ball, was head-up on tight end Steve Heiden on the right side of the Giants alignment, 20-25 yards away from Edwards.
Again that left Ross lined up on Edwards on an island. Considering the formation and the location of the safeties, Anderson can tell at the snap that Ross will have no help, which makes for a very easy read on a play that will essentially have only two passing options.
At the snap, Cribbs leaves his spot to the left of Heiden and comes across the formation behind the line, while Anderson heads back to fake a handoff to Lewis. The entire offensive line blocks down (to their left) with aggressive blocks that appear to signal that it's a running play. As Anderson carries out the play fake, nine Giants are within three yards of the line of scrimmage, and Phillips has taken a step in from his deep safety spot. By the time the majority of the Giants defensive line realizes that it's a pass play, they are all standing upright at the line, a good 10 yards away from Anderson.
The only Giants pass rusher that could have destroyed the play was left defensive end Jerome McDougle. Because the line blocked down, no offensive lineman could block McDougle. It was up to fullback Lawrence Vickers to pick up McDougle and give Anderson time. He did his role perfectly, as McDougle didn't get free from the block until Anderson was stepping into his throw. Again Edwards beat Ross badly (this time by three yards) for a 70-yard gain that helped turn the momentum of the game.
The Browns won the battle of the line of scrimmage all night, and Chudzinski gave the Giants plenty to worry about (including an unbalanced line formation at one point). If you're looking for things to nitpick, Steinbach failed to maintain his block on several running plays, Thomas was nearly beaten by Tuck on one pass play and Thomas was flagged once for holding. But overall, it was a nearly flawless performance by the Browns offensive line, with Hadnot , Tucker and fill-in tight end Heiden playing especially well--when the Browns needed two first downs to end the game, they ran behind the right side of their line on five consecutive plays. On the two first down plays, Heiden was asked to block Tuck by himself. Not only did he manage to block Tuck, but he drove him out of the hole.
It was that way all night. Although the Giants are the defending Super Bowl champs, on this night defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was a step behind Chudzinski.