As promised, here is Between The Lines, featuring two games, as promised.
Cleveland Browns at Denver Broncos
a. The first thing that jumped out in re-watching the game was how excellent the Broncos line was in pass protection. I only saw two missed assignments the whole game in protection. Ryan Harris whiffed on David Bowens on 3rd-and-goal, with Tony Scheffler wide open for TD. Orton was hit as he threw, and the ball was short. Later, a blitz got to Orton from right up the middle, and Casey Wiegmann and Chris Kuper missed it, and left the hole wide open. Orton was again hit as he threw, and the ball fell incomplete. Other than that, the play of the Broncos line in protection was superb. Kamerion Wimbley had absolutely nothing for Ryan Clady, but that wasn't too surprising.
The Browns never got pressure with four men, and when they didn't blitz, Kyle Orton had all day in the pocket. When they blitzed with numbers, Orton and the line saw it, and got the ball out quickly, even if it did result in some incomplete passes. The best success Cleveland had was delayed blitzing, but there was still only one play which was close to a sack. ESPN.com counted 3 QB hits, but 2 were really innocuous. Not a good performance for the Browns pass rush.
b. The Browns did a pretty terrible job in protection, especially on the right side of their line. John St. Clair never was too good, and he has nothing left. I thought the Twitter Scout, Daniel Jeremiah, had a good line Sunday, so I will repeat it:
John St Clair is really bad. No feet, no punch, no chance. (@MoveTheSticks)
He was terrible all game. The Browns also lost Floyd Womack to injury early, and had to plug Hank Fraley in at RG for the rest of the game. Fraley is serviceable, but below average, as a Center, but he doesn't anchor well enough to play Guard. Alex Mack had the bad snap, but he was solid in his blocking, and Joe Thomas and Eric Steinbach were solid, as usual, on the Left Side. Steinbach was beaten badly by Robert Ayers on the near-safety of Brady Quinn. If Elvis Dumervil didn't wrap up Quinn from the back, Ayers was about to smash him from the front. Dumervil's first sack was surrendered by Thomas, but it was a three-step drop that was disrupted by a leaping Brian Dawkins, as described in the main ST&NO. St. Clair gave up the other 3 Dumervil sacks. Vonnie Holliday got pressure a couple times, and Marcus Thomas commanded a few double teams in pass rushing situations also. Checking the stats, the Broncos had the 4 sacks, and 5 more hits on Quinn.
c. The Broncos defensive linemen were tremendous in their run fits, once again. What I really like about this group, generally, is that they're all good football players, even if nobody is a superstar (though Marcus Thomas can be.) He, Ryan McBean, Holliday, Kenny Peterson, Ronald Fields, and Darrell Reid all took turns pushing their Cleveland offensive line opponents backward. For two weeks now, the Broncos have been re-setting the line of scrimmage positively, and that's the best development I have seen yet. This is a solid group, with no real drop-off between players. Only one bad play; Peterson got blown up on an early 10-yard Jamal Lewis run around left end.
The Browns line is soft and plays like they want to finesse defenses. I don't think that's really true of the rookie Mack, so much, but Thomas and Steinbach show little in the way of run-game nastiness, and with Womack getting hurt, the light-in-the-pants Fraley showed nothing good in the run game, either. St. Clair may have been even worse in the running game than the passing game. The guy is just useless, and I can't imagine that the Browns expected that he'd be good enough to win with. There were rumblings that the highly-paid Steinbach was on the outs with Eric Mangini's staff, due to his softness, and I suspect he may be gone after this season. If the Browns want to improve in 2010, they ought to make it a high priority to get a good RB, and about 3 more good offensive linemen. The Browns ran 21 times for 54 yards, a lousy 2.6 yard average.
d. In the Denver running game, the results were just as one-sided. Checking my notes, I see no material egregious missed assignments, and Ryan Clady, Ryan Harris, and Chris Kuper had excellent days in the running game, especially Harris, who was driving Robaire Smith off the ball pretty consistently. Clady was his usual dominant self, and was especially deadly getting out in front on a toss sweep to Correll Buckhalter, and a WR screen to Eddie Royal (which Royal blew by cutting back across the field. Kuper did a nice job of hitting LBs at the second level, as did Casey Wiegmann. Kuper, Wiegmann and Ben Hamilton had some trouble with the outstanding Shaun Rogers here and there, but they actually did better holistically than I had thought in real-time, as I re-watched the line play. Kuper got blown up by Rogers on the Peyton Hillis TD run, but it was not material, since Hillis scored. The good news was that all three TEs, Daniel Graham, Tony Scheffler, and Richard Quinn were outstanding in the run game, and they were joined by good efforts from Jabar Gaffney and Brandon Marshall downfield. Note that Kuper sat down once the game was decided, and Russ Hochstein did pretty well in run-blocking this week, off the bench. (By the way, Marshall's holding penalty on the Buckhalter screen was ticky-tack, and Graham actually had a much worse hold on the same play.) The whole team blocked well in the running game, racking up 186 yards on 37 carries, for a robust 5 yards per carry, with 2 TDs.
e. There was no question whatsoever who was better on both lines in this game. The Broncos dominated up front, and it was the primary reason they won the game. The reason you never thought for a second the Browns would win was their complete lack of ability to compete in the trenches. My DVR recorded a local Browns strategy show with some local hacks saying the Broncos weren't good on either line, but I guess they might know better now. I am here to tell you, it's increasingly clear that this Broncos team can compete with anybody in the NFL on the lines, both ways.
2. Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans
a. This was quite a game. Beginning with Houston's passing game performance, I questioned their ability to protect against Tennessee's outstanding front four, and for that main reason, I thought there was very little chance the the Texans would win the game. Well, the Texans got the job done in this area. Duane Brown is growing into a good LT, and Eric Winston is a good RT. Brown mostly got the better of the excellent Kyle Vanden Bosch, and Winston kept Jevon Kearse invisible in the passing game. The only time Kearse got noticed was when he jumped offsides, and sacked Matt Schaub, causing a fumble. Too bad it didn't count. Brown also recovered two Steve Slaton fumbles in the game, which was key. Brown had a false start, and was joined in that dishonor by Chester Pitts and Chris Myers, which means both games had Centers get false starts, which is pretty odd. Pitts was pushed backward quite a bit by Jason Jones, but he mostly held up okay before getting hurt. He was replaced by Kasey Studdard, son of former Bronco Dave Studdard. Kasey did fine in pass protection too, and so did Myers and Mike Brisiel (a Colorado State alum, for you Rams fans.) I was surprised by the lack of pressure generated by Jones and Tony Brown, who are both outstanding players, but the interior 3 for the Texans won that battle, playing backwards at least. Schaub wasn't sacked, and was hit 6 times, which marks a very successful day against THAT defensive line.
b. The Titans line also played pretty well in the passing game. Michael Roos had a hard time with Mario Williams, but he's the best DE in the NFL, so you'll have that. Williams got a sack against Roos. #71 is good, but anybody who says he is as good as Ryan Clady doesn't know what they are talking about. David Stewart held up pretty well on the other side, mostly facing Antonio Smith. Williams did rush from the defense's left side a few times, and it triggered an automatic double team, a sign of smart coaching. Houston's inside players, Amobi Okoye, Shaun Cody, and Frank Okam had very little impact, and Jeff Zgonina didn't do anything except recover the Kerry Collins fumble inside of 2 minutes which secured the game for the Texans. The Titans inside 3 of Jake Scott, Kevin Mawae, and Eugene Amano did a really good job in protection. Collins was sacked the once, and hit 3 times, with Mario Williams getting 2 of those.
c. The Texans really struggled to run the ball on Sunday, which was more in line with what I thought would happen when the two lines met. Jason Jones and Tony Brown were especially stout inside, and were joined by the Vanden Bosch, and Tennessee's excellent backups Jovan Haye and William Hayes, who each had a tackle for a loss. The Titans have so many good defensive linemen, it's almost unfair. I really think it's the best group, and the best-coached group, in the NFL. (Jones got ejected for throwing a punch, so the depth helped.) The Titans consistently pushed the line-of-scrimmage backward, and it was really not such good work by Duane Brown, Pitts, Studdard, Myers, and Brisiel. Winston did a good job against Kearse in the running game, but he was the lone wolf in that regard. This was physicality against finesse, and physicality utterly dominated. The gory details: 29 carries, 63 yards, a 2.2 yard average.
d. The Titans blocked pretty well for the running game, and it's a little mind-boggling why they didn't run more often. Let's start with the two long TD runs by Chris Johnson. On his early 57-yarder, Mario Williams lined up opposite RT Daivd Stewart, and the Titans ran a 3rd-and-19 draw to their left. Key downfield blocks by Mawae and Roos sprung Johnson, who is so fast, it doesn't take much to get him loose. On Johnson's 91-yard TD, Houston's Tim Bulman overran his edge-setting responsibility, and Johnson just followed Eugene Amano through a wide-open hole. If you take those two plays away, the Texans did somewhat better, but they still got killed here overall. A bright spot was Mario Williams running down Johnson on a 3rd-and-1 sweep, in the open field. Very few players make that play. The Titans rushed 26 times for 240 yards and 2 TDs. That's a 9.2 yard average, which drops to a still-decent 3.8 yards if you strip out the two long TDs.
e. The Titans are better on both lines than the Texans, and really should have won this game, if not for some excellent play by Schaub, Andre Johnson, and Owen Daniels, and losing the turnover battle. Tennessee has to be really upset to lose a game like this at home, and you heard it here first. They will clobber the Jets next week, because they can block New York's blitz packages, unlike the Texans and Patriots.