Athleticism is the general trait most sought after in today's NFL. With it being more cost-effective to run zone schemes requiring runners to make smart reads instead of being able to run 4.3s, the NFL is seeing more teams employ that kind of offense.
And that's exactly what Cleveland is doing under offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Perhaps their best off-season acquisition is the team's second-round pick, left guard Joel Bitonio, an athletic guard who's taking to the zone scheme like a duck to water and is a big part of the reason the Browns are among the league leaders in rushing yards per game.
Cleveland (2-2) heads into their Week 6 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers standing at fourth in the league with 143.3 rushing yards per game and with the powerful one-two punch of Ben Tate and Terrance West, combined with the shifty speed of Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland is cranking out rushing yards at a high level. Most importantly, their offensive line has been dominant with Bitonio emerging as one of the most effective guards in the game.
While he won't match up exclusively on Steelers' defensive end Cameron Heyward, it's an interesting contrast in that, as fast a start as the rookie Bitonio has had, Heyward's has been slow. Expected to be the team's most disruptive defender in 2014, "Wreck It" Heyward has caused some disruption here and there, but it isn't happening as consistently as many hoped, and the Steelers' defense continue to languish around the league's middle in most statistics.
In the Browns' zone scheme, they'll get Bitonio out in front of the their outside zone play to the left side. Depending on where he lines up, Heyward will either be charged with staying on the play side of Bitonio's helmet or maintaining control of the space behind him, thus eliminating the cut-back line for the running back. You'll see him at the right defensive end position in base, and he'll move to the 4i technique both on the left and right sides on passing downs,
It's a key matchup to watch because the Steelers will need to shore up any gap-assignment confusion they might have if they want to be more like the first half of Week 1, when the Steelers choked out the Browns' offense, particularly their running game. But the Steelers fell apart in the second half, both against the run and pass, and needed a late field goal to hold onto the win.
Look for Heyward to play much better in Week 6 than he did in the team's last two games, but Bitonio will provide a very difficult challenge.
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