BEREA — It’s too simplistic to say that Cleveland’s signing of left guard Eric Steinbach reversed the fortunes of the Bengals and the Browns in 2007.
But it definitely had an impact.
Steinbach was the Browns’ top free-agent pickup, agreeing to a seven-year, $49.5 million deal to leave the Bengals after four seasons. He immediately added credibility to a Browns offensive line that had long been a trouble spot.
“It has helped up tremendously,” coach Romeo Crennel said. “I think that kind of ability helped solidify the line along with adding Joe to that side. Those guys have developed into a pretty good left side.”
Step 2 of general manager Phil Savage’s plan to overhaul the line was drafting left tackle Joe Thomas with the third overall pick. Kevin Shaffer shifted to right tackle, center Hank Fraley was re-signed, and a weakness had become a strength.
The Browns have allowed just 17 sacks, 12 since Derek Anderson took over in the second quarter of the opener. The low for the Browns since they returned was 35 in 2002. The high was 60 in 1999.
Steinbach was named first alternate for the Pro Bowl on Tuesday.
“Every day, it doesn’t matter what’s wrong with him or what’s going on, he’s going to play well,” Fraley said. “He’s just a hard-working guy and gets his job done.”
The pairing of Steinbach and Thomas has created one of the most athletic tandems in the league. Neither carries much extra weight and both can get out and pull, which added a dimension to the running game.
Meanwhile, 250 miles south on I-71, the Bengals struggled without Steinbach’s versatility. He played guard and tackle for them, and they spent the first month of the season juggling their lineup.
“We miss him a lot. He was probably the most productive offensive lineman we had,” Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer said. “He brought a lot of attitude to the game and obviously athleticism, good feet and we ran screens with him very well and a power play with him very well.”
Cincinnati (5-9) has plenty of reasons for its unanticipated struggles. It was ravaged by injuries, including the entire linebacking corps. Palmer had an off year — for him — throwing 17 interceptions, which is on pace for a career high. Running back Rudi Johnson was slowed by injury and averaged just 2.9 yards a carry.
“They’re just not winning games they expect to win,” Steinbach said, downplaying his role.
But the Steinbach factor can’t be dismissed. He was Cincinnati’s second-round pick out of Iowa in 2003 and started 62 games.
“When he left, it left them a hole,” said Browns defensive lineman Shaun Smith, who left Cincinnati for the Browns as a restricted free agent. “Losing a guy that knows your whole system, it’s hard to fill that role in one year.”
Stealing Steinbach from a division rival doubled the impact of the move – but that was just a fortunate byproduct, according to Crennel.
“You’re just looking for true talent,” he said. “If it happens to be from one of your division opponents and you’re able to get him, you’re in effect helping yourself and do hurt your opponent by taking one of their good players.
“I don’t know that we’re trying to hurt them as much as we’re trying to help ourselves and we knew that he’d be able to help us.”
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said they made an offer to keep Steinbach, but he wanted to test the market. Once that happened, Lewis expected him to leave.
“We definitely didn’t want to see him go anywhere inside the division,” Palmer said. “You knew that he was going to make another team better wherever he went because he is that good of a player. It’s tough to see him go, especially to our big, in-state rival.”
At 6-foot-6, 295 pounds, Steinbach is so lean for a guard it shocked Fraley when they met in March. But Steinbach proved that he doesn’t need girth to be successful.
“I put on the weight to overcome everything,” joked Fraley, 6-2, 315. “He’s strong. He’s a technician when it comes to the run game.”
Jamal Lewis has been the beneficiary, rushing for 1,084 yards.
“He’s able to pull and run and get up to the linebackers quicker than most of those 350-pound guards,” Lewis said. “He’s a great player, physical, plays much larger than what he is.
“He’s a great addition and it shows.”
On the Browns and Bengals.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.