Coming off the Cleveland Browns worst loss of the season at home against the Houston Texans, everyone is firing blame around the team. From starting quarterback Brian Hoyer to a porous defensive line, the blame should be divided equally for a performance that reminded fans of four-win seasons of years past.
What is curious in all of the assessments coming in from fans and media members alike is the lack of blame being put on offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan. With the team racking up six wins in their first nine games of the season, many have given the supposed offensive genius a lot of slack for some peculiar offensive calls—both in terms of playcalling and personnel.
However, after the drubbing the team received at the hands of the Texans on Sunday, it is now time for head coach Mike Pettine to step up and make a statement to Shanahan and the team’s offense.
Coming from a defensive background, Pettine has seemingly been hands-off when it comes to the offense all season—allowing Shanahan and the position coaches to handle the rotation and calls. But after witnessing one the most atrocious attempts at offensive football played by the Browns this year, Pettine needs to put his foot down in the following three situations before the team heads to Atlanta to take on the Falcons in a must-win game on Sunday.
Pick a Running Back and Stick With Him
Raise your hand if you had a clue who was going to get the bulk of the carries on Sunday for the Cleveland Browns. The curious game of running back roulette Shanahan has been playing on Sunday is seriously becoming one of the most frustrating aspects of the team.
After Terrance West carried the ball 26 times for 94 yards and a touchdown in the team’s road win over the Bengals, West was essentially non-existent in the team’s gameplan on Sunday. He carried the ball just five times for 12 yards after looking explosive and decisive in Cincinnati.
Instead, it was undrafted rookie Isaiah Crowell who got the start for the Browns—carrying the ball 14 times for 61 yards and a fumble in the loss. Continuing to lead the team in yards per carry, it is easy to see why Crowell—a power rusher—is a favorite of the coaching staff, but his fumbling issues from practice finally caught up to him in the game. His fumble in the second quarter with Browns driving and the game tied was a back breaker, as the Texans turned and scored a touchdown before the half to take a 14-7 lead.
Speaking of non-existent, Ben Tate’s incredible fall from grace continued on Sunday as well. The veteran logged two carries for negative nine yards on the day. Tate has certainly looked slower since his injury earlier in the season, but after signing him to a two-year deal before the season it literally looks like Shanahan and the coaches want nothing to do with him anymore.
If I am Pettine, this three-man rotation has to stop now. He needs to instruct Shanahan to pick a back and give him 20-plus carries a game. The backs looked complacent on the field on Sunday when their number was called, and it is because a running back must be able to develop a rhythm and comfort level with his offensive line over the course of the game. If the back and line are not on the same page on a run-heavy team, the result is what we saw on Sunday—and it will continue until some continuity is established.
Stop with the Run Toss Plays
Anyone who sits in my section of First Energy Stadium can tell you—I despise toss plays at the NFL level. It takes a special type of running back to be able to get to the edge against an NFL defense and turn the play into plus yardage, and quite frankly that running back is not on the Cleveland Browns roster.
So why is it that Shanahan and the offense continue to go with these toss plays which net negative yardage? I can understand maybe one or two a game when you catch the defense napping when they overload a particular side of the line of scrimmage, but that is not what the Browns are doing. Instead of handing it off in a traditional set, the call is for Hoyer to perform a quick toss (increasing the risk for a fumble) to the back to attempt to get them on the edge quicker. The problem is, the backs aren’t getting to the edge—in fact, they are going backwards.
This is not something new from the Texans game either, we have seen this time and time again all season. And when they called a toss to Tate of all running backs in the third quarter which netted a negative six-yard play, this writer’s boiling point had been reached. Enough is enough, take the toss play out of the playbook.
It does not take an offensive genius to understand that the Browns running game is at its best when running between the tackles in power formations. These attempts to re-create some sort of collegiate big-play on the toss are just not happening—and in most cases they are destroying a drive before it can even get started, putting the team in a 2nd and 12 or worse situation right away.
For a team that has a quarterback who lacks elite traits, you absolutely cannot put the offense in that kind of hole. So it is time for Pettine to put his foot down and remove the word “toss” from Shanahan’s playbook.
Put Hoyer in More Up-tempo Situations
The question has been asked many times in regard to why the Browns do not run more up-tempo offense and the same answer has been given, they do not want to fatigue the offense for late in the game. While I fully understand this mentality, it is clear to the common fan that Hoyer and the offense are at their best right now when running an up-tempo offense.
It was easy to see this on the touchdown drive that culminated in a touchdown pass to Andrew Hawkins, and again on the drive which ended in a Crowell fumble. The up-tempo mentality goes hand-in-hand with what Hoyer does well—getting the ball out quickly. So why not try and exploit this early on in the game?
It is truly mind-boggling why a team that has started slow all season would not try and come out “guns a blazing” to get an opposing defense on their heels early. Your offense isn’t the only one that gets fatigued when the tempo is up, the opposing defense does too. On Sunday, this would have meant forcing the Texans to either waste timeouts or perform more substitutions on their vaunted defensive line—which could have meant a little less J.J. Watt.
On top of all of this, an up-tempo approach early could have produced more points and forced the Texans to throw more with their first-time starting quarterback, Ryan Mallett, and abandon the run a little bit more.
We have all been pleasantly surprised with the Browns this season, but it is not time to develop the “well, it is already better than last season” mentality. Yes, Pettine’s group fell from first to last in the tough AFC North with one game—but they are still 6-4 and in control of their own destiny when it comes to making the playoffs THIS season.
With a trip to the 4-6 Atlanta Falcons coming up and the return of Josh Gordon against an absolutely atrocious Atlanta defense, the time is now to get back to their winning ways. This Sunday is a must-win on so many levels for the Browns before a road trip to Buffalo, so Pettine needs to get his team right this week—and it all starts with the plan you just read.