Heading into the Week 11 Bye, the Cleveland Browns organization was looking for some signs of life out of their football team. Instead, they were handed a 30-9 loss by a Pittsburgh Steelers team that was supposed to be without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who came in after Landry Jones was knocked out with a foot injury.
There are a lot of things from Sunday’s game that can be talked about at length—and luckily for you there’s a whole bye week for us to get to them all. But the main source of frustration for this writer from Sunday’s loss was the inability to establish anything resembling a run game against a team that has not been very good against the run this season.
Coming into Sunday’s game, the Steelers defense was giving up over 100 yards per game against the run. Naturally, the Browns ran the ball 14 times for 15 yards when they had the opportunity to come out and take advantage of a team giving up four yards per carry on the ground.
Granted the duo of Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. has not exactly inspired confidence in the future of the position for the Browns offense, but the opportunity should have been there for this team. Latavius Murray put up 96 yards on 17 carries a week ago, Jeremy Hill had 60 on 15 carries before that and Charcandrick West—filling in for the injured Jamaal Charles—put up 110 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries before him.
Put simply, the Steelers run defense is not that good. So, for the Browns offensive staff to treat their offensive attack like they were going up against the top rushing defense in the league on Sunday is quite puzzling.
Crowell ran the ball just six times for negative five yards, while Johnson carried it four times for 10 yards. Yes, you read that correctly—the Browns rushed the ball just 10 times over the course of four quarters with their running backs against a team giving up 100-plus yards per game on the ground.
When it was all said and done, starting quarterback Johnny Manziel led the team in rushing. He carried the ball three times for 17 yards. Travis Benjamin also chipped in a failed run attempt, rushing one time for negative seven yards.
Going back and looking at the play by play from the game, obviously the tone was set in a negative manner with the Manziel fumble on the Browns first offensive play, which led to a field goal by the Steelers. The Browns followed it up with a field goal of their own on a drive in which they ran with Crowell twice out of six plays before the three-point attempt.
One of the things that stands out on that particular drive is the fact that they ran it on 1st and Goal after the Benjamin 61-yard catch, but completely abandoned the run on the next two plays. Instead, they opted for two short passes which fell short of the endzone and led to the field goal.
After the Steelers took the lead with another field goal, the Browns started what would be a 51-yard drive on 10 plays at their own seven. That drive began with two straight passes, before the Browns ran with Johnson who gained nine yards. He then followed that up with a five-yard run.
Despite gaining 14 yards with Johnson on two consecutive runs, the team decided to go with Benjamin on an end-around for negative seven yards. Digging themselves in a hole, the Browns went back to the pass for two plays to get a first down. Instead of going back to Johnson who had the hot hand running the ball, they would throw the ball three consecutive times and finally be forced to punt.
This series was the definition of maddening. Why they went to a trick play after two very good runs from Johnson needs to be answered. Furthermore, after they got the first down and moved to the Steelers 46-yard line, why did they not go back to the run with the Steelers defense on their heels a little after a 17-yard 1st down on 3rd and 14?
Still in the first half, the Browns would get the ball back after a Martavis Bryant fumble on a big play. Down 6-3, the Browns came out with a run left for negative four yards with Crowell. This put them back into pass mode for three consecutive plays, before Johnson ran left for negative one. Three plays later, Johnson would run the ball again for negative four before the Browns ended up punting again.
Right about now you are probably wondering why I am having you re-live these drives. Well, earlier I told you the Browns ran the ball just 10 times with Crowell and Johnson in the entire game. If you add up the rushes in the drives I detailed above, it equals seven. The Browns ran the ball seven times with their running backs in their first four drives of the game.
Why is this significant? Because they were only down 6-3 at that time.
You know the rest of the story. The Steelers would score two touchdowns and convert a two-point conversion to go up 21-3 before the half. The Browns would have the ball two times more before the half, Crowell ran once on a three-and-out drive and ran once again on their lone play on a possession before the end of the half. Those two runs bring our total to nine rushes from the running backs in the first half.
For those who are not good at simple math, that means that Browns ran the ball just ONE time in the second half with their running backs. Now, down 21-3 teams naturally switch to more of a passing attack. And this was the case, as they got that pesky last run by a running back out of the way on their first possession of the second half.
Okay, I think you get the point. But in case you don’t, let me finish with this.
An offense that talked about being a “power rushing attack” all offseason ran the ball just 10 times with their running backs on Sunday. In the new era of the NFL, teams are throwing the ball more—but how can you expect to establish any type of run if you are giving your running backs just 10 chances to do something with the ball?
If the Browns are looking to fix something as they head into their bye week and extended time off before a Monday Night game against the Baltimore Ravens, the offense might want to think about running the ball a little more. With six games to go—unless the tank job is in—some sort of balance needs to be created. And it all starts with running the ball more than 10 times with your running backs.