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MOORE: Ground game key for Browns

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David Moore

David Moore has been the senior football writer for FOX Sports since Aug. 2005. He appears weekly on the FSN Baseball Report and MLB on FOX. One more line lorem ipsum dolor sit amet e pluribus unum.

 
   
 

BEREA, Ohio

The agonizing moment his right Achilles tendon tore from the bone, the optimism that surrounded Cleveland came to a halt. put a Pro Bowl face on the ' playoff push. Watching his season end on the first possession of a preseason game isn't the tone anyone in the organization wanted to set. Concern over who will replace the veteran linebacker and how this young team responds is only natural. But as the next few months unfold, it won't be the loss of Miller that determines whether or not Cleveland makes good on its trendy status as a playoff contender. It will be the gains made by rookie and at running back. "We're starting to run the ball very well," Cleveland coach Butch Davis said as the team prepared for a preseason game against Detroit on Saturday night. "That part is very encouraging." This isn't a case of a coach attempting to divert attention from a crucial injury. This is Davis remaining focused on the big picture. Miller's statistics were imposing. His 13 sacks placed him among the league's elite. He had one interception, forced three fumbles, managed 31 quarterback pressures and was second on the team with 114 tackles. The former first-round pick meant too much to Cleveland's opportunistic defense to be dismissed as expendable now that he's gone. But he was a luxury in the scheme, not a necessity. That's why the club didn't sign him to an extension during the off-season. Look at Davis' history with Dallas and the University of Miami. His defenses were built around dominating defensive lines — or at least lines that could overwhelm the opponent by attacking them in waves. The linebackers were talented and athletic but often undersized. He views the outside linebackers as mirror images. Example: When Davis was with the , the team moved weak-side linebacker Dixon Edwards to the strong side and structured a Super Bowl defense. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Miller is unlike any linebacker Davis has ever coached. Remember, he emerged as a pass-rushing threat for the first time in his eight-year career last season because defensive end was hurt.
Running on empty
YearRush yds.Avg. per gameAvg. per carry
20011,35184.43.2
20001,08567.83.2
19991,15071.93.7
The sunk $32.78 million in signing bonuses into their starting defensive front of Brown, , and . That's where Davis believes the battle is won. It doesn't matter whether — the current flavor at strong-side linebacker — or or someone else assumes Miller's starting job. What Cleveland must do to take a step forward is develop a ground game. "I think it's the toughest part of football to put together," Davis said. "The running game requires guys to play together in the offensive line and a difference-maker as a running back, a guy who legitimately makes something when there isn't a lot there." Davis wants a back who turns what should be a two-yard gain into six yards, who stretches an apparent six-yard run into 12 yards and a first down. He drives this point home not just with the backs, offensive line and tight ends, but with the receivers. The carried the ball 29 times for 127 yards in their scrimmage against Buffalo. When Davis reviewed the film with the players, he illustrated how they could have nudged that total above 160 yards if the receivers had done a better job of blocking. "It's a mindset," Davis said. It was a mindset the stressed in 2001 to no avail. Cleveland rushed for more than 100 yards in a game just twice last season. The were held to 70 yards or less six times and finished last in the NFL with an average of 84.4 yards on the ground. "If a team's not afraid of your running game, they'll just say, 'OK, let's blitz them all the time,'" White said. "Last year, teams blitzed us a lot. "But once you start going over 100 yards in a game, people start thinking, 'OK, let's not blitz them so much.' The play-action works a lot better and that helps the wide receivers get open." Davis cut practice short earlier this week after his players became involved in two fights over a span of three plays. He started by saying there was no excuse for such behavior. But in the same breath, Davis acknowledged that the fighting spirit the offense displayed encouraged him. The idea that the offense could win two out of every four snaps, or maybe even three of five, represents significant improvement. "Last year, they got their nose rubbed in it almost every, single day," Davis said. "The defense beat them, kicked them, knocked them down. They're starting to be able to respond. "It's gradual, but it's coming." Cleveland used a first-round pick on Green to breathe life into its running game. The back rushed for more than 2,700 yards and 29 touchdowns in his final two seasons at Boston College. It's hard to believe that Green won't carry the load for the this season. But the best back in camp — and at this stage, it's no contest — is White. No one thought enough of White to draft him when he came out of South Dakota more than two years ago. He was an afterthought going into the competition in this camp. But White has forced the coaching staff to pay attention. He rushed for 20 yards and had three catches for 81 yards and a touchdown in the team's preseason victory over Minnesota. He's out to prove his performance in the snow against Green Bay late last season — 21 carries for 131 yards — was no fluke. "Jamel has seized the opportunity," Davis said. "He's one of the hardest working athletes I've ever been around. He plays every play like it's his last in the NFL." Green hasn't displayed the same sense of urgency. He missed four of five practices in his first minicamp with a pulled calf muscle. He missed most of the 14 voluntary practices the conducted because of a groin pull and a players association-sponsored photo session for a trading card company. The running back was absent from the first six practices of camp because he had not agreed to a contract and missed two days recently with a sore shoulder. Davis considers Green a very talented player who, "by no stretch of the imagination is close to where he needs to be at this time." Green is confident it will all fall into place soon and refuses to regard himself as the spark that will ignite Cleveland's stagnant offense and give quarterback some balance. "What I try to do is not think about that stuff," Green said. "I need to focus on me, work hard and let the rest take care of itself." David Moore can be reached at his e-mail address, dmoore@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Browns, Panthers, Courtney Brown, Jamel White, Gerard Warren, William Green

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