Browns running game should be key down stretch

Isaiah Crowell is enjoying a nice rookie season for the Browns. 

Brynn Anderson/AP

The return of 2013 NFL receiving champion Josh Gordon from suspension changes a lot for the Cleveland Browns offense.

It shouldn’t change the plan — or the need — to run the ball during the stretch run.

The Browns inexplicably started throwing with the lead in the fourth quarter last Sunday in Atlanta. Gordon was a big part of the Browns winning the game with eight catches for 120 yards but rookie runners Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West were averaging six yards per carry on the day and Crowell had two powerful touchdown runs.

The Browns won anyway thanks to some late heroics by Brian Hoyer and some shoddy game management by the Falcons. They moved to 7-4, and with five games left they’re right in the thick of a crowded AFC playoff race.

The Browns are running the ball for an average of 116 yards per game. Crowell, the starter the last two games, is averaging five yards per carry on his 90 carries this season.

He needs, say, 40 or 50 more over the next two games.

Sunday in Buffalo the Browns face a very good Bills defense. That shouldn’t change the plan to run first to set up everything else. Gordon can clearly make game-breaking plays, but his presence on the perimeter should help the run game, too.

The Bills rank eighth in the NFL against the run. The other Browns remaining opponents against the run rank as such…

Colts 17th.

Bengals 27th.

Panthers 22nd.

Ravens 5th.

Remember in the first Browns-Bengals game when the Browns got an early interception and ran five straight times until they scored? Especially in December, we might see that again.

The Browns are tied for second in the NFL with 14 rushing touchdowns. Crowell’s seven touchdowns are third most in the league — and he has fewer than half the carries of the league’s leader, Marshawn Lynch. West has 126 carries on the season for 470 yards and three touchdowns.

West has been a bit streaky. His best games in terms of average per carry have come when he’s carried 14 or more times.

The Browns have only had more runs than passes in three of their wins, but the weather and Hoyer having the league’s lowest completion percentage could and should figure into the game plans Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan formulates the rest of the way. A crazy comeback in Tennessee ended up with the Browns having 35 runs and 36 passes.

Balance is good. Hoyer throwing 40 or more times is not.

Getting cute almost cost the Browns a win in Atlanta. With 11 AFC teams holding winning records heading into this week’s games, there’s no margin for error.

Gordon will get his touches. They just shouldn’t come at the expense of what the Browns do best.

LB joins practice squad: The Browns signed LB Keith Pough to the practice squad Tuesday. They released WR L’Damian Washington to clear a spot. Pough spent the first 10 weeks on the Browns’ practice squad before being elevated to the active roster on Nov. 14. He was inactive for one game and was waived on Nov. 22.