BAREA, Ohio (AP) The Browns running game was one of the team’s biggest strengths early in the season. Now, it’s become a crutch in the wake of Pro Bowl center Alex Mack’s season-ending leg injury.
”It’s expected,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said of the team’s recent trouble on the ground. ”I knew this was going to happen. I’ve never gone through an NFL season where you just do it every single week. You know eventually someone’s going to take (the run game) away.”
It has been taken away considerably in the past two weeks, as the Browns gained just 108 combined rushing yards against the Jaguars and Raiders, which have two of the weaker run defenses in the NFL.
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But Shanahan isn’t pinning anything on just the restructured offensive line, which now includes center Nick McDonald, who hadn’t played in a game since 2012 before Sunday. The problem affects the entire offense.
”It takes eleven guys to run the ball,” Shanahan said. ”Every single position had at least one play (wrong against the Raiders). I think a lot of it was tough sledding but when we did have our opportunities, we were one guy off and I think that can get fixed.”
Running back Ben Tate has also seen defenses key in on the Browns’ rushing attack recently, forcing the passing game to step up. And as that element has struggled, so too has the ground game.
”I think (opposing defenses) definitely have an emphasis on not letting us run the ball. I could tell they were really focused on that, especially Oakland,” Tate said. ”If you’re not throwing the ball well, then those guys are going to stay up in the box. We started throwing the ball pretty well at the end (against the Raiders). At the end of the game, it loosened up a little bit.”
Shanahan sees opponents game planning so heavily against the run as a good thing. The Browns just have to take advantage of it.
”I think we earned (that) as an offense because we showed people we could run the ball.” he said. ”That’s what we want. We want people to feel like they have to commit to stop something.”
But another pressing issue is the running back rotation itself. While having three solid runners may be a problem most teams would want, Cleveland is still working to find a rotation that suits them best. Particularly one that includes undrafted rookie Isaiah Crowell.
In the Browns’ 24-6 loss to the Jaguars, Crowell had just seven touches for 18 yards. And in Sunday’s 23-13 win over the Raiders, Crowell was completely absent, with just one carry for one yard.
Prior to those two games, Crowell had 11 carries in three of four games and averaged over five yards per rush in that span while seemingly establishing himself as one of the team’s more dynamic runners. But issues handling the ball – including a lost fumble – in the Browns’ 31-10 victory over Pittsburgh played into coach Mike Pettine’s decision to keep Crowell on the sidelines against Oakland.
”In hindsight, we did want to get him more touches but just the way the game fell, especially at the end, we went with Ben (Tate) to finish the game out,” Pettine said. ”More from his history of protecting the football, we felt better about it.”
The Browns do want to get Crowell more touches. It just looks as though Cleveland’s plan will remain fluid on a week-to-week and even in-game basis.
”We only can play one back at a time,” Shanahan said. ”Every single play in the NFL is crucial. You don’t get a ton of plays, you never know what’s going to happen. I wish we could give all of them carries but we’re not going to. That’s not really possible.”
NOTES: TE Jordan Cameron (concussion) did not practice Thursday. . The Browns signed WR Phil Bates to the practice squad, releasing DB Marcus Cromartie. . Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil spoke on Thursday about the dog collars hanging up in the defensive players’ lockers. ”We wanted to develop a unique way to keep reinforcing `Play Like a Brown,”’ he said. ”Guys would be rewarded for plays on the field with a bone (tag on the collar) for every time they did something that we considered a `Play Like a Brown’ play. It’s gotten competitive.”