Coming off a season in which we saw him rush for 952 yards and seven touchdowns, both a career-high and top-30 rushing season in Browns history, many league experts labeled Isaiah Crowell as one of the breakout running backs to expect in 2017. If you need evidence, just search “Isaiah Crowell breakout” in Google and see the plethora of articles written on the topic.
The angle here was obvious: The Browns invested heavily to improve their offensive line by signing Kyle Zeitler, J.C. Tretter, and were also getting back healthy Pro-Bowler Joel Bitonio (who they signed to an extension). Mix those additions with the removal of weak links such as Cam Erving and you have a recipe for vastly improving what was already a somewhat steady rushing attack from the Browns in 2016.
Well, through two games in the 2017 season we have gotten the exact opposite of what we expected. Crowell has limped to 70 yards on 27 carries, averaging a putrid 2.6 yards per attempt. That pales in comparison to the 4.8 number we saw him post in 2016. Only running your top running back 27 times in two games is an entirely different topic for discussion, especially given the fact that these first two games have been close in nature. Yet, Crowell has been the problem on the majority of the run plays called his way. He appears hesitant, untrusting, lethargic, and lacking quick-twitch burst when his number is called.
When analyzing the run game, the blame often can’t be placed on one person in particular. Commonly, there are multiple breakdowns within a play and game, and the Browns are plenty guilty of that so far. The run game takes all eleven offensive players working in harmonious sync. The bigger issue is always a pattern. Patterns appearing ubiquitously within a stretch of games will display the larger issues a type play is having. While there are others who are not immune to criticism, it is the failures of Crowell that seem to be the biggest problematic pattern we keep seeing in the Browns’ run game. Furthermore, when Crowell is asked to accomplish the other tasks deemed important to a running back within an offense, like pass protection for example, Crowell has somehow been even worse.
Crowell has a tendency of not totally trusting what he is seeing through two games. There have been multiple times within the inside zone concept (a concept I am positive he is not built for when run from the gun) where his head is noticing the correct running lane, but he is then missing it. We are seeing too much of this as well, where Crowell isn’t trusting his line and fins himself steering toward the unblocked defender in the scheme:
The windows within the inside zone game open and close fast at the collegiate level, let alone the NFL. It’s all about numbers, or hats on hats, and often times Crowell isn’t understanding or trusting what is unfolding through his lineman. For success, Crowell has to trust his vision and press the hole, then make the traditional one-cut to open the lane within the scheme.
Here Crowell has the opportunity to press the hole, and make his cut left where his left side has formed a nice hole. Instead he bears down too quick and chooses the side with an approaching unblocked defender.
Another example of Crowell blatantly missing the opportunity the line has given him if he presses the hole and makes one sharp cut to his right. In the inside zone scheme you have to press the hole to make defenders commit their hips, then put your foot down on a dime to hit the now opening running lane.
Now we some examples of what we need more of from Crowell in the inside zone scheme. Here he gets down hill immediately off his one-cut and gains nine yards.
The outside zone concept is quite popular to run parallel to the inside zone, and the Browns try to do it often. It was a staple of Hue’s first years in Cleveland. We need to see it again.
WFNY’s Joe Gilbert took a look at some of the factors outside of Crowell’s control here, but the Browns need more from Crowell in this scheme. Hue prefers the zone scheme as his team’s bread and butter, and Crowell has to be the bell cow in this system. More decisiveness is need in week 3.
Hue rode the power scheme plenty last year. Although esoteric, in short, the power scheme is a simple down block scheme with a pull from the backside guard for the play side inside linebacker. It’s effective at creating angles for your lineman, and it forms a lead blocking system that most downhill backs like to follow. The same for the counter, except we see run action stepping away initially to create some misdirection aimed at fooling linebackers. It can be run with or without the fullback. The Browns used Vitale for the power scheme here, and no it’s coincidence this was their best run of the year thus far.
The problem is that we are still seeing Crowell hesitant too often and Hue gets gun shy. Take a look here in the second Quarter against Pittsburgh when Crowell fails to get north and south during this counter when the clip pauses. Sure Watt is to his left, but if he puts his foot into the ground to get vertical, there is plenty of room to run. This has to be a healthy gain.
Again, the run game failure isn’t something that one person is always solely responsible for. There are plenty of clips that display break downs from interior lineman, and missed blocks by his tight ends, especially the over-matched Njoku when attached to the line. Crowell isn’t always going to rip off huge gains, but when he carries the experience and expectations that he does, he can’t make the constant mistakes that we are seeing. Crowell just has to be better.
In the modern NFL, pass protection is about as vital to a running back as elusiveness. The average throw rate keeps increasing league wide, and running backs, in order to stay on the field, have to be able to block for their respective quarterback — especially when blitz happy defenses send an additional linebacker or defensive back. NFL defenses love to mess with numbers, and when blitzing, they find any weakness they can. In 2017 pass protection thus far the weakness has been Crowell.
Crowell has too often lacked any base when taking on blitzing defenders coming from 5+ yards off the ball. He is weak in delivering initial contact and he’s being driven into his quarterback’s face. Kizer can’t have this when he learning downfield defense with each snap.
Here Crowell just doesn’t know his assignment and almost gets Kizer hurt. I can’t speak to the Browns scheme here, but typically running back blitz coverage works inside out. This is bad.
Off play-action here we have Dan Vitale taking anything off the edge in secondary support, so wouldn’t it make sense for Crowell to have his eyes inside? Another breakdown leads to a sack.
Pass protection is vital to a running back’s job, and if Crowell is going to keep wanting the football, he has to take care of his other duties as well. At the least, if he is going to disappoint with the way he’s running the ball, he can’t slack off here or he will lose the faith of everyone around him. I’m afraid we are already going down that path.
On Wednesday Crowell was asked some interesting questions by media members regarding his future. Crowell seems to have his mind elsewhere currently, and his quotes could not have been made at a worse time for the running back given his poor start. Crowell noted when he is thinking about a possible payday after 2017: “During the game, after the game, before the game, right now, all the time,” he said Wednesday. “It’s just obvious to think about.” Crowell simply can’t make these kinds of statements. Sure, it’s obvious it would be on his mind and that is fair. Just have some respect for the situation your team is currently in, and the situation you have presented yourself with your play. Discussing money in a situation where you are vastly under-performing just isn’t savvy.
Crowell continued on with the interview, and it got worse. He put the blame on others, specifically play-calling from Head Coach Hue Jackson, when discussing his early season struggles. He noted, “I wouldn’t say upset, but sometimes I question it.” Crowell continued, “Everybody has their own opinions. I have my own opinions. You might have your own opinions. Hue Jackson has his own opinions. I’m just a player. I don’t cross those boundaries. I just control what I can control.” This is a media 101 disaster for the Browns.
Hue Jackson responded with this to local media:
Through Hue’s response we can see a few things. First, Hue wants the Browns players to come to him wanting the ball, he is craving play-makers in this offense. Second, and most importantly, Hue makes it clear he is quite displeased with Crowell’s performance with this comment, “Now, that being said, you better make the plays when you get them, OK? There is another responsibility that comes with that. I start handing it to you 25-30 times, I am looking for 160-150 yards and a couple of long scores.”
To me, all of this is nonsense that should be avoided. Right now Isaiah Crowell should have his head down and be busting his rear end in an effort to improve his play. Discussing issues with his upcoming free agency and his issues with play-calling are only making matters worse. Most of the Browns fan base is behind Crowell, they support him heavily. His vast under-production is raising some serious red flags that fan can’t overlook. Crowell needs to take this three week opportunity against some weaker opponents to get his season back on track. Sure, Hue and company can help Crowell out with the design and increased volume of plays in his direction and I expect that to happen. But if Crowell wants those things consistently he simply has to play better. The Browns wont show any largesse in 2018 if it doesn’t happen soon.