“The run game has got to become our backbone,” Cleveland Browns Head Coach Hue Jackson stated following the team’s season opening loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. “It does. I am not running from that. We are going to run the football.”
So far, that statement has been far from the truth.
The Browns run game has struggled when given the opportunity, especially running back Isaiah Crowell. Crowell has returned to his 2015 form where he has missed holes and has looked indecisive. He has not shown the downhill, see hole, hit hole mentality of a year ago. Along with Crowell, the offensive line has not gelled yet and is experiencing some early season growing pains as they learn how to play together.1 On the early season, the Browns have rushed 46 times for 150 yards with an average of 3.3 yards per carry. It has been a struggle to get the running game going.
But, beyond the overall struggle of the run game, Hue Jackson’s lack of belief and usage of the run game has been far more egregious. The Browns have called 72 pass plays on the season, while only calling 46 run plays. That means Cleveland is running the ball just 38.9% of the time. The Browns have had the eighth most pass plays in the entire league. The unbalanced calls came despite never being more than two scores down at any point during the entire 2017 season.
How can the run game be the backbone of the offense when Jackson refuses to consistently call on them?
The lack of a consistent use of the run game affects the overall performance of the players in the run game. Crowell has been bad. He has looked slow to process and has missed the correct lane on numerous occasions. But, Jackson has not helped him get out of this funk. Jackson has in both games gone away from the run game. Crowell rushed seven times in the first half, but only received three carries in the second half. How can Crowell get into a good roll when the offensive play calling leaves him behind? Even in a two touchdown deficit, the Browns did not have to abandon the run with a whole half to go.
If Jackson does not like Crowell and how he is running, he has a great backup option in Duke Johnson. Johnson, in his limited carries, showed some impressive runs against the Ravens defense. He rushed just four times, but he was able to gain 21 yards. If Jackson does not want to wait for Crowell to wake up from his early season fog, Johnson is ready to go to fill the void. Give him a chance!
The other major factor in lack of run plays is the affect on the young quarterback. DeShone Kizer is a rookie quarterback who has so much development and learning to do. His greatest ally is a good running game. One that actually would be the backbone of the offense. Rather than relying on the run, Jackson has put an immense amount of the offensive pressure on the back of the rookie quarterback. He has given Kizer no help and completely thrown the Notre Dame alum to the wolves. Even worse, he has done so as the Browns faced two of the better defenses in the league: Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
Opposing defenses are not threatened by the Browns run game, so the defenses can use more of their resources to stop and confuse Kizer. Kizer’s ability to work out of play action should be a strength of the offense. He has the talent to move and throw on the move. But without a run game, the fake is less threatening leading the Browns to barely even use pass action plays. Through his play calling, Jackson is hurting Kizer rather than helping him.
So, will the Browns run game actually be the backbone of the offense as Jackson has professed? “We will run the football,” Jackson proclaimed on Monday following another lackluster run game performance on Sunday versus the Baltimore Ravens. But, his comments later and his history so far with the team have me questioning his sincerity.
Jackson responded in his latest Monday press conference if it can be conducive to winning if the running backs only receive 14 total carries. “Yes, it is if that is what it takes to win,” Jackson said. “If that is what gives you the best opportunity to win, when you are backed up because of penalties – third and long, second and long – and you look up and the score is different, sometimes that is the way games go.”
This recent quote scares me on his mentality of using the run game. He is saying that because of penalties and being at a deficit, the team had to go away from the run. That is not true. The Browns had a whole half to come back from a 14-point deficit. A two score game. That is plenty of time in the NFL, so there was no need to shy away from the run. In terms of penalties, many of the penalties came when the Browns were attempting pass plays on an early down. The offense also had longer downs to gain due in part to the troubles in the pass game, like sacks. The pass game was the culprit of these long downs, which circles back to the defenses not respecting the Browns on the ground.
History does not bode well for the Browns run game becoming the backbone. Last season with a young quarterback for most of the season, the Browns were a pass-heavy. The unit ran the ball just 350 times for 38.17% of the total plays. Hue Jackson can continue to say he wants the run game to be the backbone of the offense, but his actions are telling me they are empty rhetoric.
If the Browns are going to help nurture the development of Kizer and their young passing game, then Jackson must live by his words and make the run game the actual backbone of the offense. I’m not holding my breath.
- Note: It doesn’t help playing good, veteran, complicated defenses to begin the season. [↩]