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2017 Year in Review Talking Point #1: The Run Game

The first in a series of articles looking back at the 2017 season.

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NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 season was one to forget. The Cleveland Browns finished an embarrassing 0-16 in the worst season in team history, by far.

Even still, the season warrants a further review. Beyond simply stating the obvious that the Browns sucked, I will be looking back at the Browns’ 2017 season and delve in-depth into certain areas of interest. Look for an article every few days to a week.

Before I dive in, I have to apologize. I did not write a talking points article after the Steelers game, in part because I had to miss the game due to work obligations, and in part because I caught a cough on New Year’s Day, and have been sick ever since. Today is the first day of 2018 that I am not woken up coughing. A big thank you to you, the reader, for your patience, along with Chris Pokorny. The end of the season talking points series was his idea.

Anyways, without further ado, let’s begin.

Our first talking point deals with the Browns’ running game. Every week in reading the comments, I saw complaints about head coach Hue Jackson abandoning the run game. I often complained about it, too. I wanted to take a deep dive into the Browns’ ground game. (Author’s Note: Statistical information comes from Pro Football Reference. I also looked on Pro Football Focus for their grades. In accordance with their copyright rules, I cannot publish grades, but you can see for yourself on PFF. It’s worth the $10 a month to see their work).

Let’s start with the playcalling. The Browns ran the ball 384 times (5th lowest total in the NFL) and passed the ball 574 times (9th highest total in the NFL). The Browns gained 1,714 rushing yards (18th) and 3,228 passing yards (22nd). The totals equal 1,008 plays (16th) for 4,942 yards (24th).

Alright, that was a numbers overload. What do those numbers mean, exactly? Well, Jackson had DeShone Kizer attempt 31.7 passes per game, which is high. Compare his usage to, say, Mitchell Trubisky, a similarly unpolished rookie. The now-fired John Fox called an average of 27.5 passes per game for Trubisky. Also, something not accounted for in the stats are Kizer’s scrambles. Kizer ran 77 times this season, many of those scrambles. PFF recorded 555 pass snaps for Kizer this season, ranking 18th in the league. Considering that Kizer was benched for a game and a half, that’s still high. Jackson, in my opinion, relied too often on his rookie quarterback, the youngest in the league.

I can see a rebuttal coming, something along the lines of,“the Browns played behind so often that Jackson had to call pass plays!” My argument is that the Browns might not have played from behind as often if Jackson had called more running plays.

In 2016, the Browns saw a rotating carousel at quarterback, with Robert Griffin III, Josh McCown, Cody Kessler, and Charlie Whitehurst all garnering snaps under center. However, the Browns rushed the ball well. The team finished second in the NFL in yards per attempt (4.9) but last in rushing attempts (350). Following the season, pundits told us to watch the running game in 2018, especially with Isaiah Crowell entering a contract year.

In looking back to Hue Jackson’s 2011 Raiders, we might have thought 2016 was a fluke. After all, Jackson coaches Michael Bush to his best NFL season with 977 yards and 7 touchdowns. With a middle-aged Carson Palmer and a 30-year old Jason Campbell, Jackson called 466 rushes, 7th highest in the league. And judging by Jackson’s playcalling in Cincinnati with Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard in 2015 (466 rushes, 7th in the league), we might have further expected to see an uptick in running in 2017.

Not so. Isaiah Crowell finished with 206 attempts for 853 yards for 4.1 yards per carry and Duke Johnson completed the year with 82 carries for 348 yards for 4.2 yards per carry. That’s a total of 288 attempts for 1,201 yards for 4.17 yards per carry.

As a team, the Browns finished with 384 carries, which is well below the league average of 429.8. The Browns recorded 4.5 yards per carry as a team, tied for 3rd in the league with the Dallas Cowboys. That’s astounding. Despite not having an “elite” running back such as a Kareem Hunt or a Todd Gurley, the Browns finished above teams such as the Jaguars, Bills, Patriots, etc. in yards per carry.

Now that you have the numbers, let’s have some fun, shall we?

Let’s assume the Browns finished with the league average of 429.8 rushes. We’ll divide the carries between Crowell and Johnson just as Jackson did this season: 71.5/38.5 in favor of Crowell. That gives Crowell approximately an extra 32 carries (31.95 to be exact). Using his yards per carry average, Crowell would gain an extra 131 yards, placing him just 16 yards away from 1,000. That’s significant. If Jackson had run the ball at the league average, Crowell has a very good chance at gaining 1,000 yards and earning a significant payday.

Crowell did not do himself any favors protesting his coach’s lack of dedication to the run. Jackson seems to have underused Crowell this year, perhaps as a result of Crowell’s gripes. However, Crowell has a right to be angry. Twenty-three NFL players averaged 4.1 yards per carry (minimum of 100 carries) or more this season. Of those players, 13 started 10 or more games, and just 4 of those running backs received fewer carries than Crowell.

For a point of comparison – three other running backs finished with 4.1 yards per carry this season:

Jordan Howard – 276 att., 1,122 yards

C.J. Anderson – 245 att., 1,007 yards

Ezekiel Elliott – 242 att., 983 yards

Howard and Elliott are praised as talented young running backs. Why isn’t Crowell? Because he doesn’t receive enough carries.

Let’s dive into a common criticism of Crowell – his vision. Pundits have knocked Crowell for his inability to hit a hole quickly or to use his eyes to see an opening. There is some truth to the criticism, as Crowell does not always see the hole if it is different from the one in the playcall. However, Crowell is no Trent Richardson. According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Crowell ranked 19th out of 50 qualifying running backs in average time behind the line of scrimmage at 2.77 seconds. That’s certainly not elite, like Leonard Fournette’s 2.58 average, but it ranks above backs such as Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey, Todd Gurley, Elliott, Hunt, and others.

Another NFL Next Gen stat supports this idea. Crowell ranks 12th in the league in efficiency with a score of 3.73. Basically, the lower your efficiency, the more of a North-South runner you are. Crowell’s efficiency shows that he does not hesitate and dilly-dally in the backfield as much as some would have you think.

Here’s one more fun Next Gen stat – teams anticipate the Browns running the ball. On 29.13% of Crowell’s run plays, opponents stacked the box with 8 defenders. That ranks 25th in the league, which is slightly above the middle of the pack. It’s not a large enough number to make any divine insights from, but it hints at the fact that teams can sense when run plays are coming.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Chicago Bears
Give the ball to this man more.
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s move past the running backs to talk a little bit about the offensive line.

The Browns spent plenty in the offseason to upgrade the offensive line. Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter came to the club in free agency, serving as a major upgrade for the Browns at both spots. How well did the two do this season?

On a brief sidenote, while Kizer was sacked 38 times, he did have 2.84 seconds per attempt to throw, ranking 7th best in the league. So in pass protection, the Browns seemed to do well.

The Browns’ offensive line, as a unit, performed fairly well. Joe Thomas ranked 29th and Shon Coleman came in at 54th among tackles. Joel Bitonio boasted 18th place and Kevin Zeitler notched 26th among guards. JC Tretter ranked in the middle of the pack at 15th among centers.

The Browns’ linemen did not blow away the PFF graders, nor did they blow away fans in a typical game. However, the linemen did solid jobs and opened holes enough for Crowell and Johnson to enjoy relative success when Jackson did call running plays. No Browns lineman earned elite status in the run blocking category, but all but Coleman finished in an acceptable range.

Credit Bitonio with taking a leap forward and paving the way at guard, and also Zeitler for adjusting well to his first year in the Browns’ running scheme. Tretter also did solidly, though we would like to see him rise to the upper echelon in his second year in orange and brown.

Speaking of blocking, we need to talk about the wideouts and tight ends. The Browns have a problem.

The primary job of wideouts and tight ends is to catch passes, but you also need to block. The Browns’ pass catchers, especially tight ends, did not block well in 2017.

Of the team’s six wideouts/tight ends with over 100 run block snaps, two received passing (60% or over, at least in college) grades from PFF. Only David Njoku, who would be barely passing, and Rashard Higgins, who scored in the C-range, garnered respectable scores (again, for complete scores, subscribe to PFF). The pass blocking was no better for the tight ends, with Njoku, Seth DeValve, and Randall Telfer all finishing below 50%. It might be time to look for a new blocking tight end late in the draft.

NFL: New York Jets at Cleveland Browns
Njoku did well in catching passes, but needs to improve his blocking.
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we have dissected all of the stats, what conclusions can we draw?

First off, Crowell deserves more carries. Crowell is certainly not an elite running back with blazing speed or a knack for shedding tackles. Crowell is not exceptional.

Having said that, Crowell is most definitely a serviceable NFL starting running back. An NFL team should sign him to a solid contract in the offseason. In my opinion, the Browns should sign him on a one or two year deal, but I can’t imagine it happening, based on Crowell’s unhappiness. Look for an NFL team that plays on turf to take a look at him. Crowell averaged 4.9 yards per carry on 66 caries on turf this season. That hasn’t been true his whole career, but it could be an additional factor teams consider.

Secondly, Jackson needs to devote more time to the ground game. Jackson’s offense finished third in the league in yards per carry this season. But since the Browns abandoned the run, the team finished 30th in the league in time of possession per drive (2:28/drive). Kizer could not handle the pressure on offense, leading to punts and opponents holding onto the ball and tiring the Browns out on defense.

Should the Browns spend significant draft capital on a player such as Saquon Barkley, Jackson must remind himself to run the ball. Running backs cannot shoulder the load on offense and gain yards if you don’t give them the ball. If you don’t establish the running game, opposing teams will play the pass and that will hurt a young quarterback.

What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below. Look for Talking Point #2 soon.