Dion Lewis' ability to make defenders miss in space gives him value as a potential change-of-pace option for the Cleveland Browns this season.
The Cleveland Browns’ acquisition of third-year running back Dion Lewis from the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for second-year linebacker Emmanuel Acho came and went without much attention on April 11. While player-for-player swaps are rare occurrences in the NFL, neither player has done much to generate attention thus far in their NFL careers.
These teams didn’t exactly invest a great deal in the player swap. Acho, a sixth-round draft pick in 2012, wasn’t a great fit for the Browns’ switch to a 3-4 defense. Lewis, on the other hand, was a long shot to ever see a significant role in an Eagles backfield led by LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown.
That said, the Browns may have quietly acquired a valuable role player for their offense this season.
Last season, the Browns were a one-running back offense. Trent Richardson took the vast majority of the team’s rushing attempts last season (267).
While Montario Hardesty had 65 carries for the season, 29 of those came between two games in which Richardson left early (Week 6 versus Cincinnati Bengals) or did not play (Week 17 versus Pittsburgh Steelers) due to injury. No other Browns running back had more than eight carries last season.
Dion Lewis, meanwhile, spent the past two seasons in a similar situation in Philadelphia.
In 2011, LeSean McCoy received 273 carries for the Eagles while no other running back got more than 42 (Lewis had 23 carries). Even an injury that cost McCoy four games last season didn’t help Lewis see the field, as he was mired as the No. 3 running back on the depth chart behind Bryce Brown, who took the lion’s share of carries in McCoy’s absence. Lewis’ carries dropped to 13 last season.
Looking at last year’s statistics alone, there would be no reason to believe things would be any different for Lewis this season. There is a new coaching staff in Cleveland, however, who seems to have acquired Lewis with a purpose.
A window of opportunity to a breakout season may be open for Lewis if he can establish himself as a legitimate change-of-pace running back for the Cleveland Browns offense.
Examining Lewis’ Potentially-Increasing Role
While Richardson is locked into the team’s feature back role, Dion Lewis is making a serious run at being the team’s No. 2 running back this season.
With both Richardson and Hardesty out due to injury, Lewis started at running back in the Browns’ preseason opener on Thursday versus the St. Louis Rams. It is becoming increasingly likely that Lewis will remain ahead of Hardesty even if the oft-injured back makes a healthy return.
According to Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer, Hardesty’s roster spot is “in jeopardy” due to his frequent injuries. If that is true, he certainly didn’t help his case when he returned from a hamstring injury Monday, only to then suffer a hand injury according to The Associated Press (via ESPN.com).
While the Browns limited playing time for the No. 2 running back last season, that could change under new Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, especially if Lewis can be an asset as an outside runner and receiver out of the backfield.
A potential blueprint for how a change-of-pace back like Lewis can be used in the Chudzinski/Turner offense can be found in the 2009-2010 San Diego Chargers, when Turner was Chargers head coach and Chudzinski was his assistant head coach.
As the No. 2 running back in 2009, Darren Sproles received 93 carries and caught 45 passes for a combined total of 840 yards from scrimmage. In 2010, Sproles’ carries dropped to 50 behind Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews, but he caught 59 passes out of the backfield and had a combined 787 yards from scrimmage.
Calling Lewis the next Darren Sproles would be a major stretch at this point in time. Sproles is arguably the NFL’s best receiving back; since 2007, no NFL running back has more receiving yards (2,767) or touchdowns (25). Lewis, on the other hand, has a whopping total of only three catches for 21 yards in his first two seasons.
That said, there are some striking similarities between the two running backs. At 5’8” and 195 pounds, Lewis has a compact body type similar to Sproles (5’6”, 190 lbs). While Lewis may not have as much long speed as Sproles, he has a similarly quick burst out of the backfield. Like Sproles, he has very good ballcarrier vision, follows his blockers into running lanes well and can make defenders miss with sharp, smooth cuts.
Given their lack of size, neither Sproles nor Lewis will ever be able to do consistent damage as a between-the-tackles runner. Sproles, however, has become a very valuable NFL role player, first with the Chargers and now with the New Orleans Saints, by being a triple threat as a change-of-pace runner, receiver out of the backfield and a kickoff returner.
Lewis’ performance versus the Rams gave some headway to the notion that Lewis could be a similar player, if only a poor man’s version of Sproles, for the Browns this season.
Breaking Down Lewis’ Preseason-Opening Performance
Lewis only saw 15 offensive snaps against the Rams, but was a key player in the Browns’ first two series of the game, both of which were scoring drives. He had eight touches from scrimmage for 34 combined yards, including a two-yard touchdown reception on his final snap of the outing.
On his only run of five or more yards in the game, Lewis kept what eventually became a field goal drive alive by making multiple defenders miss en route to a 3rd-and-5 conversion.
Lewis started the play lined up alongside quarterback Brandon Weeden in a pistol/shotgun formation four yards behind the line of scrimmage. From the starting point, Lewis took a draw handoff from Weeden in the middle of the backfield.
Lewis is unable to take the run directly up the middle with Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree (No. 52) coming inside across the formation. Lewis gets a key block, however, from Browns tight end Gary Barnidge (No. 82), and with Barnidge going right to left across the middle, Lewis makes a sharp move right to follow his block and get into open field.
While Lewis simply had to follow a block and make one cut to find the first running lane, the play is made when Lewis makes Rams safety T.J. McDonald miss in space 2-3 yards past the line of scrimmage. Lewis shows his hip flexion by taking a step right then quickly planting his foot and cutting left, and the double move gives Lewis the split secondary to get by McDonald and continue on for first-down yardage.
After making McDonald miss, Lewis effectively finished the run by lowering his head and driving through contact. By falling forward through the tackle, Lewis finished with a 9-yard gain.
While Lewis isn’t going to truck through tacklers, he was able to come through with a successful gain up the middle by using his open-field elusiveness. On the Browns’ second drive, however, he showed his value as a receiver, which could be his biggest asset as a complement to Richardson.
It is key for a receiving back to have the ability to split out for screen passes, accelerate quickly out of a catch and follow his blocks to exploit weaknesses in opposing perimeter defenses. That is exactly what Lewis did for a 16-yard gain on the Browns’ second series.
After starting as a deep single back, Lewis splits out left for a screen pass and makes the catch approximately 3.5 yards behind the line of scrimmage. From there, Lewis follows a perimeter block from left guard John Greco (No. 77) and quickly accelerates into the open field.
Lewis makes a sharp cut right off of Greco’s block, then cuts back left toward the sideline. He is eventually brought down at the Rams’ 35-yard line, but did a great job of using his acceleration and open-field vision to make a key play on the perimeter.
Lewis also showed route-running ability and red zone receiving ability with his 2-yard receiving touchdown.
Out of the 4-yard pistol/shotgun formation again, Lewis takes off upfield toward the right side of the end zone, where he approaches Ogletree in coverage.
Lewis makes a sharp break into an out route across the front of the end zone and successfully separates to make the touchdown catch.
Lewis may not have seen extensive action in Thursday’s preseason game, but over the course of the key plays above, he showed the skills that could make him a Sproles-like situational role player in the Browns offense.
That being said, the sample size provided by one preseason game is a very small one, and Lewis must continue to make these players throughout training camp and the preseason to show that he is capable of breaking through as a role player this season. While these three plays were impressive, he has no background of consistently making those plays through the first two seasons in his NFL career.
What Browns Fans Should Expect From Lewis in 2013
If Lewis continues to make plays in the preseason and Hardesty continues to battle injury, it is very likely that Lewis will earn a roster spot and be the No. 2 running back on the depth chart this season. Whether that gets Lewis on the field in a consistent role this season, however, is far less certain.
An unanswered question that could make or break Lewis’ ability to step into a role as a change-of-pace back is whether he has made necessary improvements in pass protection.
He was only used as a pass-blocker on one snap versus the Rams, and he did not end up having to block anyone. To be a legitimate option on passing downs for the Browns this season, he must able to pick up blitzes in the backfield. He struggled with that part of his game in Philadelphia, and it helped keep him off the field for the past two seasons.
Even if Turner views Lewis as his Sproles, that will not necessarily lead to a consistent share of touches. While Richardson does his best work between the tackles, he is a legitimate three-down back who is a capable receiver out of the backfield, a solid pass-protector and can make defenders miss on the perimeter.
If Richardson can get healthy for the regular season and stay healthy, he could establish himself as one of the NFL’s elite running backs with a breakout season of his own.
When Sproles saw his greatest share of touches in San Diego in 2009, Tomlinson’s career was on the decline. As Richardson enters his prime, he is more comparable to the Tomlinson that Turner coached in 2007-08. Sproles had only 37 carries and 10 receptions in 2007. His share increased to 61 carries and 29 receptions in 2008, but those numbers were still well below the share he saw in 2009-10.
As the No. 2 running back, nonetheless, Lewis should have a consistent role in at least spelling Richardson when he needs a breather. If he can hold up capably in pass protection and catch the ball consistently out of the backfield, that role should increase. Additionally, Lewis would be the next man up should Richardson continue to battle injuries in his sophomore season.
Lewis has not proven to be a great kickoff returner, but needing to replace Josh Cribbs in that role, the Browns could turn to Lewis. As the Eagles’ kickoff returner in 2011, Lewis returned 31 kickoffs for 669 yards, an average of 21.6 yards per return. He gained 31 yards on his lone kickoff return Thursday night.
All screenshots were taken from NFL Preseason Live with first-hand illustrations added.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.