Why Can't the Cleveland Browns Run the Ball?

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Why Can't the Cleveland Browns Run the Ball?

In the Cleveland Browns' Week 9, 24-18 defeat of the Baltimore Ravens, they ran the ball 28 times for just 73 yards—a 2.6 yards-per-carry average. This is nothing new.

The Browns average just 81.6 rushing yards per game this year, ranking them 25th. They are 28th in rushing attempts per game, at 22.1, 25th in yards per rush, at 3.7, and a mere 5.26 percent of their touchdowns this year have come via the run—ranking them dead last

Their top running back, Willis McGahee, has just 262 yards on his 100 carries and has produced the lone rushing touchdown for the Browns this season. Though the Browns clearly don't value running the ball much this year, preferring to let quarterback Jason Campbell pass the football to gain them yards, first downs and touchdowns, it is still rather shocking how little they are getting from their run game.

Sometimes, this can be attributed to the running backs, and sometimes to the offensive line. So what is it for the Browns? Let's take a look at how they chose to run the ball against the Ravens to try to find the answer. 

 

When are the Browns Running the Ball?

It's clear that the Browns are mainly using the run game to open up their ability to pass, regardless of the effectiveness of the runs they've called. According to Pro Football Reference, 54.8 percent of Cleveland's runs this year have come on first down, which is why 63.8 percent of their runs have been at 7-10 yards to go. 

Browns Runs by Down, 2013
Down Runs %
First 109 54.8%
Second 66 33.2%
Third 20 10.1%
Fourth 4 2.0%

via Pro Football Reference

Their propensity to run on early downs and in long distances only furthers the notion that running the ball is mostly an afterthought this year. It's more of an experiment to see how short the next few passes may need to go or how long McGahee might manage to run. 

But even though the Browns seem relatively accepting of the fact that their run game isn't producing many yards, it's interesting to find out why—especially on first down, where they run the ball the most. Here, McGahee gets a carry on 1st-and-10 from their own 20-yard line. 

The run is going to go toward the left tackle, Joe Thomas. 

At the time of the handoff, a hole indeed opens up between the left tackle and tight end Jordan Cameron. Guard Shawn Lauvao is also pulling left, to add another offensive lineman to block on the play.

Lauvao is assigned to Ravens linebacker Daryl Smith. By the time McGahee approaches the running lane, it's already closing, with Lauvao losing control of Smith.

Smith tackles McGahee. If Cameron wasn't on the double-team of another Ravens linebacker, Courtney Upshaw, he could have been able to help out. But that wasn't his blocking assignment, and McGahee picks up only three yards.

This could have been a very productive run for the Browns on first down. There was an established running lane and almost every player handled their blocking duties well. Lauvao was the only one to lose contain on his defender and, unfortunately, he also had the most crucial block on the play.

He was blown up, and what could have been a gain of five or even 10 yards went for three. Unsurprisingly, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has a minus-11.5 run-blocking grade on Lauvao this season, the worst figure of any of Cleveland's offensive linemen.

 

Short-Yardage Running

The Browns only run the ball 20.1 percent of the time when they have between zero to three yards to go. This makes sense for two reasons: In general, defenses will be more likely to expect a run when there are two or three yards to go and be more prepared to stop it, and, because the Browns specifically don't run the ball a lot to begin with.

Browns Runs by Distance, 2013
Distance Runs %
0-3 Yards 40 20.1%
4-6 Yards 21 10.6%
7-10 Yards 127 63.8%
11+ Yards 11 5.5%

via Pro Football Reference

The Browns ran five times against the Ravens when they had three or fewer yards to go. Here is one of those plays, a 2nd-and-3 at the Baltimore 44. 

The run is designed to go toward the right guard, which is Lauvao. Immediately, Lauvao gets rolled outside and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has to block Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones.

This time, Schwartz loses contain, and Jones gets the tackle. McGahee falls toward the line of scrimmage and not away from it, which gains the Browns two yards. They run the same play on the next down with the same result—two yards. Fortunately for Cleveland, they were gained on a 3rd-and-1.

Clearly, the offensive line isn't helping McGahee very much, particularly the right guard and right tackle. But the one area in which McGahee is still useful is in short yardage. That's practically all he can gain, which worked out on these two short runs. 

 

Is It All the Offensive Line?

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Is Shawn Lauvao and the rest of the Browns' offensive line the problem, or is it McGahee?

It must be noted that McGahee is a 32-year-old running back in his 11th season in the NFL. He's only been an active player for 10 of those years, having torn his ACL, MCL and PCL in 2003, prior to the Buffalo Bills drafting him. He also suffered a torn MCL and leg fracture in 2012 that ended his season and his tenure with the Denver Broncos.

A running back of his age, with his injury history, likely has trouble with speed, burst, change of direction and overall power. A younger, shiftier or just overall healthier back may be able to be more productive, even in blocking situations like we saw above. 

There's also the matter of decision-making and vision, something that has nothing to do with a lack of speed or any of the other issues that have resulted in McGahee's career-low 2.6 yards per carry in Cleveland. 

Here is a run on 1st-and-10 at the Cleveland 40-yard line toward the left guard. Notice we have Lauvao pulling again and who appears to be tight end Gary Barnidge working in a fullback-type lead-blocker role.

McGahee chooses to follow the design of the run rather than freelance. Here, that doesn't quite work. Running lanes have opened up behind him, with the offensive line occupying the Ravens defense in two distinct pods. Wide receiver Greg Little also has a good one-on-one block above the pile McGahee has chosen to run into.

McGahee runs into the scrum of Browns blockers and Ravens defenders and is stopped for no gain. If he had seen the play develop, he could have had a wide-open running lane and a large gain. Of the three options presented to him by the blocking, he chose the worst one. 

 

Conclusion

David Welker/Getty Images
It appears it is a combination of run-blocking and the back they're blocking for that has resulted in a poor Browns ground game.

Overall, run-blocking is the weakest area of Cleveland's offense, so it's not surprising that McGahee isn't having a good season. The line may be able to hold defenders still for a few crucial seconds, but they cannot do so while opening clear running lanes at the same time. Lauvao as a pulling guard is not a winning proposition, either.

These problems in run blocking are compounded by McGahee being clearly on his last legs. He's not able to create yardage out of nothing as he used to, and when he has an opportunity like he did in the third example above, he misses it.

However, the fact the Browns haven't benched McGahee or been aggressively trying to improve their run game just shows how little they care to rely on it this season. On one hand, that's fine: Run games don't win championships. However, on the other, it isn't: Balanced offenses most certainly have a leg up in postseason contention. It can also leave Campbell open to undue punishment.

Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
The Browns are likely biding time until Dion Lewis returns next season.

The only tweaks that appear to be worth looking at for the Browns are more runs on short-yardage downs and more runs in general. It's not that they should run more just for the sake of it—they just need to identify more situations in which it makes sense, simply in the name of balance.

Running more on short yardage—perhaps a 10 percent increase from what they are doing now—makes the most of McGahee's strengths all while not taking away from their pass-heavy overall offensive approach. There is a way to run more on those two- or three-yards-to-go situations without making it predictable. 

Ultimately, the Browns will have to do two things in the offseason—find at least one new guard who can block in the run game and add a running back to the stable to bolster the returning Dion Lewis, who suffered a broken leg in the preseason.

For now, the Browns aren't being held back by their lack of a run game. However, just a slight uptick in production could help their offense overall. That's something they should be able to manage in the latter half of the season.

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