A Curious Situation: The Cleveland Browns' Running Game

Daymon JohnsonCorrespondent ISeptember 15, 2010

TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 12:  Running back Peyton Hillis #40 of the Cleveland Browns runs the ball against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the NFL season opener game at Raymond James Stadium on September 12, 2010 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
J. Meric/Getty Images

Brian Daboll’s offensive shortcomings seem to be haunting the Cleveland Browns yet again.

His stagnant and predictable playcalling that Cleveland fans saw last season is rearing it’s ugly head again, and it has become a source of major concern within the Cleveland fan base already.

While there are many areas of concern, one curious issue in particular is the issue of the RBs.

The use of Hillis and Harrison is a curious situation, and I think it needs further dissection.

In Sunday’s game, against the worst statistical defense in the league in 2009, who didn’t make a lot of changes, other than Gerald McCoy, the Browns chose to use Hillis more than Harrison and in many different situations.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but frankly, I’m shocked that the day played out that way, especially considering how susceptible Tampa is to the outside run.

While Peyton Hillis is a hard nosed, bulldozer of a back that has many drawing premature comparisons to Mike Alstott from his heyday in Tampa Bay, he’s nowhere near as dynamic as his counterpart, Jerome Harrison.

And, while similarities clearly exist between Hillis and Alstott, I think comparing the two is like comparing apples to oranges, it just doesn’t make sense.

Alstott was elusive for a back of his size, Hillis is a bulldozer.

He’ll run through you whereas Alstott would try to make you miss first.

Alstott was able to block and diagnose blitz packages very well, Hillis is still trying to figure that out, and actually, this was the biggest issue Josh McDaniels had with Hillis in Denver.

Alstott could hold onto the ball.

He had 32 fumbles in 10 NFL seasons, or 3.2 per season.

Hillis already has two after Game 1.

Alstott had good enough hands to lineup at the WR/TE position, which he did many times.

Hillis just has above average hands for a back.

But, probably the biggest difference, aside of tenure, is that Alstott was a six-time Pro Bowl selection and three-time first-teamer.

So, maybe some perspective when drawing comparisons….

Moving on…

Seemingly forgotten in this whole equation is the back who literally carried the Cleveland Browns to four straight victories at the end of the 2009 season while saving Eric Mangini’s hide, Jerome Harrison.

On Sunday, Harrison touched the ball nine times…..you saw that right, only NINE times.

On those nine carries, Jerome Harrison totaled 52 yards of rushing.

Simple math says that’s over 5 yards per carry.

But, if you’re a statistical type of a guy like me, you run the actual math and see that the guy averaged 5.77 yards per carry.

Hillis on the other hand averaged 4.5, which is certainly respectable, but is over a yard less than Harrison.

Yet, Hillis was called on as much in the rushing game and more in the passing game than the guy who should be getting the lions share of the carries in that backfield.

Let me just say this, I like Hillis….how could you not?

That said though, Harrison is the more dynamic player for the Cleveland Browns and the guy that gives them a better chance to win as a starting RB.

A starting NFL RB should have, on average, 18-20 touches, at minimum.

Nine doesn’t work.

Offenses are successful when they find a rhythm, and not getting your starting RB the carries he needs typically doesn’t work.

DeAngelo Williams and John Stewart aside.

Supposing that Harrison had received those 20 touches, at 5.77 per carry, he would have had a 110+ yard game.

That approach would have helped Cleveland by taking time off the clock and allowing the defense to rest a little, after being on the field for the majority of the game.

Not to mention keeping Tampa’s D on the field and the ball out of their offense’s hands.

How does Hillis fit in all of this?

The same way Alstott did in Tampa when they were winning Super Bowls, in situations where they would get the most out of him.

Screen plays, inside carries and short yardage situations come to mind first.

In his career, Alstott  played in 158 games, and started 137.

He totaled 1,359 attempts in 10 seasons, which is an average of just under 9 touches per game, and that’s the reason his was so effective over his career until stopped by injuries.

He was fresh and used in situations that decidedly favored Tampa for so many years.

Hillis should be implemented in the same fashion.

He’s not quite a FB, and not quite a RB, rather, a hybrid that needs and deserves the ball, but in limited amounts and certain situations.

Forcing Hillis to carry the ball the way they did on Sunday, when the other guy is averaging close to 6 yards per carry is a bit of a stretch, and not a smart play by Brian Daboll.

The 2 fumbles by Hillis I think weren’t so much because of his “bobbles” but, maybe that he was a bit tired and didn’t have the grip on the ball that he typically would?

Either way, a fumble is a fumble, and two are worse.

It hurt the Browns, and Cleveland needs to get back to the basics, and use the starting RB as the starter, and mix in a change of pace guy when needed.

After seeing the game on Sunday, it’s obvious to me that Cleveland doesn’t have the aerial attack in place to justify throwing the ball more than running the ball.

So, just get back to basics, Daboll, mix up the play calling and keep teams guessing.

Let the run be the catalyst for this team's success, and use the pass in conjunction with, not in lieu of, the run, and you might find the sledding a little easier.


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