Week 1 Preview: Running Back Versus Opposing Defenses
For every Cleveland Browns game this year we will preview the game by looking at how specific units match-up. While it is fun to compare the teams wide receivers to each other, we are far more interested in how the Browns defensive backfield matches up with the opposing receivers. For our Week 1 Preview we will look at the offensive lines versus the defensive front 7s, pass catchers against their defenders, both sides of the running game and the quarterbacks versus the defense as a whole. We continue our series today looking at both teams’ running games versus the defense . Catch up on our series here:
Pass Catchers Versus Defenders Offensive Lines versus the Front 7s
Pittsburgh Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell, LaGarrette Blount and Dri Archer
Pittsburgh Offensive Line
Kelvin Beachum (LT), Ramon Foster (LG), Maurkice Pouncey (C), David DeCastro (RG) and Marcus Gilbert (RT)
Cleveland Front 7
Defensive Line: Armonty Bryant and Phil Taylor (DEs) and Atybah Rubin (NT)
Linebackers: Barkevious Mingo and Paul Kruger (OLBs) and Karlos Dansby and Craig Robertson (ILBs)
Tashaun Gipson and Donte Whitner
While we have already analyzed the offensive lines versus the defensive Front 7s we want to specifically look at running games this year as well. This adds the specific running backs as well as the safeties of the defenses to the equation. Receivers blocking down field and corners coming up to make tackles in the run game are important but are not primary pieces to a run game.
The Steelers offensive line is better than it has been in the past but they still have concerns, especially on the left side of the line. Bell and Blount are 2 hard nosed, between the tackles type runners. They will put extra emphasis on Rubin, Taylor and Bryant to clog the middle while Dansby, Robertson and rookie Christian Kirksey make plays on the ball from the inside backer spots. The combination of Bell and Blount allows the Steelers to keep their backs fresh. Games like this are a big reason the Browns brought Whitner in. He is a big hitter that can stick his nose in on run plays but has enough coverage skills to not get beat in the passing game.
Archer, out of Kent State, creates different issues for the Browns. Much like Percy Harvin, and hopefully Travis Benjamin, Archer can lineup all over the field. He can be used as a decoy as well due to the attention his speed draws from the defense. Archer on screens, draws and little dump offs could cause problems for an aggressive Browns defense. With Archer in the game the Browns may be more likely to press from outside in, while with Bell and Blount the focus is inside out. Look for the Steelers to break these patterns a few times to try to take advantage.
Having Joe Haden, Buster Skrine, Justin Gilbert and Gipson in coverage will help the Browns put more emphasis on stopping the run. That will also open the team up to big plays if initial coverage or run defense is broken through. Bell, even for a big back, and Archer can break big runs while Blount is appropriately named as a blunt force runner. The talent on all 3 levels gives the Browns a lot of options to work with. Backups Jabaal Sheard and Kirksey may even be better against the run.
Advantage – Browns – While the Steelers have a couple studs on their offensive line in Pouncey and DeCastro, and good group of backs, they don’t present the huge concern other running teams do. The Browns can stop the run with their base personnel. The big concern is on draws and screens when the Browns bring a blitz and miss.
Cleveland Running Backs
Ben Tate, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell
Cleveland Offensive Line
Joe Thomas (LT), Joel Bitonio (LG), Alex Mack (C), John Greco (RG) and Mitchell Schwartz (RT)
Pittsburgh Front 7
Defensive Line: Cam Thomas and Cameron Heyward (DEs) and Steve McLendon
Linebackers: Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones (OLBs) and Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons (ILBs)
Troy Polamalu and Mike Mitchell
The Browns game plan is to run the ball and then run the ball some more. The Browns plan to use Tate as a 3 down back for most of the game but have to have some worry about him tiring out or getting hurt based on his history. Tate could get the Michael Turner treatment though. When Turner left San Diego to become the starter in Atlanta the Falcons rode him hard to develop their ground game.
Tate is backed up by 2 rookies who seem to have the talent to be 3 down backs as well in the future. Instead of having a smaller, quicker 3rd down back, the Browns will deploy 3 similar backs throughout the game. The coaching staff had high hopes for West in pre-season but he never grabbed hold of his opportunities. Crowell may be the most talented back but still has some learning to do in the Zone Blocking Scheme.
Factory of Sadness
The Browns offensive line has the ability to dominate in the run game. While Schwartz has been a liability in pass protection, his run blocking has been solid. Tate especially knows how to setup his blockers for their best success. The combination of 3 solid backs and a dominate line gives the Browns a chance to be creative in the run game including use of play action screens and even using speedy Travis Benjamin out of the backfield.
The Steelers are well suited in the speed game with fast backers at all 4 spots. Worilds, Jones and Shazier are a bit undersized for their positions while Timmons is the prototype for current ILBs in the NFL. The Steelers defensive line has length and strength to hold the point of attack and enough speed to work their way outside on zone schemes. McClendon is somewhat small for the NT position but overcomes that often with good technique.
Cut back runs, traps and counters can all be used to take advantage of the Steelers speed. Getting the defense flowing one way and cutting it back the other allows the Browns to take the Steelers out of the play and open up for big gains. Mixing in a few power runs, especially early, can attack the smaller linebackers. Their Front 7 speed and Polamalu’s football IQ could make screens more difficult for the Browns in this game. Mitchell replaces long time FS Ryan Clark. The Browns will likely try to run away from Polamalu’s side and towards the smaller, less experienced Mitchell as often as possible.
Advantage – Browns – Both due to their skill level on the line and with the backs, as well as their commitment to run the Browns hold an advantage in the run game. The Steelers were desperate for front help and brought back Brett Keisel late in the pre-season. That should give us some idea of what they think about their line.
Overall – Browns 4 – Steelers 2 – This is the first Preview where a team took an advantage. It may not seem like much of one but the Browns run offense and defense should have an advantage over the Steelers. Key compared to the last few years is the Browns commitment to running the ball. Even when the team gets down expect them to continue to run often to setup the pass instead of giving up and going straight pass happy.
Agree or disagree with our assessments so far?