Midweek Musings: Browns Best Chance To Get Run Game Going

Whenever we talk about the Denver Broncos meeting up with the Cleveland Browns, there’s one thing that never gets old: Reminiscing about this and this.

Of course, that was a long time ago and, as much as we pick on Marty Schottenheimer, I don’t think there’s a Browns fan out there who wouldn’t welcome back those days of Martyball, because at least the Browns got to the playoffs. This version of the Browns has brought more disappointment than hope.

This seems like another season in which Browns fans are getting flickers of hope, and that’s because there is talent on this team. It just happens that the weak links on the team stand out badly and make it difficult for the Browns to beat other teams.

We’ll start with the offense, in which the Browns overpaid for Josh McCown and have received a mixed bag in return. Of course, we know about McCown attempting to impersonate John Elway in Super Bowl XXXII, which led to Johnny Manziel starting the following week and the Browns getting their first win. But Manziel went back to the bench and McCown returned. The Browns have gone 1-2 since then.

McCown hasn’t been terrible, but he hasn’t been particularly good, either. When I was forced to watch the final minutes of the Ravens game this past Sunday, I noticed how terrible McCown was at managing the clock when the Browns were trying to get into field goal range before the end of regulation. Then in overtime, McCown is suddenly finding open guys left and right and they get the game-winning field goal anyway.

McCown’s biggest problem is that he holds onto the ball too long. He’s got an offensive line that does a good job protecting him, but a quarterback who takes forever to make a decision is ripe for being sacked repeatedly by top defenses. If he’s going to have any chance of winning the game, he can’t hold onto the football for so long or the Broncos defense will have their way with him.

The running backs aren’t particularly intimidating. Duke Johnson is the better of the two, but that’s because he’s a good pass catcher. He’s somebody the Broncos must be aware of should McCown ever decide to check down. (And for all McCown’s faults, he’s willing to attack downfield.) Isaiah Crowell is a solid pass catcher, though he isn’t often rolled out on passing downs.

The wide receivers are a mixed bag. On one hand, Travis Benjamin is turning into one of the better receivers in the NFL. Benjamin has been targeted 38 times this season and Pro Football Focus judged 22 of those targets to be catchable. He’s caught them all. If Aqib Talib doesn’t play this week, then the Broncos better put Chris Harris on Benjamin, because Benjamin is good at what he does. On the other hand, Andrew Hawkins is strictly average and Brian Hartline has had just one good game, that coming against Oakland. I’m fine with resting Talib, letting Harris cover Benjamin, with Bradley Roby on Hawkins and Kayvon Webster on Hartline. In fact, I will say that, even if Talib plays, I want Harris on Benjamin because Harris has been more consistent in coverage.

The receiving target the Broncos will really need to focus on, though, is Gary Barnidge. He’s 30 years old but he isn’t playing like it. McCown clearly loves throwing to Barnidge and he’s caught 24 passes on 31 targets. This means T.J. Ward is going to be tested. Ward didn’t have his best game against Oakland, so we’ll need the version of Ward who played against the Vikings, the one who made Kyle Rudolph a non-factor and caused problems for Teddy Bridgewater in the pass rush.

The offensive line, of course, is anchored by Joe Thomas, who may be the best left tackle in the NFL this season. John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz do a good job manning the right side. The area in which the Browns are weak is the left interior, in which left guard Joel Bitonio hasn’t been as strong as he was as a rookie, and in which center Alex Mack hasn’t regained the form he had prior to his season-ending injury in 2014. But the line plays well as a unit, so don’t be surprised if it takes a while for the Broncos’ pass rush to start breaking through.

The Broncos do want to be aggressive up front, but a lot will depend on the defensive backs and any linebackers who drop into coverage to keep Cleveland honest. Again, the focus will be on containing Barnidge, Benjamin and any screens or dump-offs to Johnson.

On the other side of the ball, I’ll start with this: If there ever was a game for the Broncos to get the running game established and give the backs and offensive line some confidence, this is it. That’s because the Browns’ defensive line is, how shall we say, not good at all.

If you look at Pro Football Focus, they have repeatedly ranked Browns’ defensive linemen among their worst players. Randy Starks starts on the right side and, while he was good in his time in Miami, his best days are behind him, and the guy who backs him up, Xavier Cooper, is worse. I think Danny Shelton will develop into a good defensive tackle, but he’s not there yet. On the left side is Desmond Bryant and he’s not that intimidating. Backup defensive tackle Jamie Meder has been rated positively by Pro Football Focus in several games, so he may be the only lineman the Broncos have to be concerned about. It seems like this will be a good game for the Broncos to attack with runs toward Starks or Rhodes and force the Browns linebackers to come up to make plays.

The linebackers are a solid bunch, though. Karlos Dansby is the most notable and, while he’s not the player he once was, he’s solid in coverage and has a nose for the ball. Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo are talented, but I think they are playing a scheme that isn’t suited to their talents. The Browns have one underrated linebacker in Armonty Bryant, who has 3.5 sacks in five games and will likely be the biggest pass rushing threat.

In the defensive backfield, I think you all are familiar with Joe Haden, but he will likely miss the game with a concussion. That leaves the Browns likely sending Tramon Williams out as the top cornerback, and while he was a good playmaker for the Packers, he’s nowhere near Haden’s level. K’Waun Williams is likely to be the other starting corner and I can imagine Peyton Manning will want to test him out if Williams starts. Justin Gilbert has been a major disappointment, currently relegated to kick returns and special teams. As for the safeties, Donte Whitner has his moments but he’s not as good as he once was. Tashaun Gipson is pretty good, but he missed practice Wednesday with an ankle injury. If he’s out Sunday, it’s another blow to the Browns defensive backfield.

How the game turns out depends on how well the Broncos get the running game going. They need to do it this game if they want a decisive win. The Jets got that thanks not only to their defense, but because they ran the ball well. And when you consider the Browns have allowed every team to average more than 4.2 yards per carry against them, you better focus more on the run than the pass.

In other words, if you want to rest Peyton, you can do that without having to take him out of the game. All you need to do is get your act together with running the football. I would pick one offensive line grouping and stick with it, but at the very least, I want Evan Mathis, Matt Paradis, Louis Vasquez and Michael Schofield out there. Line up Max Garcia as a sixth lineman if you need it, and if you’d rather give Ty Sambrailo another week off to get healthy, then pick either Ryan Harris or Tyler Polumbus on the left side and stick with it. Like I said earlier this week, I can understand why Gary Kubiak wanted to try rotating offensive linemen, but it just didn’t work out.

If the Broncos can run the football effectively, they should be able to open things up with the passing. All they need is to gain positive yardage and for Peyton Manning to make good decisions. And, yes, the Broncos need to do some screens and slants and not just try stretching the field. But by running the football well, Peyton doesn’t have to do much of the work on offense.

The final outcome depends entirely on how well the Broncos run the football. Do that well and they should win it the way the Jets won, in which the defense wears down the Browns by the second half and the Broncos win convincingly. If the Broncos struggle with the ground game, it could be yet another close one decided by the defense.

But the main issue should be to see how well the Broncos can run the football. If they don’t do that, it’s time to be concerned, win or lose. If they get it done, though, we can all be cautiously optimistic about the rest of the season.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to catch the game this weekend. As somebody stuck in Kansas, the Chiefs always get priority on CBS, I don’t have DirecTV and, no, I’m not willing to pay for Sunday Ticket. Plus I have work commitments on Saturday and that will necessitate me getting things I usually do on Saturday, done on Sunday. I hope to catch the second half online via KOA, though.

But in the meantime, I hope I’ll get to catch the Green Bay-San Diego game Sunday so I can give everyone a better idea of what to expect for the Broncos’ first opponent after the bye week.

Enjoy the game, everyone.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.