Browns running game presents challenge for Ravens defense

Cleveland tied for fifth in rushing yards; Ravens defense No. 8 against run

  • Cleveland Browns running back Terrance West, left, looks for running room against New Orleans Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis in the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Cleveland Browns running back Terrance West, left, looks for… (Ron Schwane, USA Today Sports )
September 18, 2014|Mike Preston

There is nothing fancy about Cleveland's offense. There are few gimmick or trick plays, they don't spread teams out with a lot of packages and the running game is pretty basic.

But if the Ravens are to beat the Browns on Sunday in Cleveland, one of the top priorities is to slow that running game.

It's a lot harder than it seems.

"They're young with two rookies back there, but they run hard and they're different runners," said Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata of running backs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. "You definitely have to be conscious of who is back there and what type of run you're going to get. You can't arm-tackle those kids. They're strong boys that are running the ball really well."

"They run a lot of zone, moving side to side," Ngata said. "They get you running, and then there's holes everywhere — front side, back side. We, just as a front seven, definitely have to stay square and make sure you're not getting cut out or chopped down."

The Ravens have seen the Browns (1-1) get off to a good start before. Cleveland lost to Pittsburgh, 30-27, in the season opener but then upset New Orleans, 26-24, last Sunday.

In both games, the Browns stayed with the run. Cleveland is tied for fifth in rushing offense in the NFL, averaging 156.5 yards a game. The Browns are also averaging 26.5 points a game.

They must be on to something, because the Browns have gotten the attention of Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

"They are staying with the zone scheme, staying with it over and over again," Pees said. "The backs are running hard and hitting the holes. The offensive line is more experienced than a year ago. The passing game is set up off the running game."

That's why the Ravens have to control West (35 carries, 168 yards) and Crowell (16, 86). Cleveland's Brian Hoyer is a solid quarterback, but he isn't going to dazzle anyone.

The Browns play it safe with Hoyer, who has completed 42 of 70 passes for 426 yards. He gets rid of the ball quickly and throws a lot of short passes, especially in the flats, away from the middle.

Like most teams, the Browns want to stay away from third and long situations. If they don't, Hoyer lacks both the arm strength and accuracy to win consistently.

Pees has been impressed with the schemes and play selection of Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and the play of the offensive line, which has two dominant players in tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack.

"They have good, very talented backs who aren't trying to make a 20-yard play out of 3-yard play, they just get what they get in the seams," Pees said. "They did a good job of scheming up against the Steelers and then New Orleans. They got them a little off balance with the no-huddle."

"He [Hoyer] doesn't take sacks, the Browns don't get a lot of negative plays and they'll take a shot once and while down the field to keep everybody honest," Pees said. "They max up in protection and try to get a chunk down the field with two receivers, that's basically their passing game."

The Browns running game is very similar to the Ravens. In fact, Shanahan was the offensive coordinator for Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak in Houston.

It's a downhill approach where the running back makes one cut, and goes.

"Just being here in Cleveland in unpredictable weather, I just think that the places I've been where we've been successful — and that goes back to Baltimore, to New York [Jets] and what we were trying to establish in Buffalo — you want to be able to play good defense and run the football," said Browns head coach Mike Pettine. "It gives you an opportunity to shorten the game."

Pettine is a former Ravens assistant, and very familiar with the team's defensive philosophies having worked under former coordinators Rex Ryan and Mike Nolan.

The Ravens have the eighth-ranked run defense, allowing an average of 89 yards per game. Crowell is more of an outside threat than West, and West could have problems gaining yards inside against Ngata and nose tackle Brandon Williams.

"It's rock-solid," said Pettine of the Ravens defense. "You just see that group, it starts with that outside [linebacker] group, which is pretty special with [Terrell] Suggs, who obviously I have a relationship with going back to when we drafted him.

"To [Pernell] McPhee, [Courtney] Upshaw, to [Elvis] Dumervil, there are four guys that can roll in and out and stay fresh and rush the passer. That's a real cornerstone for the defense. Haloti is Haloti inside. The group is well-coached. They tackle well and are just fundamentally sound. They're not going to give up big plays."

They haven't yet this year, at least not in the running game, but the Browns present another major challenge.

The Ravens don't want to see anything change.

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