Notes, Strategy, and Grades

It's a long season and the 2-2 Browns have plenty to improve upon. But, at 2-2, the Browns have positioned themselves to remain a competitor in the tough AFC North.


Hillis could take bigger role for pass-happy Browns.

The Browns need to be a more balanced team coming off their bye week.

Getting running back Peyton Hillis more involved in the offense would take much of the burden off the shoulders of quarterback Colt McCoy.

McCoy is on pace to throw almost 400 passes, which is far too much to ask of a young quarterback. The Browns want him to develop, but they don't want to force the offense to him.

That's where Hillis comes in. Coach Pat Shurmur has said that Hillis is an excellent player who should be the focal point of the team's running game, but to date, games haven't been called that way.

Increasing Hillis' workload would reduce would not only give McCoy's arm a break, but it could make Hillis a more effective runner.

Through four games, McCoy is averaging 43 passes per game, and Hillis is averaging 18 rushes. A power back like Hillis gains strength and momentum as her runs, so 18 is too few.

Asking McCoy to throw about 25 times per game would give Hillis and Montario Hardesty another 18 carries or so. Adjusting the pass-run mix figures to benefit the entire offense.

--Cornerback Joe Haden has not practiced this week, as the Browns returned from their bye week.

Haden sprained his left knee in the loss to Tennessee, and coach Pat Shurmur did not put a timetable on Haden's return except to say he was uncertain about Sunday.

Sprains usually cause four to six weeks of inactivity, but it's possible Haden could return sooner.

Haden's injury is not insignificant. He has been the Browns' best player in the secondary, to the point he was used solely on Brandon Marshall in a win over Miami.

Losing him affects the team's ability to match up corners with receivers, and it also affects depth. Nickel back Dimitri Patterson would move up if Haden can't play, which makes rookie Buster Skrine the nickel back.

No team likes to lose its best defensive back, but Haden's absence could be more significant than usual. His improvement from year one to year two was dramatic.


PASSING OFFENSE: D -- The Browns not only are passing too much, they are also passing inefficiently. Colt McCoy is on pace to shatter the team record for attempts, yet he ranks 18th in the league in yards. His average of 5.72 yards per attempt is subpar, and his leading receiver isn't even averaging 50 yards per game. Play selection needs to improve as well. The Browns are passing almost twice as much as they run. That kind of imbalance usually doesn't work with a veteran quarterback. It surely won't work with a quarterback in his second season.

RUSHING OFFENSE: D -- Mainly because of a lack of commitment. Pat Shurmur readily admits he is learning his players on the fly in his first season as a head coach. That's fine, but he needs to follow up when he says that Peyton Hillis is a very good player who needs to be the focal point of the running game. Hillis and Montario Hardesty have yet to get a 100-yard game between then, mainly because Shurmur has not committed to the run. With a team like the Browns, with backs like those, with a young quarterback, it only makes sense to run the ball more.

PASS DEFENSE: C-minus -- Joe Haden has had an excellent four games, but he could be sidelined after spraining his knee in the loss to Tennessee. Haden's play obscured a team problem: The struggles of the safeties to cover. T.J. Ward is a hitter, but he does not seem instinctive in coverage. Usama Young and Mike Adams both play well at times, but both play like backups in the starting lineup at other times. Tennessee recognized a weakness in the deep middle of the field, and took advantage. Until the Browns fix the weakness, every other team in the league will do the same.

RUSH DEFENSE: C-minus -- The Browns have not been a good team in stopping the run in a dozen years, or since the team returned in 1999. They aren't stopping the run this season, either. Opponents are averaging 124.5 yards per game, which is simply too many. The positive, though, is the Browns did a good job of upgrading their defensive line by drafting Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard and re-signing Jayme Mitchell. All have played fairly well, and all should get better.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus -- The Browns continue to have special teams play that ranks among the best in the league. Phil Dawson is as good a placekicker as there is in the league. Josh Cribbs is a dramatic kick returner who has set up several of the Browns' touchdowns. Punter Brad Maynard has settled in and done well. The only blemish was the punting of Richmond McGee in the first game, which contributed to a loss.

COACHING: C-minus -- Much of what Shurmur says and does makes sense. He does not overreact to bad situations, and he tries to go into games with a good plan. However, he would also admit he is learning as he goes. And some of that learning means adjusting his play-calling so the Browns are not a pass-happy team. The emphasis on the passing game does not benefit the team, or the coach, at all.

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