BEREA, Ohio—It’s been a long time since the Browns were tops in the NFL in any offensive category—let alone in the rushing game.
But don’t look now, but the Browns are the No. 1 rushing team in the NFL after the first quarter of the season, averaging 149.3 yards a game, despite their 0-4 record.
Isaiah Crowell is currently one of the most productive runners in the NFL with 394 yards. He is second only to Ezekiel Elliot, who has 412 for Dallas in 33 more carries. More significantly, Crowell is first in the NFL with a 6.5-yard average, and has three TDs. Last week against the Redskins, Crowell rushed for 112 yards on 15 carries, including a 2-yard touchdown. Against the Ravens, Crowell had an 85-yard TD as part of a 133-yard performance.
Crowell has the most rushing yards by a Browns running back through the first four games since Jim Browns had 476 yards in the first four games in 1965. Crowell is also the Browns first player to record at least 60 rushing yards in each of the first four games since Earnest Byner did so in 1985. Crowell has three rushing touchdowns thus far this season.
Against Washington, the Browns rushed for 163 yards and have rushed for 120 yards or more in four straight games for the first time since 2009, when the team put four consecutive 120-plus yard games together. The Browns have registered a rushing score in four straight games for the first time since 2012.
It hasn’t just been a one-man show, as not only is Crowell averaging 6.4 yards a carry to lead the league, but Duke Johnson is averaging 6.2 yards a carry. Currently, Crowell and Johnson are ranked first and second in the NFL in rushing average, which is the first time an NFL team has had two running backs average at least 6.0 yards per carry with a minimum 25 carries through the first four weeks of a season since 1958, when Hall of Famers Bobby Mitchell and Brown accomplished the feat for the Browns.
Johnson pointed the credit to the whole offense.
“The guys up front," Johnson said. "The guys up front and the play calling. It is really everybody – receivers doing their job, tight ends, everybody from top to bottom and Cody coming in and knowing when to give the ball and when not to. It goes to pretty much everyone.”
Thomas said it's a lot of fun blocking for Crowell and Johnson.
"It's impressive," Thomas said. "They're both running with a lot of anger. The first and second guy are not going to be tackling them now. It's a lot of fun blocking for a guy like Crow and a guy like Duke when they run so hard, even when we have it blocked for two yards, they're getting four."
Crowell says he feels he’s more settled in his third season.
“Really, I feel like I’m able to be more patient," Crowell said. "I’m more comfortable out there on the field. This is year three and I feel like (Head Coach) Hue (Jackson) and Kirby have worked with me about pre-snap since I’ve been here, through OTAs. I feel like that’s helped me a lot.”
Crowell has caught the attention of Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
"Very explosive," Belichick said. "They do a great job of running the ball. They have a lot of different ways to run it. They have multiple schemes, zone schemes, gap schemes. They do shifting, motion, unbalanced line, try to create different alignment problems for the defense, different force problems for the defense. Coach Jackson does a good job of keeping the defense off-balance with some of his multiple formationing and movement, but in the end it’s all about fundamentals. It’s a good fundamental team.
"They block well, they’re very good at double-team blocks, they create movement on double-teams, do a good job of pulling, the backs run downhill, Crowell's strong, tough, breaks tackles, makes a lot of yards on his own," he said. "Very explosive through the hole, breaks a lot of arm tackles. You've got to do a good job with him in the running game. He’s got great ball security. You’ve got to do a good job of defending the gaps and tackling. Duke Johnson's very effective, too. A little different style of runner but he’s got excellent quickness, great stiff-arm, good ability to break tackles and get yards on his own, good in the passing game. So, its two different styles of backs but both very productive and hard to stop with a good scheme, good players, running behind that left side there with [Joe] Thomas and [Joel] Bitonio. They’ve gotten good blocking out of the tight end position and the fullback positon as well. The receivers do a good job of blocking. Again, this is a tough, well-disciplined, well-coached football team that is good fundamentally. They don’t make many mistakes. They make you execute well against them. This will be a big challenge for us. We know that."
Cody Kessler said the rushing game is helped him greatly in his first two starts in the NFL.
“Yeah, I think it is a great balance when you have an offense that can run the ball as well as we do,"Kessler said. "It obviously helps things in the pass game when you get one-on-one matchups and you get a loaded box and you get match ups outside that you want. That that is something we want to keep doing is continuing to run the football and be a strong downhill running team. Our offensive line has been doing a great job along with our backs.”
Running backs coach/run game coordinator Kirby Wilson is impressed with the tandem of Crowell and Johnson.
“They are coming along really well," Wilson said. "They both had really good outings last weekend. It is a part of the process. We are trying to develop our identity of who we are and how we are going to run the football. After the first quarter of the season, it is just starting to show the type of run game that we are going to have and our strengths within that run game. It is coming together nicely. Guys are doing a great job up front. Everyone is doing their part for the success of it.
Wilson said he thinks the pair are very versatile.
“We think both of them are dual runners, meaning they can run between the tackles and they also have the ability to run outside of the tackles," Wilson said. "They both have done a good job to this day. We are going to continue to work that are for both of them.”
Wilson said he thinks Crowell has come a long way in seeing the field and understanding what the Browns are trying to do in the running game.
“The biggest difference is he is understanding," Wilson said. "He is understanding where his eyes should be prior to the snap and he is understanding where his eyes should be post-snap. He is reading defenses a lot better because he understands it a lot better and he is training his eyes. He is mentally rehearsing throughout the week of what do I need to see for this play to be successful.”
Wilson said he felt the Browns are two quality running backs from the moment he arrived with the Browns to join Hue Jackson’s staff.
“We knew we had two very capable runners when we first got here," Wilson said. "Our plan was to develop both of them and see where it all falls at the end, provided that everyone stays healthy, of course, and then see where it goes from there. We are pleased with both Crowell and Duke in terms of their development and how they are running the football. They are violent, they are great finishers and we are excited to see where this thing goes.”
What has even been more impressive is the fact the Browns have done so with a different offensive line almost every week. Only Thomas, Joel Bitonio and Austin Pasztor have started each game at the same positions. John Greco has started twice at right guard and once at center. He is expected to be back at center this week filling in for Cameron Erving and Austin Reiter, who are out with injuries.
“Our offensive line has done a great job," Kessler said. "They kind of took the mindset is that is what we want to do, and that was back in camp before the season even started was you really define your team by running the football and how well you can run the football.
"Led by Joe Thomas, he really told the guys that is something we can do and that can be our identity," he said. "The guys really bought into it, and the offensive line has been great. Obviously, we have had injuries and guys switching up here and there, but they have not missed a beat. We have two really great running backs with Crow and with Duke, and they just run the ball so well it has made my job a lot easier, as well.”
With Belichick having the reputation of taking away what the opposing offense does best, Thomas said the Browns will face a stiff challenge this week.
“As we have success, the stakes become higher," Thomas said. "People will try to sell out more in trying to stop the run game. One thing we know about the Patriots and being a guy that played through two Belichick disciples for four years, they are going to try to take away what we do the best.
"Currently, it is run the football," he said. "We can expect them to come up with some big time wrinkles to try to take away our run game and do things to sell out so we have to throw the ball.”
Hamlett Promoted: The Browns have signed TE Connor Hamlett to their active roster from the practice squad. To make room on the roster, the team waived DB Don Jones. With injuries to TE Seth DeValve (knee) and TE Randall Telfer (ankle), the Browns needed a backup to TE Gary Barnidge.
Hamlett (6-7, 259) is officially in his first NFL season rookie out of Oregon State. He has spent the first four weeks of the season on the Browns’ practice squad. Originally signed by Jacksonville as an undrafted free agent in 2015, he spent time his rookies season on the practice squads in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Cleveland.
Jones, who was acquired via waivers in 2015, appeared in all four games this season and registered three special-team tackles.
Fabiano Signed: The Browns have signed OL Anthony Fabiano to their active roster from the practice squad. To make room on the roster, the team waived DL Gabe Wright.
Fabiano (6-3, 303) is a rookie out of Harvard. Originally signed by Baltimore as an undrafted free agent, he was waived on Aug. 29 and has spent the first four weeks of the season the Browns’ practice squad.
Wright spent the first two weeks of the season on the club’s practice squad and appeared in the past two games. He logged one tackle and one pass defensed.
Bibbs Back: The Browns signed TE E.J. Bibbs and OL Michael Liedtke to the practice squad.
Bibbs (6-2, 258) is in his second NFL season out of Iowa State. Originally signed by the Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2015, he appeared in seven games last season and had one reception for seven yards. He was waived this year on Aug. 29.
Liedtke (6-3, 305) is officially in his first NFL season out of Illinois State. Originally signed by Miami as an undrafted free agent in 2015, he spent part of his rookie season on the Dolphins’ practice squad and the 2016 preseason with the Jets.
Belichick on Sheard, Mingo: Belichick has two former Browns high draft choices on his roster in DL Jabaal Sheard and LB Barkevious Mingo. Sheard has three sacks thus far for the Patriots.
"Well, as you know, Jabaal was very productive in Cleveland," he said. "He did a good job playing the run, rushing the passer. He’s a powerful player that can power rush, work inside, also work the edge. We've used him both inside and outside. We've used him some as a defensive tackle in pass rush situations and also some in coverage.
"He's been productive for us in a lot of different areas," he said. "A good kid, works hard, smart, very physically strong for his size, with good instincts, good awareness. He's a good football player."
On Mingo, Belichick said. "We thought he'd give us some speed and versatility to our team," he said. "He’s got obviously some experience, so he's able to do some different things for us. Again, his length, his speed, again, his versatility; it’s hard to find."
Nassib, Tramon Williams, Campbell Back Practicing: DL Carl Nassib (hand), DB Tramon Williams (shoulder) and DB Ibraheim Campbell (hamstring) were back practicing Wednesday, while OL Cameron Erving (chest/lung), QB Robert Griffin III (shoulder) and QB Josh McCown (shoulder) were on the stationary bikes. Nassib, Williams and Campbell were limited, while WR Corey Coleman (hand), TE Seth DeValve (knee), OL Austin Reiter (knee) and TE Randall Telfer (ankle) did not practice.
Worth Quoting: OL Joe Thomas on the fumble called on Duke Johnson last week:
“The ref saw the posture of two Redskins cradling nothing on the ground and me trying to go after that nothing that she just assumed that the Redskins must have the ball, even though Duke had the ball in his hands and I think if she would’ve just looked over and saw Duke with the ball, it would’ve been a different story, but at that point, when you’re an official, you’ve just got to go with whatever you’re going with and just lie till you die at that point.”