How are the Cleveland Browns different?
Let QB Tim Couch explain, "William [Green] means so much to this team right now. He is giving us a chance to run our whole offense. In the first (half) of the season, we didn't have a running game, so we were playing against a cover-two (defense) the whole game and we were forced to dink-and-dunk the ball down the field. With William running the ball the way he is, teams are forced to bring that safety up into the box, and that allows us to get those big plays down the field."
The team that the lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in November did not have a running game. The Browns managed just 36 yards on the ground and 193 yards of total offense. What kept the game close was the huge special teams advantage the Browns enjoyed, as Dennis Northcutt's 87-yard punt return for a touchdown testifies.
Has the emergent running game led to more scoring?
No. In the Browns first 9 games the scored an average of about 23 points per game. Over their final seven games, the Browns average just under 20 points per game. Shouldn't "big plays down the field" lead to more scoring?
In fact, the Browns passing game decreased in yardage per game from about 229 yards to 194 yards. The improved ground game helped make up this deficit and the Browns enjoyed an average of 3 more minutes per game in the time of possession battle after the bye week.
Essentially, the Browns went from a passing team to a running team. They held on to the ball longer and the defense was more rested. The result was a defense that allowed almost 4 points less per game in their last 7 (as compared to their first 9, 21.7 points per game).
The sum of this investigation is that don't expect the Browns to score more this time around against the Steelers. Instead, expect the Steelers to score less.
The problem with this optimistic Browns outlook is that the Steelers did not score that much against the Browns in the first place. The Browns are surrendering just under 18 points per game since the bye week. The Steelers scored 16 and 23 points in the two games against the Browns. Will the Browns score enough to overcome 17 or 20 Pittsburgh points?
In both games against Cleveland, the Steelers effectively shut down the Browns offense. Pittsburgh dominated the time of possession battle. The Steelers controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. What kept the games close was fine special teams play by the Browns.
Realistically, we can expect more of the same the third time around. The Browns have become more reliant on their ground game, which plays to the Steelers defensive strength. If the Browns decide to go 4-wide and spread the field, they will surrender the time of possession battle and look more like the team that went 4-5 in their first 9 games. The Browns will have to win this game via special teams.
At first blush, this would seem encouraging to Browns fans. Cleveland has played exceptional special teams all season long and as everyone well knows, the Steelers have struggled mightily in this area. Yet, if there is a new look Browns, there is also a new look Steelers.
Since the last time these two teams met, the Steelers have a new place kicker in Jeff Reed and a new punter in Tom Rouen. Both have performed much better than their respective predecessors, Todd Peterson and Josh Miller. Reed has hit almost 90% of his field goal attempts while Peterson hit under 60%. The kickoffs have been much better as well. Rouen has been a great find. The net punt average for Miller was a lousy 34.9 yards. With Rouen handling the duties, the net punt average is now 41.6 yards. You can compare that with Cleveland punter, Chris Gardocki, who sports a 36.7 net punt average. In fact, Rouen's net average is about the same as Gardocki's gross average (just 0.2 yards difference). Advantage Steelers.
The result is that if any team has a new look since the last Browns-Steelers meeting, it is Pittsburgh with Cleveland's special teams edge almost completely eroded. This does not bode well for Browns fans…