April 20, 2014

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Weak running game is a big part of Browns’ struggles

BEREA — This isn’t what the brain trust had in mind in April.

When president Mike Holmgren, general manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur traded three draft picks to move up one spot and ensure they landed running back Trent Richardson, they didn’t envision a running game ranked 30th in the league. Or an offense throwing on 65 percent of the snaps. Or a 1-6 record.

But that’s exactly what the Browns have with a game left before the midpoint of the season. Shurmur is correct when he says the issues with the run game are multiple, but none is larger than the lack of a seismic impact by Richardson.

The primary reason is he has never been 100 percent healthy.

Arthroscopic knee surgery in August cost him the preseason, so he was still working his way back in the season’s first weeks. Then he took a Bengals helmet to the side Oct. 14, injured rib cartilage and hasn’t been the same.

He couldn’t make it through the Cincinnati game and was benched Sunday in the 17-13 loss to the Colts after gaining 8 yards on eight carries.

Richardson said after the game the injury is worse than people think but he wanted to stay in and thought the production would improve. The bye week is two games away, so the Browns could shut down Richardson until Nov. 18 and hope he gets healthy and regains his form for the stretch run.

“We’re going to get him ready to play each week, and then we’ll make those decisions as we get to gametime whether he’s going to go or not,” Shurmur said Monday. “You just watch him, watch him practice, see where he’s at physically and if he’s ready to play, he’ll play. If we see that this is bothering him to the point where he can’t perform, then we’ll make those decisions as we go.

“There was a lot going on out there. It wasn’t just Trent. So let’s just make that point.”

The lack of a consistent running game has been a problem all season. Richardson’s only 100-yard game came in Week 2 against the Bengals and the numbers are alarming.

The Browns rank 30th with 79.1 rushing yards a game and 23rd with 3.8 yards per attempt. The league averages are 113.1 and 4.2. The Browns have 23 rushing first downs, topping only New Orleans’ 19 in six games. The Patriots have 75.

“I think we can be an effective team running the football,” Shurmur said. “We need to do a better job doing it — call better plays, block better, run better.

“I wish I could give you some theorem that makes it happen that way, but we just need to do it. I’m confident we’ll get it done this week.”

The loss to the Colts brought the issue to the forefront. Indianapolis’ run defense was ranked 29th and had been gashed by the Jets for 252 yards seven days earlier. Yet the Browns gained only 55 yards and averaged 3.2 while rushing 17 times — six after halftime — compared to 41 throws as the Colts stacked the line of scrimmage.

“They kind of committed to stopping the run, which I thought they might do, because they had a tough time stopping the run the week previous,” said Shurmur, whose team never trailed by more than a touchdown. “So you just kind of work on doing other things. I thought for the most part we were pretty efficient throwing the ball.”

But the plan in the offseason was to be balanced, right? With Richardson easing the burden on rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden?

“You do what you have to do each week to win the game,” Shurmur said. “I think anything you do running or passing you want to be efficient doing it. You try to do the things you can to move the football.”

That’s been passing.

“Lets face it, we are a pass-first offense,” left tackle Joe Thomas said after the game. “We have a stud rookie quarterback and a couple good receivers and tight ends. So we are going to air it out most games.”

Weeden has thrown 272 passes in seven games, an average of nearly 39. He’s shown consistent improvement since Week 2, while Richardson’s impact has been sporadic. He leads the team with five touchdowns and 545 yards from scrimmage, but has averaged 3.4 per carry and has failed on a series of third-and-1s.

On top of the injuries, he’s still adjusting to life in the NFL. The holes are smaller and close in a hurry, the hits are harder and indecision kills. He missed his orientation in training camp and the preseason and is learning on the fly.

“It’s difficult when you miss time at critical points in the year,” Shurmur said. “But he’s out there playing, and that’s what’s important.”

Richardson wasn’t out there playing after being stuffed on third-and-1 in the second quarter.

“Trent’s a warrior,” Shurmur said. “Trent wanted to play the whole game. He’s constantly trying to convince me to keep him in there.”

But Shurmur saw an injured and ineffective runner, so he went with Montario Hardesty. Shurmur said it wasn’t one hit or play that convinced him to make the move.

“I’m watching the game. I’m watching the player,” he said. “We try to make decisions based on what’s best.

“He’s going to be a great player around here for a very long time. He wanted to be in the game. But when I look at it, I want to make sure that we consider him, his health and everything as we move forward.”

This isn’t what the Browns had in mind when they drafted him.

Next up

  • WHO: Cleveland vs. San Diego
  • WHEN: Sunday, 1 p.m.
  • WHERE: Cleveland Browns Stadium
  • TV/RADIO: Channel 19; WMMS 100.7-FM, WTAM 1100-AM

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.