Beginning with marathon meetings in January, the Cleveland Browns' defensive coaching staff has analyzed the team's run defense from top to bottom. New strategies and players have been added. Stopping running backs, or even keeping them in check, is arguably the team's top priority heading into the 2015 NFL season.
Thursday night against the Redskins, coach Mike Pettine was finally able to grade results against another team and the grade sheets were obvious where improvement needs to be made.
Excluding the -1 yard for the quarterback kneel, the Redskins had 19 carries outside of the tackles for 120 yards, showing the Browns had trouble setting the edge on the outside. Washington ran the football 37 times as opposed to just 28 passes.
Pettine was most irritated about a play that happened on Washington's field goal drive late in the first quarter. On a fourth-and-1 from Cleveland's 36-yard line, Cleveland's interior linemen blew up the middle of the running play, forcing Morris to the. But linebackers Paul Kruger and Karlos Dansby dashed towards the inside of the field and the Redskins running back cut towards the sideline for 18 yards before being brought down by Tashaun Gipson.
"I'm not too concerned with it," Pettine said on a Friday phone conference with reporters. "I spoke with coach O'Neil today. The play that was most disappointing was the fourth-and-1. We were not able to set an edge and ended up getting caught outside. The ball bounced outside for an 18-yard gain. It should have been no gain.
"Those are the plays we've got to get cleaned up. It's a consistency thing."
On the flip side of the coin, on 17 carries inside the tackles, Washington managed just 34 yards. Danny Shelton was an immediate difference maker in his first game with Browns, drawing the attention of multiple Redskins offensive lineman while rotating in with the first-team. Reserve defensive linemen Dylan Wynn and Jamie Meder received high marks from Pro Football Focus as did outside linebacker Scott Solomon.
"You could make a run cut-up from last night where the runs are minimal – 3 yards or less," said Pettine.
"Personally, I really want to get back into the playbook and learn everything in and out," Shelton said in the locker room after the game.
During the preseason, the Browns don't specifically gameplan for opponents. Their specific purpose at FirstEnergy Stadium wasn't to limit Alfred Morris. Pettine also indicated Cleveland were also trying out unique personnel groupings and using the game against Washington to build chemistry within the front seven.
Cleveland will have to make the most of their joint practices with the Bills starting on Monday in Rochester. It'll be a real test.
Buffalo's do-it-all back LeSean McCoy is one of the most dangerous backs in the NFL, and the Bills will rely on him heavily this season while they determine who will start at quarterback between Matt Cassel, E.J. Manuel or Tyrod Taylor, in one of the league's only true quarterback competitions.
The bottom line from the game one of the preseason is that in Pettine's eyes, he saw evidence of a run defense gelling together.
"It's not something we're panicking over, but it's something that we're obviously aware of and we'll work to get cleaned up as we get closer to the opener
"I've seen it in practice. I've seen what we can be."