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Four Downs: Why Mike Pettine is sticking with run-focused formula amid Browns struggles


Welcome to Four Downs, a bi-weekly article that takes a deeper look at the storylines, matchups and anything else involving the Browns on their two days away from the field: Tuesday and Saturday.

1. Why Pettine is sticking with the plan

There are different ways to win football games and different ways to build a team. This is what makes the NFL and, really, all of football great.

One year, a team with a dominant defense and an under-the-radar quarterback can win it all. The next year, a team with a high-powered offense and just enough defense can shoot its way from worst to first. A quarterback can be the MVP. A running back can be the MVP. A defensive lineman can be arguably considered the best player in the league. It's a sport with endless possibilities, formulas and solutions to problems. It's great.

The construction of these current Browns was built on the philosophy of building a strong foundation on the line of scrimmage, both on offense and defense. That means running the ball well and stopping it on the other side of the ball, thereby lessening the stress on the quarterback on offense while opening up opportunities for linebackers and defensive backs to make big plays on defense. When Cleveland did this successfully last season, it won games -- sometimes convincingly.

The Browns' free-agent acquisitions and draft centered on this foundation because that's what coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer believe is the best track for success. They've reiterated that fact since the start of the offseason.

The early results, of course, have been concerning in both of these areas, and Pettine hasn't shied away from it. The Browns are last in the NFL in rushing defense (158.3 yards per game) and 25th in rushing offense (86.3). There have been flashes of potential -- 116 rushing yards vs. Tennessee, limiting Oakland to 1 yard on seven carries in Sunday's first quarter -- but the necessary consistency hasn't been there.

Every week is its own season in the NFL, and three weeks has been more than enough for many to draw broad-sweeping conclusions about the makeup of a team. Pettine, though, isn't ready to crumple up the paper and go back to the drawing board.

"We are capable of executing that plan and we are not going to deviate from it or panic from it," Pettine said Monday. "We need to play better. We need to execute. If you want to look at the biggest reasons why we have lost two of three games, it is exactly what you said. It's because we didn't run the ball well enough and we didn't defend the run well enough."

Pettine's confidence in the plan has roots in his history and can be backed up by the actions of three teams off to hot starts in 2015.

The history, of course, goes back a few years to 2009 and 2010, when Pettine was in his first two years as the defensive coordinator of the New York Jets. With rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez at the helm, the Jets led the league in rushing and finished eighth in rush defense on their way to the AFC Championship. They got back to the conference title game in 2010 with the league's fourth-best rushing attack and third-best run defense.

The present has a touch of the history, too. The 2-1 Buffalo Bills, led by former Jets coach Rex Ryan, currently leads the league in both rushing offense and rushing defense. Two of the league's six 3-0 teams, Cincinnati and Carolina, rank in the top 10 in both rush offense and rush defense.

The one exception to this philosophy, so far, has been the 1-2 Washington Redskins. Not even a strong running game and run game can overcome a minus-5 turnover margin.

Solutions exist in fixing both of these areas. "A lot of little things" have contributed to Cleveland's struggles in the running game and tackling has been the biggest problem against the run. It's all correctable. And if it does corrected, there's proof better results than Sunday's will follow.

2. Digging into snap counts after 3 games

Through three games, the Browns have six players who have not missed a single snap: Mitchell Schwarz, Joel Bitonio, Alex Mack, Joe Thomas, Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner.

John Greco missed a few snaps in the season opener with a minor injury but was on the field for every play in the last two games.

Some other snaps of note…

  • Duke Johnson Jr. has played 97 snaps. Isaiah Crowell has been on the field for 92. Both were in the backfield when Gary Barnidge caught a 28-yard touchdown pass in Sunday's fourth quarter against the Raiders.
  • Rookie DL Xavier Cooper played 30 snaps in his Browns debut Sunday. He helped fill the void left by veteran Desmond Bryant, who was sidelined with a shoulder injury.
  • Rookie DL Danny Shelton has played 58 percent of the defensive snaps this season. That's among the highest for Browns defensive linemen.
  • Johnson Bademosi, Tank Carder, Marlon Moore, Jordan Poyer, Barkevious Mingo and Shaun Draughn have been the most active on special teams

3. Paul Kruger doing heavy lifting

Veteran pass rusher Paul Kruger saw his snaps go down Sunday against the Raiders, but that was by design.

The Browns are thin on depth at outside linebacker because of the ankle injury Scott Solomon incurred on the first series of the season and no one has been picking up the slack more than Kruger. He played 91 percent of the snaps in the season opener and a whopping 71 of 80 against the Titans.

On Sunday against the Raiders, Kruger was on the field for 56 of 71. This was promised a few days earlier by defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil.

"I think when your best pass rusher is on the field for 70 plays throughout the course of a game, that's probably a little high, especially when you get into those critical drives at the end of the game. You want those guys to be fresh," O'Neil said. "Paul's a guy that we're going to count on to make big plays for us at the end of the game so we have to do a better job as a coaching staff taking some reps on him in some of those early drives, early quarters."

4. Tweet of the week

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