Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Credit Where Credit is Due

We take it back. In the week preceding the season opener, Joey Porter's Pit Bulls asserted the Cleveland Browns weren't built to come from behind.

We were wrong, clearly, in the wake of the Browns' 24-point second-half rally at Heinz Field and also in light of this past Sunday's 29-28 win in Nashville, where the Browns scored the biggest comeback by a road team in NFL history, coming from 25 points behind to beat the Titans.

How wrong we were. In their first four games, the Browns have trailed by an average of 9.8 points at halftime in each game this year. Yet they gave the Steelers all they could handle; they beat the Saints; they battled the Ravens till the very end; and they gave the Titans more than they could handle.  It turns out the Browns can play catch-up in the second half of games. Who knew?
Karlos Dansby's fumble recovery in Week 1

If their first four games are an accurate indication, Cleveland has a resilient, determined team that is mentally and physically tough. How did that happen, besides the influence of first-year head coach Mike Pettine?

Joey Porter's Pit Bulls have always liked linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Donte Whitner, the two big free-agent signings this past off-season. These two have added veteran leadership, grit, passion, tenacity, determination and toughness to an otherwise anonymous defense that's been developing young talent for the past two or three years. Dansby and Whitner lead the Browns in tackles, with 31 and 30, respectively.

Travis Benjamin, after a TD at Heinz Field, Week 1
On offense, who would have figured the team could consistently battle back from second-half deficits without star wide receiver Josh Gordon. In stepped Travis Benjamin, fresh off a year lost to an ACL injury, and he has been a revelation so far this season. He caught the game-tying touchdown in Pittsburgh and the game-winner in Nashville. He's good.

Without Gordon, we wouldn't have figured Brian Hoyer to try to throw deep very often. But he's not been shy about going deep, even if only to keep defenses honest. Benjamin's speed helps in that department.

No Longer a Running Joke 
Another surprising thing about the Browns is the success of their running game. They racked up a staggering 191 yards on the ground vs. the Steelers, including runs of 29 and 25 yards, and 6.1 yards per rush. They've been running ever since. The Browns rank fourth in the NFL in rushing at 143.2 yards per game. The Steelers are seventh in rushing, at 137.2 yards per game -- and why the Steelers' pass/run ratio went back to out-of-whack mode last Sunday is another topic for another day.

We saw in the season opener that the Browns would run the ball even when they're behind. One reason they are willing to do that is they have an excellent offensive line. They haven't been afraid to flex their muscles behind Pro Bowlers Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, veteran guard John Greco and rookie standout Joel Bittonio,  from Nevada, who has stepped in at guard as if he's a younger Logan Mankins.

On Sunday, the Steelers are going to have to prove they can stop the run. The converse is true, too: The Browns are going to have to stop the Steelers' running game. It will be interesting to see who is more committed to sticking with the run.

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