AFC North: Trent Richardson

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier will start today against the Indianapolis Colts after missing the last four games with a sprained knee.

Shazier has been listed as probable on Pittsburgh's final injury of the week and his return should help the Steelers with tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener a prominent part of the Colts’ passing game.

The Steelers will be without one of the starters on their offensive line against the Colts, who are tied for third in the NFL with 21 sacks.

Right tackle Marcus Gilbert has been deactivated after suffering a concussion last Monday night in the Steelers’ 30-23 win over the Houston Texans. Mike Adams will make his first start of the season in place of Adams.

Joining Gilbert on the Steelers’ inactives list because of injuries are nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder), cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) and safety Shamarko Thomas (hamstring).

Wide receiver Justin Brown, cornerback B.W. Webb and quarterback Landry Jones are the Steelers’ healthy scratches.

The Colts are without starting wide receiver Reggie Wayne (elbow) and Hakeem Nicks will start in his place. Running back Trent Richardson (hamstring) will play against the Steelers but the third-year man will be limited.

Ahmad Bradshaw will start in place of Richardson.
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier is likely to return to action on Sunday after missing the last four games because of a sprained knee.

Shazier is listed as probable for the Steelers’ 4:25 p.m. ET game against the visiting Indianapolis Colts on the team’s final injury report of the week.

Shazier
The Steelers will probably be without a starter on the offensive side of the ball as right tackle Marcus Gilbert is listed as doubtful after suffering a concussion last Monday night. Mike Adams will start his first game this season if Gilbert is unable to play against the Colts.

The Steelers have ruled out safety Shamarko Thomas (hamstring), nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder) and cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) for Sunday.

The Colts have ruled out starting wide receiver Reggie Wayne (elbow) for their first game in Pittsburgh since 2008 while running back Trent Richardson (hamstring) is questionable.

Here are my projected healthy scratches for the Steelers with the assumption that Gilbert won’t play against the Colts: wide receiver Justin Brown, quarterback Landry Jones and cornerback B.W. Webb.

Colts vs. Steelers preview

October, 24, 2014
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The streaking Indianapolis Colts will try to win their sixth game in a row on Sunday when they visit the Pittsburgh Steelers. Slowing down quarterback Andrew Luck will be the Steelers' priority, and they have to find a way to minimize his impact or score enough to keep pace with the 5-2 Colts. Beating Indianapolis would give Pittsburgh a 5-3 record at the halfway point of the season as well as a signature win.

ESPN Colts reporter Mike Wells and Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the 4:25 p.m. ET game at Heinz Field.

Brown: Mike, the Steelers’ passing game has been torched by the likes of Mike Glennon and Brian Hoyer this season. The Steelers' pass rush has been average, and they are suspect in the secondary. That is not a good formula for stopping Luck. What is the best way to contain him, if that is possible?

Wells: Blitzing Luck is the best way, but that appears to be a problem for the Steelers. Luck has done an exceptional job of spreading the ball around this season. He is not just focusing on receivers Reggie Wayne or T.Y. Hilton. Luck had back-to-back games where he completed passes to nine different receivers this season. His biggest problem, though, is interceptions: He is tied for third in the league in that category with seven. The Colts have survived Luck’s miscues so far, but they won’t be as fortunate once they get to the playoffs and face teams that can make them pay for their mistakes.

The Steelers are a tough team to figure out. One week they get blown out by Cleveland, and then they come back and use an incredible performance in the second quarter to beat Houston. What is Pittsburgh’s identity?

Brown: Mike, I can’t figure out this team quarter to quarter, much less game to game. The defense certainly isn’t the one that people are accustomed to seeing. There is no intimidation factor, no swagger, and the Steelers are really just trying to get by defensively as they retool a unit that is in transition. The Steelers have the potential to forge a personality as a dynamic offensive team, as they have the NFL’s leading receiver in Antonio Brown, the second-leading rusher in Le'Veon Bell and, of course, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers have moved the ball this season, but they have too often bogged down in the red zone. Maybe scoring three touchdowns in the last three minutes of the second quarter Monday night against the Texans will serve as a springboard for the offense. It had better put up a lot of points against the Colts if the Steelers are to beat one of the NFL’s hottest teams.

I normally don’t associate the Colts with the kind of defense they played in absolutely stifling the Bengals on Sunday. Is Indianapolis' defense underrated?

Wells: It is very underrated. I didn’t think this defense had a chance once linebacker Robert Mathis, last season’s sack leader, was lost for the season with a torn Achilles. The unit appeared to be headed for a rough season after it had only one sack over the first two games. But defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has taken a hold-nothing-back approach with his defense. With two cornerbacks who can blanket receivers, Greg Toler and Vontae Davis, Manusky is loading the box and constantly blitzing. That is why the Colts have 20 sacks and nine turnovers during their five-game winning streak. They have also held their past four opponents to 4-of-41 on third down. People might not have respected the Colts' defense before, but now teams have to take notice.

The Steelers have a history of being a good defensive team. They are 15th in the league in yards allowed a game. Are they on the decline defensively?

Brown: That is a great question. The Steelers have to hope it doesn’t get any worse defensively, or they could be in trouble. They have some promising young players to build around in rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier and rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt. But the Steelers have serious questions at outside linebacker, especially if 2013 first-round pick Jarvis Jones doesn’t develop into a pass-rushing force. Cornerback is also an issue, a position at which the organization has not drafted well or neglected, depending on your vantage point. Cortez Allen is the Steelers’ best young cornerback, and he recently lost his starting job to Brice McCain. Allen has the physical ability to develop into a No. 1 cornerback, but the 2011 fourth-round pick has to become more consistent. It could get worse before it gets better on defense, given some of the holes that the Steelers have tried to spackle over by moves such as coaxing veteran outside linebacker James Harrison out of retirement.

The Colts seem like they have something going with Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw at running back. Richardson seems to be playing much better than he did last season. Is part of the reason that Bradshaw has eased the pressure on Richardson to carry the Colts' ground game?

Wells: Richardson might never live up to the expectations as being the No. 3 overall pick in 2012, but he is running better than he did last season, when he eventually was demoted. He is running with more confidence and making better decisions. Having Bradshaw has been a blessing for Richardson because he doesn’t have the burden of carrying the load in the backfield. Neither player has a problem sharing the work, and it helps that Bradshaw is familiar with sharing the load in the backfield. He went through it while with the New York Giants.

Brown looks like he could surpass the 1,499 receiving yards he had last season. What makes him so successful, and what type of challenges will he present to the Colts’ secondary?

Brown: I thought Brown would have a really tough time matching his production in 2013, when the fifth-year veteran set a Steelers record for receiving yards in a season. He has been even better this season and has scored five touchdowns after reaching the end zone eight times in 2013. Brown is an excellent route-runner, makes tough catches in traffic and is dazzling after the catch. The Colts will have to limit the damage Brown does after the catch, and I would imagine they will do everything they can to take him out of the game. But no team has succeeded in doing that, even though a reliable complement opposite Brown has yet to emerge.

Richardson trade nets 26th pick

January, 13, 2014
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The end result of the Trent Richardson trade for the Cleveland Browns: the 26th pick in the NFL draft.

That’s the final result after the Colts loss to the Patriots in the playoffs.

The trade has to be considered a success -- even if Richardson recovers from whatever it is that caused his production to plummet in his second season.

As a rookie for the Browns, Richardson scored 11 touchdowns and ran for 950 yards and averaged 3.6 yards per carry. With the Colts, Richardson ran for 458 yards with three touchdowns and averaged 2.9 yards per carry.

What have teams done with the 26th pick in the past several years?

The most prominent player taken at that spot was linebacker Clay Matthews, Jr., by Green Bay and cornerback Lito Sheppard by Philadelphia.

The 26th selections in the last five years are defensive end Datone Jones (Green Bay), defensive end Whitney Mercilus (Houston), wide receiver Jon Baldwin (Kansas City), defensive tackle Dan Williams (St. Louis) and Matthews.

Double Coverage: Colts at Bengals

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
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Maualuga-BrownAP PhotoRey Maualuga and the Cincinnati Bengals know the Indianapolis Colts will try to establish the running game with Donald Brown.
After holding off the Tennessee Titans and San Diego Chargers last weekend, respectively, the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals come into this Sunday's showdown with one another knowing the stakes have been raised.

Whichever division leader emerges victorious from Paul Brown Stadium will have the No. 3 playoff seeding, and most likely will retain it, barring a complete collapse across the final three weeks of the season. The only other reason they wouldn't retain the No. 3 seed? Because they would have the No. 2 seed. Currently, the New England Patriots have that.

Cincinnati could claim that this weekend with a win and a Patriots loss. The Bengals have a tiebreaker over New England after beating the Patriots in October.

Like Sunday's game, that one was in Cincinnati. The Bengals are 5-0 at home, providing an added layer of difficulty for the Colts. Why have the Bengals been so good there? How can the Colts prevent losing their No. 3 seed? ESPN NFL Nation Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Colts reporter Mike Wells have the answers to those questions and more.

Coley Harvey: Mike, there are so many different places I could go with this first question, but I really want to ask about the Colts’ rushing game. Bengals fans certainly were intrigued when the Trent Richardson trade deal went down earlier this season because they knew their team still had to face him this year, even if he was no longer playing for the division-rival Browns. He’s had a rough go of it in Indy, prompting Donald Brown’s start this past Sunday. Does Indianapolis believe Brown really is the back who will lead it through the postseason?

Mike Wells: The Colts hope the demotion will turn out to be a good thing for Richardson. I know that sounds crazy considering the Colts gave up a first-round pick to acquire Richardson. Not starting should ease some of the pressure on Richardson because he’s had a problem of overthinking since he joined the team. Brown may be the starter now, but coach Chuck Pagano will go with the hot hand during the game. So all it takes is a few big runs by Richardson and he’ll be back in the mix. The trade so far is completely in Cleveland’s favor, but this setback doesn’t mean the Colts are throwing in the towel on Richardson. They really can’t afford to when you think about all they gave up to acquire him. The Bengals have excelled at playing at home. What makes them a dangerous team there?

Harvey: That’s a good question. I’d say the weather has made them dangerous. The crowd has made them pretty dangerous, too. The reason I say the weather has made them dangerous is because twice this season, coach Marvin Lewis has been accurate in his prediction of what the weather would do. Back in early October, he smartly told his players to expect a sudden rain shower late in a game against the Patriots. A fourth-quarter monsoon came right when New England got the football for the last time and attempted a comeback drive. Tom Brady couldn’t complete a pass. The rains were too hard. Eventually, Adam Jones intercepted Brady with 16 seconds remaining, clinching a big early-season Cincinnati win. Against the Browns three weeks ago, Lewis also told his players not to worry about the possibility of a delay that some weathermen had predicted. He was right. The game went along mostly smoothly, and about an hour after play, a line of strong storms moved through the area.

In addition to the advantage “meteorologist” Marvin gives them, the Bengals have had a great lift from their fans. Every game has been a sellout, and has had some moment in it that sent the crowd into a frenzy that’s barely been seen since the team moved from the old Riverfront Stadium. The Bengals are confident they’ll keep getting that energy the rest of the season.

Andrew Luck has played in some meaningful games already in his young career. Most notably this season, he gutted out a win during Peyton Manning’s return to Indianapolis. Because of what’s at stake in Sunday’s game, how much confidence do you think Luck’s big-game play gives the Colts, Mike?

Wells: Luck will have to carry the Colts if they expect to go into Cincy and get the victory. The former No. 1 overall pick doesn’t have much to work with on offense now that veteran receiver Reggie Wayne is out for the season with the torn ACL. Opponents have found a way to slow T.Y. Hilton down lately by sending help over the top. Tight end Coby Fleener is doing what he can to help Luck out. I’m not even going to talk about receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. The running game can’t gain any traction and the offensive line has struggled this season. That leaves Luck having to improvise and do what he can to make things work. That won’t be an easy task since the Bengals have the sixth-best defense in the league. The Bengals probably like their chances at being able to sack Luck. He’s been sacked 29 times this season.

Speaking of quarterbacks, there seemed to be different stories floating around earlier this season that questioned whether Andy Dalton could win big games. Do you think he has the ability to take the Bengals to the next level?

Harvey: In all honesty, it’s tough to say, Mike. Dalton has been so inconsistent this season that it’s tough to actually believe he’ll be able to put this team on his back and be as successful as Luck has proven to be. That said, it looks like the Bengals learned something about Dalton and the rest of their offense in San Diego this past weekend. They discovered that with a little help from a solid running game, their passing game can actually produce big, explosive plays.

For a four-game stretch in October, Dalton looked like he would be able to make the Bengals an unbeatable force come the postseason. But since then, he hasn’t been as efficient and he hasn’t had the same type of prolific passing numbers. After throwing for more than 300 yards in four straight games in October, Dalton has hit the 200-yard mark just once since. Two games ago, against Cleveland, he didn’t even reach 100. If the Bengals are going to make noise in the playoffs, it’s probably not going to be because of Dalton. It most likely will be because of their defense.

Speaking of defenses, tell us about the Colts’ defense. What has contributed to its struggles this year, particularly against the run?

Wells: The Colts have struggled to stop the run all season -- 28th in the league -- and things may get worse for them. Defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois is out two to four weeks with a partial tear of his plantar fascia. Fili Moala will start in his place. Stopping the run is just one problem for Indianapolis. The secondary has also had a difficult time stopping teams from passing on them. It all started when cornerback Greg Toler went down five games ago with a groin injury. But the defense stepped up by forcing four turnovers, including three interceptions, against Tennessee on Sunday. And there’s a chance Toler will be back in the lineup this weekend. The rest of the secondary feeds off of Toler’s energy. It’s a perfect time for Toler to return because the Colts can use his help to try to slow down receiver A.J. Green, who is averaging 91.9 yards a game receiving.

Like Pagano, Marvin Lewis is a defensive coach. What makes the Bengals' defense so successful?

Harvey: It starts with the combination of Lewis' background and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. The pair of defensive gurus have established quite the formidable two-headed monster for the Bengals, coming up with a slew of adjustments and lineup tweaks that has made the unit one of the best in the league, even when it maybe shouldn't be. Injuries have ravaged the Bengals' defense, most notably at defensive tackle (Geno Atkins) and cornerback (Leon Hall). The fact Will linebacker Vontaze Burfict has come on and had an unbelievably strong sophomore season has helped, too. The former undrafted free agent leads the NFL in tackles and played last week on a bad ankle. Because of his near-reckless style of play and the fact Zimmer's scheme has produced results, the Bengals believe in their system and that has made them successful.

On the run game -- or lack thereof

November, 26, 2013
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There may have been many good and wise reasons for the Cleveland Browns to trade Trent Richardson.

In Indianapolis, Richardson has provided no reason whatsoever to make the Browns lament the deal. Nor did he do anything for the Browns to make the team think trading him would be foolish, or that a first-round pick in return was (as they now say) good value.

But that doesn’t mean the Browns' running game isn’t shorted without him.

A year ago, Richardson ran for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie -- while he played with broken ribs. Eight hundred yards and five touchdowns would look joyful for the Browns' run game right now.

The team’s leading rusher is Willis McGahee; he has 287 yards and is averaging 2.6 per carry. Chris Ogbonnaya is second; he has 196 yards (and a 6.3-yard average, which is why he’s playing more than McGahee).

[+] EnlargeWillis McGahee
Peter Aiken/Getty ImagesWillis McGahee is the Cleveland Browns' leading rusher with 287 yards.
McGahee ranks 50th in the NFL, Ogbonnaya 66th.

The Browns have had 91 yards or less as a team in six of the last eight games. In one of the two they had more than 91, they had a 45-yard reverse from Travis Benjamin.

The point: The backs aren’t getting much done.

They rank 28th in the league with 81 yards per game. They rank 29th at 21.4 carries, 26th at 3.8 yards per carry and 32nd with one stinking rushing touchdown. That’s one. O-n-e. All season.

The NFL may be morphing into a passing league, as Joe Thomas tells us. But there are times when a team needs to run the ball. Pittsburgh’s run game ranks lower than the Browns, but rookie Le’Veon Bell ran well and hard in the win on Sunday. When the Steelers needed a carry from him, he usually provided positive yards.

The Browns can’t say that. And that, combined with the fact they’ve fallen behind the past two weeks, led to them throwing 57 and 52 passes against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh respectively.

That is simply not a way to win.

The point can be made that the run game might be the exact same with Richardson. It would be hard to argue it the way he’s not running with the Colts.

It’s easy, too, to say that the decision to keep Fozzy Whittaker over Bobby Rainey was a mistake. But Rainey did little to justify staying in Cleveland, and after a big game for the Bucs against Atlanta he carried 18 times for 35 yards against Detroit.

In the offseason, team CEO Joe Banner admitted there would be positions this season where the team simply would not be able to fill its needs; that it was impossible to address everything in one offseason. He also said the team would be well aware of this.

Presumably the team is well aware of its issues at running back.

It’s easy to call the NFL a passing league, but most teams that depend on the pass have guys named Brady or Stafford or Roethlisberger or Manning or Brees or Luck.

A team that’s started three quarterback and is on the verge of its fourth change at the position that doesn’t even have a 300-yard back ... well, that’s trouble.

Big trouble.

And probably why offensive coordinator Norv Turner over and over has called this situation unique and something he’s never dealt with before.

No doubt he hopes to never deal with it again.

On the run game -- or lack thereof

November, 26, 2013
11/26/13
10:53
AM ET
There may have been many good and wise reasons for the Cleveland Browns to trade Trent Richardson.

In Indianapolis, Richardson has provided no reason whatsoever to make the Browns lament the deal. Nor did he do anything for the Browns to make the team think trading him would be foolish, or that a first-round pick in return was (as they now say) good value.

But that doesn’t mean the Browns' running game isn’t shorted without him.

A year ago, Richardson ran for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie -- while he played with broken ribs. Eight hundred yards and five touchdowns would look joyful for the Browns' run game right now.

The team’s leading rusher is Willis McGahee; he has 287 yards and is averaging 2.6 per carry. Chris Ogbonnaya is second; he has 196 yards (and a 6.3-yard average, which is why he’s playing more than McGahee).

[+] EnlargeWillis McGahee
Peter Aiken/Getty ImagesWillis McGahee is the Cleveland Browns' leading rusher with 287 yards.
McGahee ranks 50th in the NFL, Ogbonnaya 66th.

The Browns have had 91 yards or less as a team in six of the last eight games. In one of the two they had more than 91, they had a 45-yard reverse from Travis Benjamin.

The point: The backs aren’t getting much done.

They rank 28th in the league with 81 yards per game. They rank 29th at 21.4 carries, 26th at 3.8 yards per carry and 32nd with one stinking rushing touchdown. That’s one. O-n-e. All season.

The NFL may be morphing into a passing league, as Joe Thomas tells us. But there are times when a team needs to run the ball. Pittsburgh’s run game ranks lower than the Browns, but rookie Le’Veon Bell ran well and hard in the win on Sunday. When the Steelers needed a carry from him, he usually provided positive yards.

The Browns can’t say that. And that, combined with the fact they’ve fallen behind the past two weeks, led to them throwing 57 and 52 passes against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh respectively.

That is simply not a way to win.

The point can be made that the run game might be the exact same with Richardson. It would be hard to argue it the way he’s not running with the Colts.

It’s easy, too, to say that the decision to keep Fozzy Whittaker over Bobby Rainey was a mistake. But Rainey did little to justify staying in Cleveland, and after a big game for the Bucs against Atlanta he carried 18 times for 35 yards against Detroit.

In the offseason, team CEO Joe Banner admitted there would be positions this season where the team simply would not be able to fill its needs; that it was impossible to address everything in one offseason. He also said the team would be well aware of this.

Presumably the team is well aware of its issues at running back.

It’s easy to call the NFL a passing league, but most teams that depend on the pass have guys named Brady or Stafford or Roethlisberger or Manning or Brees or Luck.

A team that’s started three quarterback and is on the verge of its fourth change at the position that doesn’t even have a 300-yard back ... well, that’s trouble.

Big trouble.

And probably why offensive coordinator Norv Turner over and over has called this situation unique and something he’s never dealt with before.

No doubt he hopes to never deal with it again.
One of the great mysteries of the Cleveland Browns season is that they are 4-5 and feeling good despite having a near non-existent running game.

The team’s leading rusher has 262 carries and averages 2.6 yards per carry -- so what the heck?

Joe Thomas shrugs. The perennial Pro Bowler says it’s not a mystery.

“I’m looking at today’s NFL,” Thomas said in a recent conversation. “And I’m just not sure there’s a place for a running back anymore.”

Say what? Not a place?

“Fifty throws is the average,” Thomas said. “You get a guy who gains 100 yards, whoop dee do. It doesn’t win you games anymore.”

[+] EnlargeJoe Thomas
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliIs a sound running game a major key to success in the NFL? Not at all, Browns offensive lineman Joe Thomas said.
This from a guy who played in college at Wisconsin, the ultimate run team?

“If you’re a defensive coordinator and you give up a 100-yard rusher, you don’t really care,” he said. “It really doesn’t translate into winning many games.”

To repeat: A 100-yard back “doesn’t translate into winning many games.”

But, Thomas was told, since 1960, teams that have a back that carries 20 or more times in a game win 72 percent of the time.

“That’s simple,” he said with a smile. “They’re ahead so they run. I think it’s simple.”

Thomas asked his own question: When’s the last first-round running back other than Adrian Peterson to turn out?

Here are the first-round running backs since Thomas joined the league in 2007:

--2013: None

--2012: Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, David Wilson

--2011: Mark Ingram

--2010: C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews, Jahvid Best

--2009: Knowshon Moreno, Donald Brown, Chris Wells

--2008: Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Johnson

--2007: Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch

The best and most consistent and most dependable have been Peterson and Lynch -- but Lynch is successful with his second team, having been traded.

“You have to have soembody who’s a once-in-a-generation talent like Adrian Peterson to really be a difference maker in the game,” Thomas said. “But you get one Josh Gordon, you throw him a jump ball in triple coverage and he goes up and catches a touchdown, you win the game. That’s one guy, one play. He can do that three times in a game. Calvin Johnson. You can go down the list of guys like that who are game-changers. A.J. Green.

“You have to change the entire defense to try to take somebody like that out of the game. And the running game is so hard. Because first of all you have to have six, sometimes seven guys blocking perfectly up front. One mistake and it’s a tackle for a loss. So you have to have seven victories. And then you have to have a RB beat a safety. Today’s safeties are pretty good.”

Thomas also pointed out that offenses are getting more sophisticated at giving the quarterback the extra second he needs to make the throw. Colin Kaepernick’s fakes, he said, freeze a defense for a second.

It would also explain why the Browns have won games when they got good quarterback play and lost when they didn’t.

“That’s why you see quarterbacks, you see the value on those guys going through the roof,” he said. “Mid-level quarterbacks get $20 million a year year because they’re that important. And those receivers are going to start going that way, too.

“And the running backs, unfortunately for them they just don’t have a place in this game anymore like they used to.”

To the point that Thomas said he wouldn’t draft a running back in the first round.

The starting point for this conversation? Why did Thomas think Richardson did not work out in Cleveland?

“I’m not gonna throw stones at a guy that’s not on the team anymore,” Thomas said. “But it’s hard to say it didn’t work out because we got a first-round pick for him. So obviously someone thinks he’s pretty good. I think it comes down to production wasn’t great here, so they felt a first-round pick would be a good trade.

“And, I’m sure in today’s day and age, the value on running backs is down.”

Midpoint comparison: 2012 and 2013

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
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From Pat Shurmur to Rob Chudzinski, Mike Holmgren to Joe Banner ... the Cleveland Browns are in the midst of a change.

Midway through a season is a fair time to assess the change on the field. According to the numbers, the biggest difference between the Browns of 2013 and the Browns of 2012 is on defense.

One could even say that the Browns have made dramatic improvement defensively (see chart).

Total yards are down 18 percent.

Yards per play are down 17 percent.

And rushing yards, a Browns problem since the millennium, are down 21 percent.

The all-important yards per pass attempt are down 16 percent from a year ago.

The area where the defense has not improved has been on third-down conversions. Opponents are making a first down 46.4 percent of the time on third downs. A year ago, that number was 37.9 percent.

Logic would dictate that the trends simply make sense.

Three years the Browns drafted Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard. In the offeseason the free-agent focus was on the defense. And in the draft the focus was on the defense.

Combine that with Ray Horton’s aggressive approach, and the improvement is evident -- and will be more evident once the third-down number improves.

Offensively, well … things remain a struggle. What is interesting, though, is that in 2012 the Browns had Trent Richardson, albeit an injured Trent Richardson.

Richardson was traded earlier this season, but the running game numbers are mainly unchanged.

One other interesting number: The offense's yards-per-pass attempt are down this season even though Shurmur's offense was known for its short crosses and Chudzinski's is known for attacking down the field.
Eddie Lacy and Brandon WeedenUSA TODAY SportsThe Packers may have to rely more on their run game, while Browns QB Brandon Weeden seeks to recover from a forgettable outing.
The Green Bay Packers have made it past a difficult stretch in which they played four playoff teams from last season in their first five games.

And they came out of it with a respectable 3-2 record.

The Cleveland Browns, despite going from Brandon Weeden to Brian Hoyer and now back to Weeden at quarterback, also aren't out of anything yet at 3-3.

ESPN.com Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Browns reporter Pat McManamon break down the matchup:

McManamon: Rob, what will Green Bay do at receiver with all those injuries, and how much will it affect the offense?

Demovsky: It's bound to have a significant impact. Randall Cobb more or less became the focal point of the passing game last season and if anything, that intensified this season. Sure, he's only a slot receiver and the Packers still have the deep threat of Jordy Nelson on the outside. But in this offense, a lot of those quick-hit passes -- especially against teams that blitz -- are directed to the inside. No team used more three-receiver sets than the Packers had until Cobb went down last week against the Ravens. They had used a three-receiver set on 90 percent of their snaps. That number likely will go down beginning this week against the Browns. They might have to rely on their new-found running game more than ever. But with fewer threats in the passing game, teams might be able to load up to stop running back Eddie Lacy.

The Browns have offensive issues of their own, Pat. Brandon Weeden's turnovers in the loss to the Lions looked like killers, especially that backhanded, underhand flip. How can they get him to play smarter?

McManamon: That backhanded, underhand flip will live for a long time in the annals of Cleveland Browns misplays since 1999, Rob. A lengthy list just got longer. As for getting him to play smarter, that's the challenge. And the challenge has gone on for 18 starts. Weeden actually started fairly well as a 29-year-old rookie, but he struggled the end of last season and this season he's played in fits and starts. Which of course won't be good enough against Green Bay. With Brian Hoyer injured, the Browns have few other options -- it's not like Tom Brady is on the streets waiting for a job -- so they will stick with Weeden. But you have to wonder whether the Browns aren't coming to the conclusion that what they see is what he'll be when it comes to this 30-year-old quarterback.

Rob, Weeden does not read the rush well and does not move well. The Packers are ninth in the league in sacks. Is that yet another bad recipe for Weeden and the Browns offense?

Demovsky: It remains to be seen whether they can keep up their sack pace. They did it without Clay Matthews last week, getting five sacks at Baltimore, but now they're going to be without another outside rusher, Nick Perry. Matthews and Perry each have three sacks on the season, which ties A.J. Hawk for the team lead. At some point, those injuries have to slow down their pass rush. The one thing that's helping them is they're playing the run very well, probably the best they have since they led the league in rushing defense in 2009. After shutting down Ray Rice last week, they're up to third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (78.2). That's putting teams in a lot of third-and-long situations, which allows defensive coordinator Dom Capers to blitz. That's how Hawk got all three of his sacks against the Ravens.

Perhaps the Browns can help protect Weeden if they run the ball effectively to keep the Packers from rushing like crazy. What are their prospects for doing that?

McManamon: Running the ball would protect Weeden. But it helps to have a ... well ... a running game. At present, the Browns are in make-do mode with the running game, and as the season continues that will more and more become a problem. Since the trade of Trent Richardson the Browns have relied on aging Willis McGahee, young Bobby Rainey and fullback Chris Ogbonnaya. These guys give effort, but there's only so much they can give. McGahee can't run outside, Rainey is inexperienced and Ogbonnaya is what he is. The Browns rank 22nd in the league by running for 86.8 yards per game -- though they are averaging 3.9 yards per carry. If the Browns want to run, they will have to commit to it and pound it out, something I am not sure they can do.

Rob, the Browns have had 19 starting quarterbacks since 1999 -- and it appears next year or soon after that number will hit 20. Do the Packers and their fans realize just how fortunate they have been these many years to have Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers?

Demovsky: They should. There are only a handful of organizations who can say they've had the kind of quarterback transition that the Packers had. The 49ers with Joe Montana to Steve Young come to mind. Maybe the Colts have that now with Andrew Luck following Peyton Manning. Not only was Favre a great quarterback, but he was there week in and week out. Rodgers is pretty much the same way. Those guys rarely get injured and when they do, they still play.

Most Packers fans here are still fond of Mike Holmgren, for leading them to the Super Bowl XXXI title. His tenure with as a Browns executive was much shorter. What impact, if any, did he have on the organization?

McManamon: Let's just say the feelings for Holmgren are a lot warmer in Green Bay -- odd as that sounds -- than in Cleveland. Many fans feel Holmgren's epitaph with the Browns should be "As a president, he was a great coach." A lot of that is frustration at constant losing. Some is frustration at the job title and salary scale Randy Lerner gave Holmgren. More still that Holmgren never took on the coaching duties himself. On balance, Holmgren's tenure was no worse than many, and better than some. He and GM Tom Heckert brought in some good players who are helping the team win now. But with any regime change comes more change, and Joe Banner has gotten rid of some of Holmgren's guys -- notably Richardson. Holmgren's biggest gamble was selecting a quarterback in the first round a year ago who is now 30. But Weeden clearly would have been helped by more continuity in the front office.

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Browns links: Waiting on naming QB

September, 24, 2013
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A look at what's happening on the Cleveland Browns' beat:
  • Coach Rob Chudzinski isn't ready to name Brian Hoyer his starting quarterback Sunday despite his performance in Sunday's come-from-behind win in Minnesota. "I'm going to wait to make any determination on that until I have all of the information,'' Chudzinski said, via The Plain Dealer. Brandon Weeden might be available to play after sitting out Sunday with a right thumb injury.
  • Nose tackle Phil Taylor took exception to Adrian Peterson's tweet about the running back's daughter not being able to believe the Vikings lost to the Browns. "We showed what type of defense we’re about," Taylor told The Akron Beacon Journal. "But obviously we still don’t get the respect that we deserve, so we have to keep going out there and doing what we’ve got to do. He can say what he wants, but he wasn’t a factor in the game."
  • Owner Jimmy Haslam didn't have to be sold on the Trent Richardson trade, CEO Joe Banner told ESPN Radio in Cleveland. "I say that from the perspective not that he was anything other than asking questions to make sure we were being thorough, asking questions to contribute to the thoughtfulness of the dialogue," Banner said. "He wasn’t advocating a position. He really trusts us to look at that and make the assessment."
  • Sunday's win in Minnesota was just the third September road victory for the Browns in the last 10 years, according to the Canton Repository.

Browns links: Browns initiated trade

September, 20, 2013
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In case you missed it, the Cleveland Browns signed running back Willis McGahee to a one-year contract to replace Trent Richardson, and quarterback Brandon Weeden won't need surgery on his injured right thumb, a source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Here's what is also happening on the Browns beat:
  • The Browns initiated the trade that sent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts. According to The Akron Beacon Journal, the deal came together when Browns CEO Joe Banner began talking to Colts general manager Ryan Grigson about Richardson on Tuesday. “[Richardson was] mentioned, and we went right to work on it and did our due diligence on the Colts’ end and really liked the player,” Grigson said during a news conference. “I’ve always liked the player, and when it became a possibility, we had to at least investigate it.”
  • Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson told The Plain Dealer that the Browns haven't given up on the season even though the team traded its best offensive player. "(N)ot for one minute does anyone in this locker room think that we're not trying to win now," Jackson said. "We're good on the defensive side of the ball, we've got some areas where we all can improve on and we've just got to get the first one to create some winning around here."
  • The Plain Dealer's Bud Shaw believes the Browns are contradicting themselves to the fans. "In explaining how Brian Hoyer vaulted Jason Campbell -- going from inactive to starter -- Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner said Hoyer gives the team its best chance to win," Shaw wrote. "Likewise, can we conclude Willis McGahee or Chris Ogbonnaya or Bobby Rainey gives the Browns a better chance of winning than Trent Richardson? Not even the Browns can go there with a straight face."
  • Defensive coordinator Ray Horton said nose guard Phil Taylor told him that Baltimore Ravens halfback Ray Rice did spit in his face Sunday. Taylor, who would not confirm the incident to reporters after the game, drew a 15-yard penalty for slapping Rice in the helmet after the players were face to face. “All I know is what my player said to me, and I trust my players and we just moved on,” Horton said, via The Plain Dealer.
Phil Taylor, Adrian PetersonGetty ImagesPhil Taylor and the thus-far stout Browns run defense gets a major test in Adrian Peterson.
A pair of teams desperate for their first victory square off in Minneapolis this weekend when the Minnesota Vikings host the Cleveland Browns.

The Vikings are coming off a last-second loss in Chicago, after which players were venting about the defensive call that led to the Bears’ touchdown with 10 seconds left. Minnesota goes from Minneapolis to London for a date with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Vikings are in dire need of some positive momentum.

The Browns, meanwhile, have scored just 16 points in a pair of losses, and already have made major changes. They will start Brian Hoyer at quarterback this weekend with starter Brandon Weeden out because of a thumb injury. Meanwhile, the Browns traded running back Trent Richardson on Wednesday, parting with their top playmaker in exchange for the Indianapolis Colts' 2014 first-round draft pick.

As the teams meet for the first time since 2009, ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN NFL Insider Matt Williamson break down the game:

Goessling: Matt, the last time these two teams faced each other, it was on opening day in 2009, Brady Quinn was under center for the Browns and Brett Favre was playing his first regular-season game in a Vikings uniform. How things have changed since then. The Vikings have their own quarterback issues -- Christian Ponder probably keeps his job for now after a solid second half in Chicago last week, though he’s in serious need of some consistency. With Hoyer at quarterback, Richardson gone to Indianapolis and Josh Gordon coming back from a suspension, what can we expect from the Browns’ offense?

Williamson: I was feeling optimistic about Cleveland's offense going into Week 3 with Gordon returning and the disaster at the right guard position seemingly resolved. But now Weeden is out and Hoyer is in. That doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the loss of Richardson, who should be the foundation of this offense as a runner and underrated receiver. I truly think the Colts got themselves a great young back. But that leaves the Browns in a very precarious situation in the backfield. It is going to be a long year on this side of the ball.

The Vikings had an outstanding rookie class in 2012 and made three picks in the first round of this latest draft. Although there are obvious concerns at the quarterback position, Minnesota has quietly established a fine young nucleus. What roles do you see for its three first-round picks for this game, as well as going forward in 2013?

Goessling: It’s interesting you bring that up, because Cordarrelle Patterson's role -- or perhaps his absence -- has been a big topic of conversation this week. He got only five snaps in the Vikings’ first game, and had just six as a receiver last Sunday, even after he ran the opening kickoff back 105 yards for a touchdown. He’s young, and raw, but he might also be one of the most dangerous players the Vikings can put on the field, aside from Adrian Peterson. Coach Leslie Frazier all but called for Patterson to be on the field more during his news conference Monday. The challenge for the Vikings is to either work him into their base offense or go to enough multiple-receiver sets that they can use him, but I don’t doubt we’ll see him more going forward.

That could be especially important considering how good the Browns have been against the run in their first two games. They’ve allowed just 59.5 yards per game -- how will they fare against Peterson this weekend?

Williamson: Well, facing Peterson is obviously the ultimate challenge, and his run blocking, including the tight ends and fullbacks, is quite good as well. But I am very impressed with the Browns’ run defense -- and it starts up front. I believe that Phil Taylor is on the verge of stardom; his battle with John Sullivan, an excellent center in his own right, in the middle of the formation, will be crucial for the success of Cleveland’s interior run defense. But the Browns also have very good size at outside linebacker and do a nice job containing the outside run; their second- and third-level defenders get to the ball carrier well.

I mentioned before that the right guard position has been a nightmare, but the Browns’ excellent set of offensive tackles, Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz, also has struggled much more than would be expected against two formidable defenses. As you know, Jared Allen is still playing at a very high level. But as some might not know, Brian Robison is also excelling this year and Everson Griffen is a highly athletic and intriguing end, too. Could Minnesota’s defensive ends rule the day?

Goessling: They certainly could. They struggled in Week 1 in Detroit, as Matthew Stafford found Reggie Bush on a number of early screen passes before the rush could get home. But the Vikings put consistent pressure on Jay Cutler last week, and Allen caused a Cutler fumble that Robison returned 61 yards for a touchdown. The Vikings also have not played at home yet, which means they will have the advantage of the crowd disrupting the opposing offense’s snap count for the first time this year. Minnesota has enough issues on the back end of its defense that it needs a strong pass rush to cover up for some of those deficiencies, and if the defensive line can get to Hoyer, the Vikings should be able to slow the Browns down and win the game.

To close this up, what’s the biggest thing you think the Browns need to do to win the game? What kind of a shot will they have without Weeden and Richardson?

Williamson: I really don’t like Cleveland’s chances at all, but its defense could keep this game close and limit Peterson’s production. Of course, Ponder could have a very poor game, or the Browns could score on defense or special teams. But I can’t see their offense this week moving the football with any sort of consistency. As Cleveland's front office is doing, it is time to start looking toward next year.

 
The Cleveland Browns shocked the football world when they traded running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for a 2014 first-round pick Wednesday.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Richardson joins defensive lineman John Matuszak as the only players since the NFL merger in 1970 to be drafted within the top three, play their first season with the team that drafted them, and then play for another team the following season.

Some believe it was a good trade for the Browns because this gives them another top pick that can be used to draft a franchise quarterback. Others feel like this is a sign that the Browns have given up on the season.

“We have to earn their belief and trust in the decisions we’re going to make as a group, and I don’t expect them to trust that until we prove that the trust is well placed," Browns CEO Joe Banner said. "So, I understand the skepticism for now. We have to do what we think is right, move the franchise forward and get it to where we want it to be.”

Here is some reaction on Twitter to the surprising Richardson trade:

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