Monday, October 13, 2014

Cleveland Browns dominate Steelers the old-fashioned way

By Bud Shaw, The Plain Dealer 
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on October 12, 2014 at 7:30 PM, updated October 12, 2014 at 9:02 PM

Cleveland Browns tight end Jordan Cameron looks at the jumbotron as he runs into the end zone for a second quarter touchdown with Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu pursuing. (Charles Crow / The Plain Dealer) Oct. 12, 2014, FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The real beauty of Kyle Shanahan's offense, we know now, is its beast mode.

Sunday delivered the biggest Browns' victory in 25 years over the Steelers, while also raising hopes for the future; specifically meaningful football when the climate turns ugly in late November and December. 

We saw Sunday what attracted Mike Pettine to Shanahan when he was putting his staff together – the versatility of Shanahan's approach but also its foundation in weather-proof football.

"It's a formula for success," said Pettine. "I know it's not exactly a way that some people want to be. You look at today's NFL and spread the field ... throw it all over the place. But in Cleveland, with the potential of inclement weather, you have to be able to (run the ball)."

For all the early-season questions about Shanahan's 18-word play calls and his reputation for sometimes tripping over the fine line from creative to overly cute, what he served up for the Steelers Sunday was a mouthful of Ben Tate and Isaiah Crowell.

The Steelers committed to stopping that, so much that Brian Hoyer strafed them over the top of the defense on consecutive scoring drives. Sufficiently concerned about Hoyer taking his shots, the Steelers got fed more of Tate and Crowell.

The Browns ran it 38 times. Only one Travis Benjamin carry. Nothing cute about that.
"We haven't had a running game like this since forever," said Joe Thomas. "What I like about (Shanahan's offense) is that we force the defense to cover sideline to sideline.

"They might be in the right place six out of the first six times. But it only takes one play where a defender isn't in his gap and then you get some panic setting in. Everything is built on that. It fits so perfectly together."

For one of the few times in Thomas' career, the Browns can run the ball across the goal line in the red zone – something they did three times in Sunday's 31-10 rout. Their eight rushing touchdowns this season doubles last year's total.

"They had to commit to the run," said Hoyer, who made the Steelers pay on a third-and-short play action pass to Cameron for a 51-yard TD and a 42-yard completion to Cameron off a naked bootleg.

The Steelers expected everything they saw Sunday and still couldn't stop it.

"They always did the misdirection and we worked on that," said Steelers' corner William Gay. "We knew what type of offensive coordinator we were going against."

The Browns won a game with eight pass completions. Not only won it, dominated it.

Here was an afternoon that sent you to the history books. Not since Bud Carson's Browns shut out the Steelers 51-0 in 1989 has a Browns team handled the Steelers so completely.

Runner up: A 33-13 beating in 2003. The list of candidates is not long.

"This was great for our fans," said Thomas. "I mean they have been showing up here for a long time knowing their team is going to gets its (butt) kicked."

This was the Browns dictating a game in part because its defense preserved the early lead with the kind of effort we expected back in training camp. Instead of the frenetic no-huddle being a necessity, Shanahan was able to alternately speed it up and slow it down.

"First of all, (Kyle's) run game is relentless," Pettine said of the challenge defenses face. "You have to be able to defend the run. The zone scheme's difficult. Not a lot of teams do it. ... He does a really good job with the formations, movement, pre-snap movement ... causes a lot of rules to be broken."

This was the kind of game the Browns might need against higher octane opponents. They showed an ability to strike quickly for TDs and also grind it out. They scored on a five-minute, 85-yard drive and 60-yard drive that required all of 1:07.

"I felt like we were barely on the field," said Hoyer of the quick-strike offense. "Probably my fewest pass attempts since high school."

Hoyer became a big-play game manager Sunday. If that label seems confusing, now you know how the Steelers felt. He threw for just 217 yards. One touchdown. No interceptions. One sack. A quarterback rating of 113.0 behind an offensive line that lost center Alex Mack.

"Every throw Brian made was a huge throw, every catch that we made, every run that we had was enormous," said Thomas.

A week ago, the Browns trailed, 28-3, and still finished in balance: 37 passes, 36 runs. Now this: Seventeen pass attempts. Average completion: 27 yards.

Over the past six quarters, the Browns have outscored the opposition 50-10. After trailing Pittsburgh 27-3 at the half in the season opener, they've outscored the Steelers, 55-13.

Maybe teams catch up to Shanahan's offense in time. But for now, the Browns have scored 27, 26, 21, 29 and 31 points. That hasn't happened in a five-game stretch since 2007.

At this point, no one should care if it takes Shanahan 18 words to say hello.

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