"When did you guys re-sign Jim Brown?"
That was a question I asked a nearby Browns fan donning a throwback Brian Sipe jersey at Heinz Field during the second half of the Steelers 30-27 victory over Cleveland Sunday in Week 1.
After being dominated to the tune of a 27-3 deficit in the first half, the Browns ran their way back into the game. On the strength of a running game that amassed 183 rushing yards and two touchdowns, Cleveland tied up the score in the fourth quarter, temporarily leaving the Heinz Field crowd in shocked silence.
Cleveland toted the rock 30 times, averaged 6.1 yards per carry, and saw four different running backs each have a carry of at least 10 yards.
While Cleveland's success on the ground is certainly cause for concern for the Steelers, the Browns rushing attack may be better than many suspected. I'm sure many of you out there were wondering who in the world is that backup Browns running back that shattered the Steelers for 100 yards on just 16 carries Sunday. Terrance West, a rookie running back for Cleveland, replaced starting running back Ben Tate after Tate suffered an injury on Sunday.
West, a 5'10, 225 pound, third-round selection in this year's draft, enjoyed a stellar albeit under-the-radar college career. At Towson University last fall, West gained 2,509 yards (with a 6.1 yards per carry average) and 41 touchdowns in 16 games for an average of nearly 157 yards a game. Running behind one of the best linemen in the NFL in Joe Thomas Sunday, West showed the league that his game may indeed be good enough to thrive at the highest level.
You may also have been wondering why West and his fellow back-mates were having so much success getting in the open field seemingly as soon as they grabbed the pigskin. The reason may lie in the Browns new running system. Cleveland first-year offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is a disciple of the zone-blocking scheme, something he learned from his dad, former Redskins and Broncos coach Mike Shanahan.
The zone-blocking system, blocking in one direction and having the running backs cut back for daylight in the opposite direction, helped Mike Shanahan win two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos in 1997 and '98 behind the rushing of Terrell Davis. Under Kyle Shanahan in Washington, 2012 sixth-round pick Alfred Morris used the zone rushing attack to rush for over 2,900 yards in his first two seasons in the NFL.
So, what does this all mean? To me, it means that while the Steelers surely need to shore up their run defense, the Browns rushing attack might just be one of the better ones Pittsburgh will face. One must also consider that, while veteran mainstays Troy Polamalu, Lawrence Timmons, Cameron Heyward and Ike Taylor were on the field Sunday, there were many new faces on Pittsburgh's defense that should vastly improve as the season progresses. Jarvis Jones is still fitting into his role as a starting linebacker, while Ryan Shazier (who, by all accounts, played very well Sunday) and Stephon Tuitt stepped onto an NFL field Sunday for the first time. It takes time for defenses to come together, but with the leadership and talent of this group, it shouldn't take too long for the unit to mesh.
On Thursday, the Steelers will face a Ravens team still licking their wounds after losing to Cincinnati Sunday and then losing Ray Rice (who didn't play Sunday) for good after the team released him Monday. In their 23-16 loss to the Bengals, the Ravens rushed the ball a mere 20 times for 91 yards, with Justin Forsett leading the way with 70 yards on 11 carries. Joe Flacco painted the sky with footballs, completing 35 of his 62 pass attempts. While I'd expect Flacco to test the Steelers pass defense early and often Sunday, if the Ravens do decide to pound the rock, rest assured that the Steelers linemen and linebackers will be hungry for the challenge.