Browns running back coach Wilbert Montgomery, who’s coached the likes of Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, was at a loss Tuesday to explain the disappearance of Duke Johnson in the second half of games.
“I can’t,” he said. “That’s a question that you’d have to ask Flip (offensive coordinator John DeFilippo) because I don’t call the plays. I put guys in the game based upon our personnel groupings.”
Johnson, the Browns third-round pick out of Miami, had one touch in the second half of the 34-20 loss to the Cardinals game despite the Browns being up 20-10 at the half. The next game, the 31-10 loss to the Bengals, Johnson didn’t touch the ball at all in the second half despite the Browns trailing only 14-10 at the half and 17-10 in the third. During Sunday’s 30-9 loss in Pittsburgh, Johnson had only two second-half touches after the Browns fell behind 21-3 at the break.
Overall, Johnson is 58th in the NFL with only 189 yards and tied for 161st with a 3.0-yard average. But he’s being used primarily as a receiver out of the backfield, and has more than twice as many receiving yards (387) as rushing yards.
Try as he might, Montgomery couldn’t hide the fact that he’s unhappy with the Browns’ lack of a running game and their tumble to 31st in the league.
“It’s frustrating for everyone,” he said.
Asked if he’s satisfied with the commitment to the run, he said, “I can’t answer that one. I can’t answer that question because if you look at the history of guys that I had, they got the ball.”
Montgomery is also dismayed by the fact that none of his backs has become the bellcow like an Adrian Peterson in Minnesota or a rookie Todd Gurley in St. Louis. He’s accustomed to coaching stars like Faulk, who’s currently 10th on the NFL’s all-time rushing list, and Steven Jackson, who’s 17th.
“We don’t have that,” he said. “We don’t have guys that have been drafted that high that can do that. So you got a list of young guys that are trying to play their roles in whatever the role calls. There are things that Duke is good at doing that Isaiah Crowell is not good at doing. There’s things Crow is good at that Duke is not.”
He hoped one of his backs would emerge, but it hasn’t happened, in part because the Browns are much more pass-oriented this year, throwing 382 times against 226 runs. What’s more, they’ve fallen behind and have had to abandon the run in the second half.
“It’s hard when you don’t get opportunities to carry the ball,” he said. “You have to give (Crowell) the opportunity to be Crowell just like you have to give Duke the opportunity to be Duke.”
With six games left in the season, Crowell is 38th in the NFL with 328 yards and 157th with a 3.1-yard average. Johnson is all the way down the list, behind quarterbacks such as Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck. But Crowell has averaged only about 10 carries a game and Johnson, 6.
“Everything you do as a runner, you have to get a rhythm and the way we’ve been playing and how we’ve been playing hasn’t allowed the running backs to do what they can do and to showcase their abilities out there on the field,” said Montgomery. “The rhythm is after you have touched the ball a certain number of times so you get a feel for what the defense is presenting to you. You get to understand the blocking scheme a little bit more, you can make your reads off the blocking scheme.”
He acknowledged that falling behind hasn’t helped.
“When you’re playing from behind and you make a lot of mistakes on early downs, jump offsides, miscues, now you’re playing behind the downs. you’ve got to stay ahead of downs in order to be effective in the run game,” he said. “The running backs have to get more yards when they have an opportunity, and the line has to do a better job and the tight ends have to do a better job on holding up their end of the bargain as well, and that’s blocking.”
The running game reached a new low in Pittsburgh, where the Browns rushed for only 15 yards on 14 carries and went backwards more than they went forward. They lost yards on five of 14 runs, and on eight of their 11 handoffs, they either gained 1 yard, were stopped cold or driven into the backfield for a loss.
Their leading rusher was Johnny Manziel, who gained 17 yards on his three carries. Crowell rushed for minus-5 yards on six carries and Johnson managed 10 yards on four carries.
“I was shocked at Pittsburgh because Pittsburgh was never a penetrating defense,” said Montgomery. “They were always a key read defense, they’re a two-gap defense, they saw where you were going and then they would run and make tackles. They played fast. Well, this Pittsburgh defense was different. They penetrated and that was the difference in the ballgame.
“You’re working something that you thought they were. Then you get in a game and they’re doing something totally different. Those guys were big and strong and explosive and they were getting up field on us.”
He explained that Manziel had a little more success than the backs that game because “he has the opportunity. He has more freedom. He has an open field when he’s out of the pocket. He’s scrambling. The lanes are there for him when he’s scrambling out. It’s not there for the running backs so that’s different.”
He acknowledged that it’s a passing league, but that it’s still important to run.
“I know everyone wants to see pass, pass, pass and the running game is what it is,” he said. “You just want to win. The biggest question is to win however you choose to win. You have to find a balance in it and then live with whatever you choose to do.”
Crowell noted that the Browns ran the ball a lot more last year under Kyle Shanahan, who ran the wide zone scheme.
“That’s why I guess it looks like we had a lot of success comparing the two seasons,” he said. “I feel like we’ve still got the players and talent to do it. I feel like we just gotta keep working and I feel like it will all come together.”
He’s also surprised the Browns go away from the run in the second half.
“I feel the same way you feel,” he told reporters. “But I just listen to the coaches, go by what they say, and just listen to them because they’re in control. I’m just going along with what they want.”
Montgomery explained that running back Robert Turbin, who was recently cut and picked up Wednesday weeks with a sprained ankle. Turbin was let go after he dropped two handoffs against the Cardinals.
“Turbin never was 100 percent,” Montgomery said. “It’s hard to play guys when you put the ball on the ground. Not only do you let the team down, you let the city down, you let the organization down and it’s a nasty feeling when you fumble the ball. He understands that. And he hadn’t been hit, so I would take the blame on that, because I don’t think the timing was there.
“He hadn’t been in the camps. I didn’t know anything about Turbin, we picked him up and I didn’t get a chance to work with him, so therefore it was new to me to putting him in there. We talk about his problems, because he carried the ball low. When you carry the ball low, you’re going to have that fumbling problem.”
Regardless of who’s running the ball, it takes a village to churn out the yards.
“It takes 11 guys to make it work, and it’s not on the runner,” said Montgomery. “Everybody has to do their job and it starts with the running back. We’ve got to win our individual battles. We’ve got to win our individual wars up there. And then the running backs have to make people miss at times and they have to break tackles in order to get going. But you just like to get started. That’s the key to running the ball.”