Assessing the threat of one of the more ignored opponents this year.
Football is one of the few events that clear the streets in Cleveland, Ohio. The other two sports teams here, the Cavaliers and Indians, have nice followings, but not the same fanatic legion as the Browns. Growing up I was also a huge gridiron freak, but never for the Browns. I was captivated by the Cowboys when I was seven and Jimmy Johnson was building a dynasty, and at the age of ten the newspapers were saturated with panicked reports that the Browns were moving out of town. In 1999 the NFL made the Browns the first franchise to be reconstituted during the Super Bowl era (the Baltimore Colts were revived in 1953 after folding three years earlier), but they have since then been one of the most consistently lackluster teams in pro sports.
On Thursday Dallas hosts the bane of our existence, the Washington Redskins. But before that they must maintain the momentum gained in Philadelphia by defending the home turf from the Browns. For me personally this is a crucial battle against the local Cowboy haters. My weekly suffering watching the Browns at the gym (they don't put any of the other teams on anyway) gives me some good perspective on what makes them tick.
Offense: Rookie triumvirate
The Cleveland Browns offense has in years past seemed like a creature of mythology, as since 2009 they have gone through the following quarterbacks: Brady Quinn, Derek Anderson, Jake Delhomme, Colt McCoy, and now 29 year-old rookie Brandon Weeden. They suffered major disappointment last season when their top star, Madden 2011 cover man Peyton Hillis, had a contract holdout and then had a controversial injury filled 2011 that led to his departure for Kansas City. Their roster is dominated by rookies and Year 2 players, which is consistent for a team whose biggest off-season free agent acquisition was defensive lineman Frostee Rucker from the Bengals.
Top that off with a second-year coach, Pat Shurmur, and a brand new owner, Jimmy Haslam, and it's impossible to deny that the Browns ARE changing.
Strengths: The offense is anchored by Weeden and fellow rookies Trent Richardson at running back and Josh Gordon at wide out. When they're good, which means when Richardson has been healthy, the Browns offense moves and pushes the line of scrimmage. Weeden faced a quarterback controversy during the Browns' 0-5 start; it seems that he isn't in danger of losing his job in the near future, but back-up Colt McCoy still has many of his own partisans here.
Weaknesses: Weeden may be a mature rookie, but he's still a rookie, and so are no less than six fellow members of the Cleveland offense. This has induced many penalties (though far behind Dallas' total), especially offensive line infractions such as false starts. Shurmur has been driven up a tree this season when forced to call timeouts when the playclock is running, so after their bye week it'll be interesting to see how much progress he made in that respect. Clock management at the end of games has been poor, as the Browns haven't been able to generate come from behind victories in recent close games with Indianapolis and Baltimore. Several Browns players, such as WR Grady Little and Fullback Owen Marecic, are serial pass droppers.
The Dagger: Beating the Browns offense is easier said than done: Stifle the run and cause 3rd and longs. Good luck against the T-Rich's battering ram runs. oBrandon Weeden is an excellent pocket passer, but he's thrown 12 interceptions and has three fumbles, none lost. He has only suffered 14 sacks, so the Cowboys will definitely have a battle at the line of scrimmage in order to pressure him. Rob Ryan has stated that he has a personal interest in the game against his former team, so expect lots of blitzing.
Defense: The Young Guard
Nothing unproven here. Veteran Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson has shown he can be a champion. Can his team play up to his standards?
The player featured above is the exception to the rule, because most of the players on Rob Ryan's Cleveland defense two years ago are gone. Cleveland's defense is somewhat on a par with Dallas' in terms of points per game, with 23.4 compared to 22.7, but they are near the bottom of the league in yardage allowed.
Strengths: The leading names in the defense don't usually include such players as Usama Young, D'Qwell Jackson, Joe Haden, and TJ Ward, but it's not for lack of trying. This squad never plays like victims, only victimizers. CBs Haden and Sheldon Brown have both speed and physicality, as does SS Ward who is Haden's best buddy both on and off the field.
Weaknesses: The Browns D doesn't have any scrubs, even with three rookie linebackers and two rookie linemen. So why do they still lose games? The Browns tend to give their opponents enough slack to escape with a win. They far outperformed the Colts defense in Indianapolis, yet still failed to keep Andrew Luck & Co. from squeaking by.
The Dagger: Jason Garrett and Dallas OC Bill Callahan might have one piece of good information going into tomorrow: Joe Haden has an oblique injury and may not be able to start. The Browns gave up ten passing TD's during Haden's early season suspension, and only four since then. Romo cannot linger in the pocket and must throw quickly in order to avoid D'Qwell Jackson, Jabal Sheard, Juqua Parker, etc.
Josh Cribbs hasn't had any breathtaking TDs this year. But he does give them an edge in field position, both on returns and when punting or kicking.
Strengths: Phil Dawson may be the only kicker in the NFL to be the most popular player on his team, and has a perfect field goal percentage. Josh Cribbs has the Browns in 3rd on kick returns and 2nd on punt returns, proving he remains a potent threat.
The Browns actually don't have such a good punt return defense, ranking second from the bottom behind Buffalo.
The Dagger: The Browns special teams has few flaws. Dallas has the best punt coverage in the league. They're gonna need it against Cribbs. The Cowboys can really box in Cleveland by keeping the out of field goal range.
Step Up Guys
Mackenzy Berndardeau and Tyron Smith, it's gonna be rough out there against the Browns rush.
Around the League
Nick Foles has the playmakers needed to beat a disintegrating Washington defense, while Robert Griffin III is favoured to get his first divisional victory against the Eagles despite their own solid defense. . . With a victory at home against the ailing Chargers, John Fox, Peyton Manning, and Champ Bailey can virtually shut the door on the rest of the AFC West. . . The Ravens are once again at an advantage over the Steelers after the Roethlisberger concussion . . . So are the Bears after Alex Smith (49ers) went down last week. Jason Campbell has what it takes to fill in for Cutler. Can we say the same about Colin Kaepernick.