Week 9 brings the second AFC North opponent of the year as the Cowboys travel to Cleveland to take on the Browns. Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of their offensive personnel.
Robert Griffin, Jr., Josh McCown, Cody Kessler, and Kevin Hogan.
Each of these quarterbacks have started for the Browns so far this season, making this arguably the worst quarterback situation in the league. McCown returned last week less than two months after breaking his left collarbone, and while most assume he will start on Sunday, there are rumblings that Cody Kessler may actually get the nod if cleared from a concussion suffered two weeks ago. McCown is the bigger threat if he starts as he is a well-respected journeyman who has shown that he is always ready to step in and perform capably , as he did in Chicago in 2013 (13 touchdowns to just one interception) and last year in Cleveland (12 touchdowns to just four interceptions). Of course he has never had great success as far as winning games but he is a professional who is always prepared to play under any circumstances, which is part of the reason that there were rumors that the Cowboys were interested in acquiring him because of their injury situation with Kellen Moore and Tony Romo earlier this year (before they knew what they had with Dak Prescott.)
With that said, he is a limited player in that he doesn’t have a particularly strong arm and he isn’t especially mobile or accurate. His biggest strengths are intangibles such as leadership and always being prepared. He is certainly better than the alternatives on the Browns roster but at the end of the day he is no more than a very good backup, a marginal at best starter. He can beat an unprepared team that underestimates him (see the 348 yards and four touchdowns he put up against Dallas with the Bears in 2013), so in that regard he must be respected, but overall this is not a player who will be able to consistently drive his team down the field against even an average defense.
The Cowboys would probably prefer that the rookie Kessler gets the nod because he is definitely not as advanced a quarterback as McCown is. He is reasonably accurate and somewhat mobile but lacks arm strength, pocket presence, and he has a slight frame. He has managed respectable enough stats over a couple of starts so far, but he has never truly threatened an opposing defense through four quarters as most of his stats have come with his team down by double digits, and he is even less of a threat than McCown to consistently drive an offense down the field. He may make a few plays here and there but at the end of the day he is a marginal rookie without much natural physical talent. Fun fact, Kessler was coached by the Cowboys coaching staff during the 2016 Senior Bowl, so perhaps that could give them a leg up in preparing for him.
Running Backs, Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
There is actually a surprising amount of skill position talent on the Browns roster when considering the overall perception of the team. They boast an impressive thunder/lightning duo in Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson at running back. Crowell is averaging an impressive 4.9 YPC so far this season, although he usually only gets about 15 carries a game. Johnson on the other hand is an excellent receiver out of the backfield (on pace for nearly 600 receiving yards), although he is also capable of beating you on the ground with a 5.0 YPC average this season, albeit on only about five or so carries per game. This duo is something of a poor man’s version of the Bengals Jeremy Hill/Giovani Bernard combination in that Crowell (5-11, 225) is primarily the physical, between the tackles runner while Johnson (5-9, 210) is the smaller receiving back who only gets a few carries a game.
The receiving group is led by Terrelle Pryor, originally drafted as a quarterback by the Raiders in 2011, although he is having a breakout year in his first full year at receiver. Pryor has terrific size at 6-4, 223 lbs. and good speed to go along with that size. The fact that he has managed 532 yards and three touchdowns with the horrific quarterback play in Cleveland to this point is a testament to his talent. You can’t call him a true number one, elite receiver yet, but he is a very imposing matchup with his size/speed combination, as well as his ability to box out defenders on jump balls. There has been some speculation as to whether or not Pryor will play as he sat out practice on Wednesday, but he is expected to play and should be the focal point of the Cowboys defensive game plan.
Corey Coleman, the 15th-overall pick in 2016, is likely to return on Sunday after missing the last six games with a broken hand. In his last game against Baltimore he had 104 yards along with a pair of touchdowns and he is a very explosive player who can take the top off defenses, although it’s anybody’s guess as to how effective he will be considering his extended absence. The Browns slot receiver is Andrew Hawkins, a player who broke out in 2014 with 824 yards and two touchdowns, although since then he has plateaued as he has struggled with injuries. Hawkins did have one of his best games of the season last week with McCown behind center as he put up two touchdowns, so that’s something to keep in mind if McCown gets the start.
At tight end the Browns feature Gary Barnidge, a player who did basically nothing since being drafted in 2008 before breaking out last season with 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns. So far in 2016 he has managed 403 yards with no touchdowns, although the yardage is impressive considering the quarterback play so far. There is almost nothing behind Barnidge as far as depth, although he is a significant threat over the middle and down the seam who must be accounted for.
On the surface most would look at the Browns record and discount their roster, but this skill position group is at least average league-wide. If a functional quarterback like McCown gets the start the Cowboys must be careful not to overlook players like Pryor, Crowell, Barnidge, and Coleman.
This group is anchored by 6-time 1st Team All-Pro and 9-time Pro Bowler left tackle Joe Thomas. At 32 years of age Thomas is still at the top of his game and is arguably still the best left tackle in the league as he is equally dominant in the run game and in pass protection. This is a future Hall of Famer, perhaps even first ballot, and it’s a shame that he has spent his career languishing in Cleveland.
Unfortunately for the Browns the rest of their line is made up of average at best players. John Greco at right guard and Austin Pasztor at right tackle both have plenty of starting experience, although neither are particularly gifted players. Greco is probably the Browns best lineman after Thomas, although that isn’t saying much. Promising left guard Joel Bitonio is out for the season with a Lisfranc injury to his right foot and was replaced by Alvin Bailey, a player who washed out of Seattle after just a few years. Bailey has struggled with injuries as of late as well though, and if he misses any time he will be replaced by rookie fifth-round pick Spencer Drango from Baylor.
Cameron Erving, the 19th-overall pick in the 2015 draft, starts at center, although he hasn’t lived up to the potential that made him a first-round pick.
Overall, this is a unit that could be difficult at times in the run game but the Cowboys defense should be able to have a successful day against them against both the run and pass.
Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:
- No truly elite talents at the skill positions (but Corey Coleman has potential)
- Generally average at best quarterback play from McCown, who will make mistakes if behind and forced to throw 30+ times. If Kessler gets the start the matchup becomes that much easier
- Below average offensive line that would be one of the worst in the league if not for Joe Thomas
- Like the Bengals, the clear delineation in roles between Crowell and Johnson can sometimes tip play calls
What The Cowboys Must Fear:
- Underestimating their opponent
- An in-rhythm McCown, if he plays, as seen in 2013 when he played with the Bears against Dallas
- Potentially explosive wide receiver duo with a solid tight end in Barnidge across the middle
- Respectable running back duo that brings physicality, speed and pass-catching ability