Sunday, October 17, 2010

Gameday: Cleveland Browns

1:00 pm
Heinz Field
Radio: 102.5 WDVE

What to Watch For

1. Ben Roethlisberger

He's back. Chances are, the Steelers announce the offense at the opening of the game to let Ben run out of the tunnel. That said, Ben is probably going to be jacked for this game and we might see him trying to take too many risks. This is a good team with a good defense. Ben has always been a risk-taker and you've got to take what you get with him. He's going to hang on to the ball and try to make a big play with it. Yes, he'll get some sacks. Yes, he'll throw some picks. However, he'll also give you that big play that other quarterbacks in the league don't deliver. In Arians' system, which is somewhat reliant on letting Ben be Ben and make stuff up on the fly, Ben can be easily tempted into making poor decisions with the ball. He'll probably be nervous and excited but he's going to have to play within himself and take what the defense gives him.

2. Offensive Play-Calling

We have harped on this countless times since last season but the point remains: the game in Cleveland last year was the worst single offensive game plan we have ever seen executed. If you can even call it that, it was more like an execution of the Steelers season and should have meant the guillotine for Arians' job. In sub-zero temperatures with 40+ mile per hour winds against the worst run defense in the league that was missing 5 starters, Arians called 40 passes and 22 runs. The Browns defense is pretty good this season and still plays the attacking press-coverage style that gave the Steelers fits last year. The Browns are going to blitz and they're going to bring more guys than the Steelers can block. Arians will no doubt spread things out to try to negate this, but the 5-wide sets have proven in the past that all they're good for is getting the quarterback killed. Everyone will need to be on the same page with blocking, hot routes, and check-downs if we want to avoid the disaster that happened last December.

3. Colt McCoy

The kid out of Texas is set to make his first NFL start due to injuries to Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace. Personally, I'd rather see Delhomme starting. He isn't mobile and throws a ton of picks. There isn't really a book out there on McCoy, but in his time at Texas he proved he was mobile enough to make plays with his feet when needed. Assuming Peyton Hillis plays, the Browns will lean heavily on their running game which ran all over the Ravens defense. Cleveland's offensive line is decent, but you had better believe Dick LeBeau is going to stack the box and force Colt McCoy to beat us with his arm. Which brings me to...

4. Joshua Cribbs

This guy has absolutely killed the Steelers in recent years. On both kickoff and punt returns, Cribbs has been a monster. Last December, he ran the Wildcat 8 times for 87 yards. You'd better bet we're going to see a lot of that this week with Colt McCoy making his first start. However, the Steelers defense has one Troy Polamalu to counter-act the Wildcat and, as he has shown this year, he can make all the difference in the world. 

5. Big Plays

Despite being 1-4, the Browns have held leads in the second half in all 5 of their games so far this season. Kansas City capitalized on a defensive touchdown to pull away from the Browns and Atlanta hit a big pass to Roddy White to break the game open. The Browns defense has been particularly stout in the Red Zone but have given up big plays to teams. Don't be shocked to see the Steelers take some shots down the field if they can give Ben the time he needs to throw. 

Behind Enemy Lines

This week's guest is Aaron from DraftBreakdown. In addition to contributing to one of the best draft websites around, Aaron is an avid Browns fan, if those even still exist. Honestly, if you're not checking Draft Breakdown daily from the day after the Pro Bowl until the NFL Draft, you need to re-evaluate some of your life choices. Hit him up on Twitter as well.

1. While the Steelers and Browns come into this game with very different records, both have faced some of the best competition the league has to offer. The Steelers' opponents have a league-high record 17-5 (.772 win pct). The Browns have the second hardest Strength of Schedule with an opponents record of 16-7 (.696 win pct). Even though the Browns haven't had the same results as the Steelers, what have you been most impressed with from Cleveland thus far this season?

The Browns have gotten off to a disappointing 1-4 start, but they’ve looked much better than they did early on in ’09. At this point last year, the Browns had been outscored by 66 points; this year, it’s a not nearly as bad -19 point differential. 

The team has been playing much more competitive football, in part due to its tough, physical style of play. Peyton Hillis has brought a punch ‘em in the mouth running style to the offense, and TJ Ward’s been an enforcer in the back end of the defense.

Unfortunately, the team’s been held back by some miscues in the secondary and a mediocre passing game, but they’ve led going into halftime in all but one of their games. Ultimately, the coaching staff deserves most of the blame for the team only managing to pull off one W.

2. Colt McCoy seems poised to make his first NFL start. The Steelers have been one of the best teams in the league at taking the running game away from their opponents. That said, Peyton Hillis put up a buttload of rushing yards on the Ravens defense and the Browns have a solid offensive line. What will Cleveland have to do to win their second straight game against the Steelers?

Peyton Hillis has become one of the Browns’ most popular players, but he limped his way through a 2.8 YPC performance against the Falcons. It’s not clear how much he’ll be able to offer on Sunday. If he isn’t effective, the team will have to rely on the newly-acquired Mike Bell, who’s just beginning to pick up the offense.

However, the bigger issue will be how the team manages Colt McCoy. During the pre-season, McCoy struggled mightily to adjust to a pro system, botching snaps from under center, struggling to go through his progressions, and floating several outside the numbers throws. 

The team likely will simplify the offense for Colt, letting him play a lot out of the shotgun and make half-field reads. The team hasn’t had a vertical offense all season, but things should get even more dink & dunk-ish this weekend. 

The Browns won’t blow up the scoreboard, but they could win if they avoid any costly mistakes and get a few big plays from Josh Cribbs, who should be a big part of the gameplan. Expect to see a lot of direct snaps to Cribbs and some bubble screens to the Browns’ big play threat.

3. In the last meeting of these two teams, the Browns blitzed the hell out of the Steelers, taking advantage of what Bruce Arians does worse: try to spread the field and not give Ben enough blockers. The Browns had success playing man-to-man press coverage on the Steelers receivers and bringing heat off the corners and with A-gap blitzes. Will the Browns use a similar defensive attack on Sunday or sit back in coverage?

The Browns’ blitz attack against the Steelers was a beautiful thing; it was one of the few times that Cleveland have had a gameplan Lebeau could respect. That said, the Browns’ strategy only worked because the frigid conditions and Hines Ward’s bad hammy hampered the Steelers’ passing game.  

The team could deploy a similar attack on Sunday, but they may make some tweaks based on changed personnel. When the two teams matched up late last year, Shaun Rogers was on injured reserve, so the Browns resorted to a lot of unconventional fronts. Big Baby should see a lot of time tomorrow, perhaps in more 3-4 or nickel looks.

Also, the team may not be confident enough in their cornerbacks to put them out on an island in man coverage. The Browns used a lot of ammo in the offseason to strengthen the position, but it hasn’t worked out as the front office planned. Sheldon Brown’s lost some of his speed, leaving him susceptible to getting beat deep. Also, Eric Wright has regressed and lost confidence in his game. Joe Haden’s only a rookie, and team doesn’t appear to be comfortable expanding his role.

The Browns will need to generate turnovers to win the game. However, the coaching staff also has to worry about giving up easy points, which the Browns’ offense won’t be able to match. 

4. To be honest, even fantasy football players in the audience probably don't know anyone on the Browns team beyond Peyton Hillis and Josh Cribbs. The casual fans might only know Josh Cribbs. Considering the Browns lack of big playmakers, are there any "under-the-radar" players you think might have a big impact on this game?

More people need to know about Marcus “King Kong” Benard. The young edge rusher has notched seven sacks in ten career games, including two last year against the Stillers. Here’s a clip of him absolutely abusing Willie Colon.

Last year, Benard had much more success playing with his hand in the dirt, but he’s quickly developed into a solid all-around 3-4 outside backer. In addition to getting better rushing from a two-point stance, he’s quickly improved his coverage skills.

Benard’s the type of speed rusher that could give the Steelers’ below average offensive tackles fits. If someone’s going to force Big Ben into costly picks or fumbles, it’ll probably be King Kong.

5. Any other final thoughts?

Yinz are coming into the game as the strong favoirte, which makes a lot of sense. But for the sake of the once-epic rivalry, let’s all hope that the game doesn’t end up being a merciless blowout.

The Browns’ win last year was a good first step in reestablishing the rivalry, and I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing another one. But I’ll take a competitive game, especially one that proves the Browns aren’t very far away from the being the Steelers’ top competition in the AFC North.

Around the League

AFC North:
Baltimore @ New England


Game of the Week:
Baltimore @ New England

In a week of good matchups where every team seems to be matched up against someone either on their skill level or a team they need to prove themselves against, this game takes the cake. New England's defense has been downright atrocious at times, but big plays at key moments in their games have helped carry them to their 3 wins. The Jets defense just abused the Patriots offense: will Baltimore do the same? 

Most Intriguing Game of the Week:
New Orleans @ Tampa Bay

The Saints have yet to beat a team with a winning record (0-2) and have won 3 games against teams with a 1-13 combined record. Tampa on the other hand is coming off a victory over Cincinnati, putting them somewhere in the upper-middle of the pack in the crazy NFC. If the Saints win this game, it would put them back on track to reclaiming the division title. Should Tampa walk away with the win, it would legitimize their early season record, putting their dreadful 2009 season squarely in the past.

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