This season is getting even harder to watch. We now have starting RB Jamal Lewis, our best defensive player- NT Shaun Rogers, and starting FS Brodney Pool on injured reserve to join our 2 starting ILBs, starting TE, our pro bowl caliber punter, and a bunch of other would-be contributors. Seems like doom for our 30th ranked defense (in efficiency by DVOA). But that's not all. Our top pass rusher (OLB Kam Wimbley) and another starting member of the front 7 (DE Kenyon Coleman) are nursing knee injuries and hadn't practiced as of last check. And to top it all off, we are playing an incredibly talented and very efficient offense in the San Diego Chargers.
And I don't think anyone expects Brady Quinn and the offense to be able to keep up with the dozens of points Philip Rivers and co. will be putting up against our ravaged defense. Let's see what the numbers say.
A quick note about the stats I'm going to use in this regular column. The full explanation can be found here. Basically, Football Outsiders uses the data from every play and finds the league average (adjusting for yards gained in the redzone, touchdowns scored, and the down and distance- so a 3 yard TD run on 3rd-and-1 from the 3 means a lot more than a 3 yard run on 3rd-and-15 from your own 20.) Then it rates players and teams based on their relation to this league average. The result is meaningful rate stats. They are akin to league adjusted stats in baseball, like OPS+ and ERA+. DVOA is the most common stat they use and 0.0 is exactly league average. A 10.0% DVOA for a QB means a QB that is 10.0% better than average. -15.0% DVOA means 15% below average for a QB. For defensive numbers they are reversed, so negative numbers are better.
Got all that? No? Well, then trust me when I say, higher positive numbers are good for offensive players and lower or negative numbers are good for defenses. 0.0% is always average.
And my personal caveat using these numbers in football: here.
When the Chargers have the Ball
Philip Rivers is really good. In fact, he is underrated and probably deserves to be in the Favre/Brees/Manning/Brady conversation as a top QB in the league right now (apologies to Warner and Rodgers). This year, he is leading the league's top rated passing attack by efficiency (56.7% DVOA). He has had a QB rating over 100 for 2 straight years. If he keeps that rating over 100 this season, he will join Manning as the only active QB to have 2 straight seasons over 100. (I was shocked that Brady, Warner, Favre, McNabb have all never done that). Rivers ranks 4th in QB DVOA (38.7%). He has two great weapons that he depends on: Antonio Gates (1st in DYAR and 2nd in DVOA amongst TEs) and Vincent Jackson (3rd in DYAR and 2nd in DVOA amongst WRs). Gates is huge with good hands and runs good routes. Think Kellen Winslow, but bigger, stronger, and healthier. Jackson is big and fast (6'5, 230, 4.38 40). Think Braylon Edwards only much bigger, much faster, and with better hands. The Browns defense is bad against the pass (30th in defensive efficiency), and especially bad against #1 WRs (31st) and TEs (32nd). So look for HUGE days from Jackson and Gates.
And if those two weren't enough to worry about in the passing game, the Chargers also boast another big (also 6'5) and fast WR in Malcom Floyd, who hasn't been targeted a bunch, but on a per play basis he ranks 6th among all NFL WRs (DVOA of 31.2%). Their #3 WR is no slouch either. Only 6'2, Legedu Naanee has a healthy DVOA of 32.6% (though he doesn't have enough targets to qualify) Finally, for the last several years the Chargers passing game has used their RBs as an extra, constant, and effective weapon. That effort is lead this year by Darren Sproles. He ranks 5th in both DVOA (33.2%) and DYAR as a receiving RB. The Browns have a chance at slowing these guys down. They are 11th in defending #2 WRs, 23rd against "other" WRs, and 26th against RBs in the passing game. Not great, but it won't be as ugly here (though that was with a healthier unit than they'll have this week).
Don't expect to get to Rivers either. The Charger line has allowed sacks on just 5% of the drop backs. Good for 8th in the league. The Browns are pretty much exactly league average at sacking the QB, 16th in the league at 6.5% of drop backs. But, again, that was with a healthy Rogers, Wimbley, Coleman, etc.
So with such an efficient and prolific passing game, why do the Chargers rank just 6th in total offensive efficiency? Well, the running game has been a bit embarrassing. 31st in DVOA at -11.4%. A one time force in the NFL, LaDainian Tomlinson has had a tough couple years, battling injuries and feeling the wear of thousands of NFL carries on his 30 year old body. This year he ranks 31st of 37 qualified backs in rushing DVOA, about 10% worse than an average RB. And while Darren Sproles has excelled in the passing game and as a change of pace back over his career, nobody is mistaking him as an every down running threat. He has averaged just 3.3 yards per carry on his way to a dismal -33.5% DVOA (of all RBs with more than 50 carries, only Glen Coffee and Marshawn Lynch have a worse number). Still, this might be the week the San Diego rushing attack gets healthy. Why? Because the Browns rank 30th against the run in DVOA (10.2%)
When the Browns have the Ball
Injuries make this matchup even tougher to evaluate. While the Browns will be without the back they have hopelessly fed the ball to for the better part of 3 years (Jamal Lewis), the Chargers could be choose to rest many of their banged up defensive stars. OLB- Shawne Merriman, OLB- Shaun Phillips, DE- Luis Castillo, S- Eric Weddle, and DT- Ogembi Nwagbuo all were held out of practice yesterday. But even with these guys playing most of the season, the Chargers have been below average on the defensive side (19th in DVOA, 7.1%). Not that we expect the Browns terrible offense to take advantage of this mediocrity.
The Chargers strong suit is against the pass. They rank 13th, but still worse than average in DVOA at 6.3%. They are 6th against TEs and against #2 WRs. So don't look for our gang scrub TEs to catch many passes. And Chansi Stuckey is going to have a tough time keeping his recent momentum going. But the Chargers do struggle with defending RBs out of the backfield. That should mean good things for Harrison and Jennings. Not that we have been good at getting the ball to these two. Jennings dropped the pass of the year from Brady Quinn against Detroit, and Harrison has struggled when given the chance (-38.3% DVOA, 45 of 47 qualifying RBs in pass catching). But hopefully we keep trying the wheel routes and screens. It may be our best chance to score.
But the biggest key will be to protect Brady Quinn (and make him believe he is protected). The Chargers are 10th in getting to the QB with 28 sacks, 7% of opponent drop backs. The Browns have allowed sacks on 6.6% of Quinn and DA's drop backs, good for 18th. The problem isn't always the sacks, its the blitzes (which the Chargers will bring a lot of with Phillips and Merriman or not) and having the WRs and QB on the same page. We'll see if that continues to improve with Quinn's second stint as starting QB.
The Chargers have struggled against the run (25th in the league at 7.9% DVOA). And with their front 7 banged up, this could be something to exploit. Thing is, there really isn't enough data to know what we will get in the running game with Chris Jennings and Jerome Harrison. And we really haven't seen enough of them to have any reason to be confident in them. Only time will tell. Hey, maybe Cribbs and Quinn can break some runs?!
The Browns remain 2nd, just behind the Vikings in overall special teams DVOA (7.2%). They are still lead by the return units, especially the league leading punt return group. San Diego is pretty average at everything in special teams, except for kick coverage, where they have a -5.3% DVOA (5th worst in the league). Making the overall special teams place 20th overall in efficiency. Maybe Cribbs can break a kickoff return. He should have a couple opportunities.
Conclusions and Questions
It doesn't look good for our Browns. But with the injuries on both sides, there are a lot of variables. And variables are always good for the underdog. Three questions that will determine the outcome:
1.) With Jamal Lewis finally out of the way, what can Chris Jennings and Jerome Harrison show against a suspect and hurt front 7 of San Diego? Both in the run game and in the passing game.
2.) Will LT have a breakout game or will his decline continue, even against a battered and suspect front seven of Cleveland?
3.) Can the Browns prevent Rivers, Gates, and Jackson from scoring TDs at will? Anything less than 350 yds and 4 TDs would be amazing to me.
The Chargers are good. At 8-3, they are playing for playoff position. It seems like our only hope is if they overlook our battered, bruised, and beaten Cleveland Browns or if the brisk weather on Lake Erie gets to those sissy SoCalians. I don't see it happening: Chargers win, 35-16.