Football is back, and the Browns couldn't have asked for an easier start to their season (I'm sure Buccaneers fans are thinking the same thing about the Browns). I have nothing against the Buccaneers, but I'm anticipating them to be the worst team in the league this season. Therefore, not only will the result of the game be an indicator as to whether or not the Browns have improved, how they play will be very important. If Tampa Bay is at the bottom of the barrel, then squeaking out a victory at the last second will look like nothing more than one bad team beating another.
Here are some notes heading into the game, followed by my positional breakdown and prediction for the game:
- The temperatures in training camp this year really didn't get very high compared to the past few years. I know there were some miserable days in Cleveland over the summer, but most of those were back in July. It'll be hot down in Tampa Bay, and I expect the Browns to be substituting players a lot. That's one of the reasons why we'll probably see all of the linebackers active, and maybe even James Davis getting more carries than he usually would.
- Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson is out, and so is special teams ace/safety Nick Sorensen. Sorensen had a better chance of playing, but he's been ruled out (concussion). Thankfully, the Browns still have plenty of special teams assets, like LB Blake Costanzo and S Ray Ventrone. You won't see Joshua Cribbs as the gunner though, if what he said to the media remains true.
- It is not looking very good for rookie right guard Shawn Lauvao. He missed practice Thursday and Friday and is now listed as "doubtful" and was wearing a walking boot. Last year's starter, Floyd Womack, has been filling in though and shouldn't be a huge detriment in the short run. Mangini hasn't named a starter at right tackle between Tony Pashos and John St. Clair. I anticipate it'll be Pashos, but you never know.
- We have been teased to death about the Cyclone package. According to "hints" dropped by Eric Mangini, Joshua Cribbs, Seneca Wallace, Joe Thomas, and an array of other players, it seems like the formation will be unveiled this Sunday against the Buccaneers. I'm dying to see it in action and how effective it'll be. The biggest question mark about the formation I have is when do you decide to incorporate it? If Delhomme is rolling, can you justify removing him if something bad happens from the Cyclone?
- I feel clueless in term of whether or not we'll be able to pressure the quarterback. We looked so bad in that regard during the preseason, but we did a fine job at the end of last season and Rob Ryan seems confident that his unit will be able to generate pressure.
- Just like the first preseason game, the thing I'm most excited about on defense is how rookie T.J. Ward plays. Of course, the return of defensive lineman Shaun Rogers, and seeing where he lines up, is also something to look for.
Josh Freeman showed some upside last season, but the second-year player still doesn't have very many proven weapons and fractured his thumb in the second preseason game. If Rob Ryan dials up some exotic looks at Freeman, I have a hard time believing that he'll be able to take advantage of our weaknesses like some of the better quarterbacks in the league can.
Meanwhile, Jake Delhomme had as an impressive of a preseason imaginable at his age and looked very comfortable with the offense. Having that chemistry gives the Browns the advantage here.
|RB||How can I go against the Browns at running back when they have Jerome Harrison, Lawrence Vickers, and for all intents and purposes the same offensive line returning that won the final four games last season without any quarterback help? The Buccaneers feature Cadillac Williams, who will play the Browns for the first time in his career (the last time these two teams played a few years ago, he sat out).
|WR||Many of the Buccaneers' receivers are untested or unknown. Their starting receivers are fourth-round pick Mike Williams and last year's seventh-round pick Sammie Stroughter. The Browns should have the upper edge at the receiver position considering the camps that Massaquoi, Robiskie, and Cribbs had, but the difference maker comes at the tight end position. Sure, Ben Watson is good, but Kellen Winslow elevates the Buccaneers' crop to the "even" level, just barely.
|OL||The Buccaneers' offensive line didn't perform very well last season, and they've tried to improve it this year by adding former Panther Keydrick Vincent at the left guard position. Former Brown Jeff Faine will be at center for the Buccaneers. The right side of the offensive line might feature Floyd Womack and Tony Pashos, but the rest of the line -- Joe Thomas, Eric Steinbach, and Alex Mack -- is plenty to give the Browns the positional advantage.
|DL||If I saw with my own eyes that Shaun Rogers was ready to play, then I'd give the Browns the advantage here. I'm not completely sold on him being ready yet though, and the rest of the Browns' defensive line isn't far superior to Tampa Bay's. The player to watch on the Buccaneers will be defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who was taken third overall this year. Neither team was able to generate a significant pass rush in the preseason.|
|LB||It's probably not fair to directly compare teams that run different defenses (4-3 vs. 3-4). I gave the Buccaneers the advantage here because I've always liked the way middle linebacker Barrett Rudd plays.
Technically the Browns have also added a "leader" in captain Scott Fujita, but he'll probably be playing outside linebacker and it was difficult to evaluate him in the preseason. Until the Browns find a pass rush at linebacker or someone who can cover the tight ends, I'm going to find it tough to rank our unit above those on other teams.
|DB||The Buccaneers will be without starting cornerback Aqib Talib, who will be serving a suspension. Ronde Barber can still play well at his age and is good in run support, but starting opposite him is last year's seventh-round pick E.J. Biggers. He has yet to play an NFL game, and I expect Delhomme to try to take advantage of him.
Former Brown Sean Jones is starting at one of the safety positions. The Browns have the depth that Tampa Bay is lacking right now, with Mike Adams able to back up both safety positions and first-round pick Joe Haden being the third cornerback.
|ST||At the punter position, the Buccaneers signed Australian Chris Bryan after he spent camp with the Packers. It'll be interesting to see how he does in his first NFL game. The Browns have the advantage at kicker, returning kicks, and defending returns, so this is an easy advantage to Cleveland.
I take credit for being pretty good and unbiased when predicting the results of Cleveland Browns games. Last year, I was 13-3 in terms of predicting Browns games, and was 181-75 overall on the season (70.7% accuracy) when picking straight up. Hopefully I can maintain that type of percentage this year. With that said, here is my official prediction for the Browns/Buccaneers game:
I expect the Browns to come out aggressive with the passing game to begin the game, much like they did in the preseason. Once they build a lead, I think Jerome Harrison and Peyton Hillis will be utilized to the same level that the Browns ran the ball last season. Defensively, I'm expecting Kellen Winslow to have a pretty big game in terms of yardage, but I think we'll be able to minimize Tampa Bay's drives to field goals once we key in on Winslow down there. I think Freeman's time off is going to hurt him too -- he threw 18 interceptions last year, so our secondary should be ready. This game will be blacked out in Tampa, and I think it'll be to the benefit of their fans.
CHRIS' OVERALL NFL PREDICTIONS RECORD: 1-0