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Can the Cleveland Browns finally get their first AFC North win in the Pat Shurmur era (and, their first win of the season)?
Zero wins. Five losses. 0-5. New owner Jimmy Haslam officially takes over next week, so this is the final time the Cleveland Browns have a chance to win during the Randy Lerner era. Head coach Pat Shurmur's Browns have yet to win a division game in his two seasons as head coach.
This week, Cleveland gets their second crack at Cincinnati after falling to them in a Week 2 shootout. With CB Joe Haden set to return from his suspension, will there be a different outcome for the orange and brown this time around? Our full position-by-position breakdown for the Bengals vs. Browns game, as well as my prediction, are outlined below.
Through five games, Andy Dalton's interception rate is up compared to a year ago. He threw 13 a year ago, and is no pace to throw 19 this season. He had the benefit of facing three weaker secondaries in a row -- Cleveland (minus Haden), Washington, and Jacksonville -- before struggling against the Dolphins last week at home. The Browns sacked Dalton six times the last time these two teams met, but he also had some open receivers to continuously move the chains.
My support for Brandon Weeden has not waned over the past few weeks; in fact, it has grown. Quarterbacks throw interceptions -- that is part of the game. Now, for Weeden, it's about recognizing the situation better. Interceptions are fine if the defensive back makes a heck of a play on the ball or reads the route very well, but his two picks last week are big no-no's. When he starts delivering on those plays a bit better, and more importantly, starts winning, I will begin to consider giving him an advantage in this category.
I labeled this category as "even" the last time these two teams met. Since then, I'd give the Browns the definitive advantage. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is in a slump right now and is even starting to put the football on the ground. Backup Bernard Scott just went on injured reserve, which will force a less experienced back like Cedric Peerman into some reps.
Trent Richardson has shown to be a dynamic weapon, and we're only five games into the NFL season. There are still some questions as to how many touches and exactly what situations he should be in the game on, but when they go to him on the ground or through the air, he makes things happen. Backup Chris Ogbonnaya is the clear backup right now, and he's been doing a very sound job blocking and receiving.
A.J. Green is on pace to surpass all of his statistics from a season ago; there is no doubt in my mind that he is going to be an elite wide receiver for years to come. Shutting him down for an entire game is darn-near impossible, but if tight coverage from a guy like Joe Haden can help the Browns jump ahead early, then "mission accomplished." Since facing the Browns, Andrew Hawkins has continued to be effective, with long gains of 59, 31, and 24 yards in his past three games.
Josh Gordon "broke out" with two touchdown receptions last week, but they were his only two catches of the game. It would be nice to see him take another step forward in his route running this week to get open in other areas of the field. Cleveland took a hit with their receivers again when Jordan Norwood, who looked great in the slot last week with nine catches on nine targets, when on injured reserve. The big-time intrigue for this game is the fact that Josh Cooper was promoted from the practice squad. He was Weeden's No. 2 receiver in college and is expected to see action in the slot. Is the chemistry going to be there right off the bat?
The Bengals haven't excelled in run blocking, and their pass protection has been suspect. Part of that has to due with the fact that Cincinnati has been playing with two of their non-starting offensive linemen; former Browns center Jeff Faine is still filling in at center for Kyle Cook.
The Browns' offensive line arguably had their best performance of the season last week against the Giants. This is a unit that seemed to gain traction as the season went on a year ago, so maybe they are starting to get into a better groove now that we are a couple of games into the season.
The Bengals are at the top of the league in sacks, and their defensive line is largely responsible for that. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins has six sacks on the year, while defensive end Michael Johnson has five sacks. Much of the Bengals' improved pass rush has been attributed to the return of defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who did not play against the Browns in Week 2.
Although he was listed as questionable on the injury report, it is hard to expect defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin to suit up. He suffered a calf injury at the end of last week's game and did not practice all week. If Rubin can't go, John Hughes will get the start in his place. The issue then would be the fact that Cleveland would only have one backup defensive tackle in Kitchen. Perhaps the Browns will consider using Frostee Rucker on the inside a bit like they said they would before the season.
Neither team is excelling at linebacker right now. The Bengals have had better play from Rey Maualuga over the past couple of weeks, but the overall group, which also includes Manny Lawson and Vontaze Burfict, has been nothing to write home about.
The Browns are expected to have middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson back in the lineup this week after he suffered a head injury mid-way through last week's contest against the Giants. They might be without outside linebacker Scott Fujita, though. As much disdain as fans may have with Fujita's play, he is still an asset against the run. On the same note, I am very intrigued to see what rookie James-Michael Johnson can do at the position, if he in fact makes his defensive debut.
Forget everything you saw from the Browns' secondary the past four games: that all changes with Joe Haden in the lineup. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong. The trickle down effect that he has is infectious, and that secondary is going to have a lot more confidence knowing that Haden is there.
The Bengals' pass defense has been mediocre this season. The one thing that stands out is that the unit (and defensive in total) only has one interception on the year, and that came from backup safety Chris Crocker two weeks ago. If Weeden is aggressive and accurate with his down-field throws, Cleveland's receivers might end up having a big day.
|ST||Although his stats were boosted by a big game last week, Joshua Cribbs has played a big role in the Browns' kick and punt return teams being ranked third (in both categories) in the NFL. The Browns' punt coverage unit still ranks low due to a punt return for a touchdown that they gave up to the Bengals' Adam Jones in Week 2, but their punt return and kickoff coverage has been better. Besides what Cribbs is doing, Cleveland gets the advantage here this week due to how awesome Phil Dawson has been.
The Browns are going to get a big boost defensively from Joe Haden. I've talked about the effect he has on the secondary, but he also helps out everyone else on defense too. The Bengals did not have an answer for Trent Richardson the last time these two teams played, and they are reeling a bit after a loss to the Dolphins last week. I'm taking the Browns to get their first win of the season, convincingly.
FINAL PREDICTION: Cleveland Browns 27,16