This week, the San Diego Chargers are in town to battle (h/t Pat Shurmur) the Cleveland Browns. The Browns are coming off of a disappointing loss to the Colts last week, in which they had victory within their grasp until a dropped touchdown. Can the Browns win their first home game in the Jimmy Haslam era? The Chargers are coming off of a bye and are trying to shake off the wounds of their collapse to the Broncos two weeks ago. Let's get to our position-by-position breakdown and prediction for the game.
Brandon Weeden is getting there. Truth be told, I'm half-tempted to say that I would take Weeden on my team over Philip Rivers. The progress that Weeden continues to make each week isn't going completely unnoticed. Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com said that Weeden "has improved more than any quarterback in football since Week 1." This week, Weeden looks to follow up his previous successful outing at home with another solid day against a struggling Chargers secondary.
I covered what Philip Rivers brings to the table in my scouting report on Friday. Rivers is accurate, but sometimes to a fault; he'll force balls in situations where it's not necessary. That wasn't the case early in his career, but it has been over the past two seasons. He threw 20 interceptions in 2011, and already has 9 interceptions in 2012. He doesn't bring any mobility to the table. The reason he gets the advantage is because he's been doing this in the NFL a lot longer than Weeden, and he can flip a switch and still have those games where he looks like he's among the league's best.
Ryan Mathews broke his collarbone during the Chargers' first preseason game and ended up missing the first two games of the regular season. He has played in the team's last four games and has looked good, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. His rushing productivity is down from a year ago, but I think he has still been trying to get acclimated to playing again. He's been effective as a receiver still, making him a pretty complete back. The Chargers also have two competent backups in Jackie Battle and Ronnie Brown.
The Browns' ranking takes a hit here due to the questionable status of starting running back Trent Richardson. He is so valuable to the success of this offense, but his chest and rib injuries, coupled with rookie woes, led to an 8-carry, 8-yard effort last week against a Colts run defense that other teams had been ripping apart. This week, they face a Chargers run defense that is among the league's best. Will we see a heavy dose of Richardson, or will Montario Hardesty try to shoulder the load again?
I think a lot of people overvalue what the Chargers have at the wide receiver position. Malcolm Floyd is the only receiver, even including Antonio Gates, who has really done anything productive for San Diego this year. They have some other veteran receivers -- Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal -- but neither of them have been able to break out. Gates has had one big game this season, but other than that, he's been as quiet as Benjamin Watson.
The receiving position for the Browns is really starting to take shape. Josh Gordon has become a legitimate deep ball threat, and a guy who could end up opening things up for other receivers. Weeden seems to have a lot of trust in Josh Cooper on third downs. Even Greg Little had a productive day a week ago. Players are catching the ball at a higher rate, and I think you can attribute a lot of that to how Weeden is throwing the ball.
The Browns' pass defense has been exceptional. This is a dream scenario as far as I'm concerned for a rookie quarterback -- an offensive line that keeps you clean and allows you to stand tall in the pocket. The run blocking, on the other hand, has been a much different story. We saw this unit improve on their run blocking late last season, so we'll see if they'll be able to make the proper adjustments this week to get things going again.
The Chargers have given up 18 sacks through 6 games; that puts Philip Rivers on pace to be sacked 48 times, which would by far be a career high for him. San Diego's protection has gotten better at left tackle with the return of Jared Gaither a couple of weeks ago, but teams are still finding a way to bring Rivers down. San Diego seems to be doing a good job blocking for the run, which is why I ranked the offensive line as "even."
One of the keys to the Chargers being able to stuff the run is nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, who took over for Antonio Garay as the starter. Franklin may not be flashy, but he's a good clog in the middle of that line. The Chargers also feature last year's first round defensive end Corey Liuget and defensive end Vaughn Martin as starters in their 3-4 alignment. These guys aren't going to light up the stat sheet, but they open things up for the linebackers.
Cleveland, meanwhile, struggled to generate a consistent push last week without Ahtyba Rubin in the lineup. Rubin has been ruled out for this week's game, and Phil Taylor isn't ready to come back yet. The Browns are vulnerable against the run, especially in short yardage situations. The defensive ends might get some sacks here and there, but it doesn't seem like the number of hurries are plentiful.
The Chargers have been trying to get something going at outside linebacker. Their first-round pick, Melvin Ingram, hasn't seen much playing time and only has 12 tackles on the year. Instead, the Chargers have opted to stay with veterans Jarrett Johnson and Shaun Phillips on the outside, with Takeo Spikes and Donald Butler on the inside. Phillips leads the team with 4.5 sacks, but collectively, the unit has not played as well as expected.
My confidence in the Browns' linebacker has been slowly waning as the season goes on. I'm still high on D'Qwell Jackson, but you can see the effects that not having a Chris Gocong have had on this group (...and Gocong isn't even an elite player). Shurmur says that James-Michael Johnson is getting better in his role as a starter, but until I see him our Kaluka Maiava start making some plays on running backs in the backfield, I'll taper my excitement just a bit.
As I said in my scouting report, the Chargers have seen uninspired play from cornerbacks Quentin Jammer, Antoine Cason, and Marcus Gilchrist. The star in the secondary is safety Eric Weddle, but he hasn't been enough to make the difference in helping the cornerbacks play better.
The effects that Joe Haden have had the past two weeks continue to shine through. This week, I anticipate he'll be covering Malcolm Floyd all game, so we might be able to look at the stat sheet after the game and determine whether Haden was able to "shut down" an opposing team's No. 1 receiver. One thing our unit needs to account for is the height of Buster Skrine, though. Rivers loves throwing high jump ball passes to his tall receivers. Our safeties need to deliver against an older, but still very much capable, Gates.
Gone is Nate Kaeding, and in is Nick Novak at kicker for the Chargers. Novak has hit on 73% of his career kicks, and is 4-of-9 in his career from beyond 50 yards. Some pretty good winds are expected during the game, and I'll take Phil Dawson in those situations.
While Cleveland has the edge at kicker, San Diego has the edge at punter. Mark Scifers is averaging about 50 yards per punt this season, while Reggie Hodges is averaging 43.5 yards per punt and isn't executing "the clutch punt" anymore.
The Colts had a good formula to beat the Browns last week, sustaining long drives without a need to hit the big play. The Chargers do try to thrive on hitting the big play, but reports have it that they'll take a more conservative approach following the bye. I think Philip Rivers makes effective use of the screen game and finds Antonio Gates enough times when our defense falls for the playaction fake.
Our offense will try to match the Chargers through the air with Brandon Weeden, but a banged up Trent Richardson facing a tough Chargers run defense means we'll be forced into a one-dimensional attack again. It'll be another good effort from the Browns, but our defense can't get off the field without our two big defensive tackles up front.