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There is a reason I waited so long to do my position-by-position breakdown and game prediction for Cleveland's matchup against Washington, and it was this: with the uncertainty of the Redskins' quarterback situation, I really had no idea what type of preview to write. Late Saturday night, though, the Redskins confirmed that Kirk Cousins will start in place of Robert Griffin III, which improves the Browns' chances of winning tremendously.
I don't want to underestimate the attributes that Kirk Cousins brings to the table for the Redskins. Drafted in the fourth round out of Michigan State, he helped finish off an awe-inspiring comeback over the Baltimore Ravens last week. He has also taken all the first team reps with the Redskins this week, so it's not like he's being thrown to the wolves at the last second.
However, this will still be Cousins' first career start, and so much of what Washington was able to do this season on offense depended on someone having a mobile skill set like Griffin. Without that, the edge most certainly goes to Brandon Weeden, who has been stable in Cleveland's offense and is facing one of the league's worst-ranked pass defenses this week.
You have a tale of two backs when it comes to these teams. On one hand, you have Alfred Morris, who has run the ball very well in the Redskins' zone blocking scheme, but doesn't catch many passes. On the other hand, you have Trent Richardson, who has had some difficulty running the ball but has done a very good job as a receiving back.
Both backs have accumulated 1,200+ yards in very different ways, and I'd like to think that both teams have a winning solution at running back. With that said, now that Griffin is out, we'll see if Morris' production suffers as a result.
I was never a big fan of Pierre Garcon's when he was with Indianapolis; I felt he dropped too many passes for having a quarterback like Peyton Manning. Garcon has been on a tear over the past three weeks, though, and Santana Moss has come through with a couple of clutch plays despite not getting a ton of reps. Washington doesn't have Fred Davis available anymore, and their other receivers -- Josh Morgan, Leonard Hankerson, and Aldrick Robinson -- are average.
The Browns' receivers continue to stand out over the past few weeks. I have gone from thinking the Browns had no significant threat at receiver (heading into the season) to believing that the Browns might have one future start (Josh Gordon) and an above average No. 2 receiver in Greg Little. That is high praise coming from a guy who spewed a lot of disdain for the mistakes both receivers were making at times.
Left tackle Trent Williams is the standout offensive lineman on the Redskins' front. Across the rest of the line, Washington has had four lesser-known names play at a respectable level. They have really excelled in the Redskins' zone blocking scheme, and they've picked up on helping Griffin get some of the big runs he's had. Like the rest of the team, the question is this: how do things change with Cousins under center? I think the Browns' offensive line is better in pass protection than Washington, so each team has their strength.
With the Redskins running a 3-4, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison up front or at linebacker. Instead, it's an evaluation of which unit will have a great impact on the game. The Redskins' front three, including nose tackle Barry Cofield, have done a solid job at defending the run, but they've had a lot of difficulty generating any pressure.
Except for the opening-play 80-yard run last week, the Browns' run defense has been much improved over the past few weeks. It'll be interesting to see how they do against the Redskins' scheme. Cleveland's front four can bring pressure from any of the four positions, whether the starters or the backups are in.
I give the Redskins the edge at linebacker because of the impact that left outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and left inside linebacker London Fletcher can have on a game. Fletcher has been kind of banged up all season and didn't practice two days this week, but Redskins fans seem confident he'll still suit up on gameday. The Browns' linebackers are holding their own during the team's winning streak and they'll need to be alert to ensure Alfred Morris doesn't break any big ones.
The Redskins' secondary still seems like a mess to me. They give up a lot of big plays and have the 31st-ranked pass defense in the league. Washington has shifted to having a man-to-man coverage over the past couple of weeks, but DeAngelo Hall still gets beat for a lot of big plays. Washington's tandem at safety of Reed Doughty and Madieu Williams also seem ripe for the picking.
Like the Chiefs last week, I don't think the Redskins run a lot of three-receiver sets. Still, it's nice to have Dimitri Patterson back for the second week in a row. With how good Cleveland's cornerbacks have been as of late, Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown may have some opportunities to bait the rookie Cousins into some mistakes.
Could this be the last games at home for Phil Dawson and Joshua Cribbs? It'll be a shame if it is. In the mean time, I'll enjoy their skill and hard work for everything it is worth. It'll be interesting to see if the Browns explore utilizing both Cribbs and Travis Benjamin on punt returns again this week.
One of the best decisions the Redskins ended up making was dumping kicker Billy Cundiff after five games and going with Kai Forbath instead. In eight games, Forbath is a perfect 14-of-14 on field goals, including 9-of-9 from beyond 40 yards. The Redskins have been good in coverage, where they are 5th in the league at covering punts and 14th in the league at covering kickoffs.
When I asked our Redskins affiliate, "True or False: if the Redskins never got RG III (or Andrew Luck), they would in the same boat as Kansas City, Oakland, and Jacksonville right now," the response was, "100% true. Defenses have still not found a way to stop this offense yet and RGIII's ability to put up points is the reason the Redskins have seven wins."
I am a firm believer that Griffin is crucial to the Redskins' success on offense. Without him, I think you have a below average offense coupled with a non-threatening defense. Cleveland will use the confidence they've built up over their past three wins to take advantage of Washington's unfortunate situation...in convincing fashion, again.
FINAL PREDICTION: Cleveland Browns 31, Washington Redskins 13
Side note: Had Griffin never suffered an injury against Baltimore, I would have picked Washington to win.