Have the Cleveland Browns thrown the towel in on the 2013 NFL season? I've made it clear that I don't feel they have, although the type of effort we see against the Vikings this week could sway my opinion significantly. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
There have been a lot of first-round quarterback success stories over the past few years, but you could argue that these two teams define the crop of teams that haven't been fortunate. Brandon Weeden will miss this week's game due to a sprained thumb, and starting in his place is St. Ignatius graduate Brian Hoyer. This will only be Hoyer's second-career start, and you can expect him to play the role of game manager.
The Vikings are still trying to see if Christian Ponder is there answer. He didn't do a lot to win support in 2011 and 2012, and he hasn't gotten off to a very good start in 2013. He doesn't have a particularly strong arm and doesn't seem to fare well under pressure. He doesn't turn the ball over at a ridiculous rate, but he isn't a difference-maker on gameday either. I think the big issue is that with an amazing running back like Adrian Peterson, the expectation is that a quarterback should have it pretty easy to work off of that. Ponder hasn't capitalized.
The Browns traded Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick earlier this week, a move that isn't bad but was definitely unexpected. With Montario Hardesty and Dion Lewis on injured reserve, Cleveland really didn't have anyone to start at running back. They signed Willis McGahee on Thursday, though, and he is expected to play on Sunday. The veteran is a good blocker, but we could see Chris Ogbonnaya and Bobby Rainey get some reps until McGahee is more acclimated to the offense.
The Vikings have the best running back in the league, Adrian Peterson. He hasn't been as explosive as he was in 2012, but he is still a game-changing running back. You could say that teams have been keying in on him a bit because they don't believe Ponder can beat them. It could also have to do with the fact that Pro Bowl fullback is serving the final game of a three-game suspension, though.
The Vikings traded Percy Harvin to the Seahawks in the offseason and went out and signed Greg Jennings. Jennings, once Aaron Rodgers' favorite receiver, doesn't seem to be the same player he once was. I think you could make the case that Jerome Simpson is the more explosive receiver right now, with 9 catches for 189 yards through two games. Cordarrelle Patterson, one of the team's first-round draft picks, has hardly played during the first two games but is expected to see an increased workload this week. Tight end Kyle Rudolph is the team's best red zone threat in the receiving game.
For Cleveland, this game is all about the return of Josh Gordon with respect to the receiver position. Gordon had an explosive preseason after a solid regular season as a rookie. The other big news is the fact that Greg Little has been demoted from the starting lineup. Davone Bess will take his place. It might be expected that Little will be the No. 3 receiver, but I wouldn't be surprised if Josh Cooper gets a surprise shot as the slot receiver this week, with Little sitting most of the game. Jordan Cameron has obviously been the team's best receiver through two games, so we'll see if things open up even more for him with Gordon back.
In Week 1, the Vikings gave up 3 sacks and 6 quarterback hits to the Lions. In Week 2, the Vikings have up 1 sack and 1 quarterback hit to the Bears. Minnesota has left tackle Matt Kalil manning the left tackle position after being the fourth overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft. He had a good rookie season, but has been in a bit of a slump to start the 2013 campaign.
It is tough to rate the Browns' offensive line these days. When Shawn Lauvao comes back, I still think this line, on paper should be one of the best in the AFC. Is Oniel Cousins really having that bad of a trickle down effect on the rest of the line? With Lauvao doubtful this week, we'll have to suffer through Cousins another week. Fortunately, the Vikings haven't generated a great pass rush to begin the season.
The Vikings' defensive line used to be a dominant force in the NFC, but at the moment, it doesn't seem like a significant strength for them. Jared Allen has long-been-known as a consistent pass rusher, but he seems to be the team's only threat right now, which makes him easier to neutralize. Everson Griffen and Brian Robison generated a good pass rush last year, but haven't done it as much to begin 2013.
Kevin Williams is trying to get back into a groove defensively after returning in Week 2. One of the Vikings' first-round draft picks, Sharrif Floyd, is still trying to make his way back from a knee injury, which limits the type of impact he'll have at this point of the season.
You couldn't ask much more from the Browns' defensive line to start the season. Even without Ahtyba Rubin available for the first two weeks, the run defense has been among the league's best, and there has been a degree of pass rush as well from Desmond Bryant. Rubin could end up returning this week, but if not, Billy Winn will get the start again.
The Vikings feature Erin Henderson at middle linebacker, the first time he has played there in his career. The transition hasn't gone too well for him, and it could be one of the reasons that running backs have caught a lot of dump-off passes against Minnesota this year. The outside linebackers are Chad Greenway and Marvin Mitchell. Per our Vikings affiliate, Greenway has looked off so far, often being a step too slow to sniff out plays.
In the pass-rushing department, the Browns have been getting a high level of play from Jabaal Sheard and Paul Kruger at outside linebacker. Barkevious Mingo made his debut last week and showed off his speed. The team will be without Quentin Groves for 4-6 weeks, as he is nursing an ankle injury. D'Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson continue to do an adequate job at inside linebacker. The Browns get the edge here due to their superior pass-rushing ability at the position.
The Vikings have a pair of promising young prospects in the secondary -- cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith. The rest of the secondary is questionable, though, and fans are almost begging for the return of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield.
The Browns have had some decent play from their secondary, although the second-half leads they have given up to start the season have given them a bit of a bad rap. Joe Haden has been shutting out receivers, so we'll see if Ponder is smart enough to stay away from him. Overall, the defense really hasn't allowed "the big play," but they've had difficulty staying with receivers when the front seven brings a third-down blitz.
Blair Walsh is shaping up to be one of the NFL's best kickers, and he especially shouldn't have a problem in his home dome. The Vikings spent a fifth-round pick on punter Jeff Locke this year. Cordarrelle Patterson is the kick returner for Minnesota, and he returned a kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown last week. Their punt returner is Marcus Sherels, a gig he's had since 2011. He has been one of the lower-ranked punt returners in terms of return average.
Billy Cundiff's leg should be able to get the ball out of the end zone all game long to keep the ball out of Patterson's hands. He's still hard to trust on field goals, but he is 3-of-3 so far. Spencer Lanning had a disappointing Week 2 performance after a pretty good Week 1. The Browns haven't gotten the big play on punt or kick returns through two weeks. The Vikings did give up an 80-yard kick return to Devin Hester last week, though.
This is a game that will significantly show how the rest of the 2013 NFL season will go. Minnesota's defense has yielded about 30 points per game so far. Even with Brian Hoyer making the start this week, he'll have two big weapons in the receiving game: WR Josh Gordon returns, and TE Jordan Cameron. RB Willis McGahee might provide the right type of leadership this young offense needs on the field.
The big story will come down to the defense, though. Ray Horton is going to fire that unit up, making sure they stop Adrian Peterson. The Vikings are hoping to win their home opener, but the defense has an opportunity to pressure Ponder and force him into mistakes this week. Those mistakes will pile up, setting the Browns' offense with some good scoring opportunities and the chance to show that the season doesn't end in Week 3.
Be sure to visit Dawgs By Nature throughout the game to participate in and chat in our game threads. You can also follow us on Twitter or on Facebook.
More from Dawgs By Nature:
- Browns vs. Vikings: NFL Week 3 Preview and Prediction
- Browns-Vikings Injury Report: Weeden Out, Lauvao Likely Needs Another Week
- Browns' Week 3 Scouting Report: Minnesota Vikings
- Browns vs. Vikings: Getting to Know the Enemy With Daily Norseman
- Browns vs. Vikings: Week 3 TV Coverage
- Cleveland Browns trade Trent Richardson to Indianapolis Colts for 2014 first-round pick
- Fujita rips Trent Richardson's attitude and work ethic
- A Day That Will Go Down in History for the Cleveland Browns