This week, the Cleveland Browns head out to the Bay Area to take on the Oakland Raiders. As I discussed in our scouting report this week, with the heavy rain projected for this game, anything can happen. I suppose you could say Cleveland has somewhat of an edge concerning the weather, since they've played in several rainy games already this season. The position-by-position rankings below are intended for normal weather conditions.
Carson Palmer is expected to play without restriction after suffering a right thumb injury last week. Palmer really hasn't changed from his days with the Cincinnati Bengals, so Browns fans are well aware of the fact that he can either be really on, or really off. In 12 career games against Cleveland, Palmer has thrown for 25 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He's never faced a Browns secondary that features cornerback Joe Haden, though.
I was hoping this could be a breakout performance for Brandon Weeden, and that he might be able to crack the three-touchdown mark for the first time in his career. Either way, unless the weather conditions are something ridiculously wicked, I think it's fair to still expect Weeden to deliver at a high level. The Raiders don't feature any pass rush, they can't stop the run well, they don't record interceptions, and they don't cover well. If there is a week Weeden can get more of his mojo back, this is it. Palmer gets the edge here due to his veteran presence and Weeden's recent struggles.
The Raiders are expected to have Darren McFadden back this week after he missed several games due to an ankle injury. Unfortunately, the return of McFadden might actually complicate things for Oakland at this point in time. He was not having a very good season before his injury, averaging 3.3 yards per carry. The Raiders could be looking for McFadden to share the workload with fullback Marcel Reece, who has carried the ball well the past few games. With rain in the forecast and teams possibly needing to rely on the run, it's not a good sign that Oakland doesn't have a firm grasp of what type of rotation they are going to deploy.
Trent Richardson is averaging 26.5 carries per game over the past four games after averaging 14.7 carries per game in his first seven games. It is definitely a positive that the Browns are finding more balance in their offensive playcalling, but some of those high-carry games are supposed to be reserved for the right time, such as a bad-weather game against Oakland. Ball security will be an issue in the rain, so you can understand why the coaching staff might be tentative in giving the ball to Montario Hardesty. At the end of the day, you have to have faith that Hardesty can produce as a backup so that Richardson can stay fresh by the closing moments of the game.
Although Darrius Heyward-Bey was shut out against the Bengals last week, since Week 7, Palmer has been connecting with him on the big plays. He's had receptions of 59, 32, 46, 55, and 22 yards during a stretch of five consecutive games. Denarius Moore has stepped up as the team's top receiver, but he is also capable of hitting the big play. Palmer won't be afraid to take some shots with these guys. You might not know him, but the Raiders have been getting a lot of production out of tight end Brandon Myers. Myers has 591 yards receiving and 3 touchdowns on the season. For reference, the Browns' leading receiver period has 530 yards receiving.
Josh Cooper was a healthy scratch in last week's game, so I wouldn't expect him to be active or part of the rotation moving forward. Josh Gordon and Greg Little will continue dominating the reps as the starting receivers, with Mohamed Massaquoi being worked in a little more as the third receiver. If this game takes place in normal weather conditions, I think the Browns might go with more three-receiver sets. In the rain, I think they'll stick with more two-receiver, two-tight-end sets. Speaking of the tight ends, they have been Brandon Weeden's favorite targets in the red zone, so Ben Watson or Jordan Cameron could be in for a nice statistical day.
I can't profess to be an expert on the Raiders' offensive line, and I couldn't find a lot of information about them when doing research. From what I did gather, the Raiders have had satisfactory production at left tackle and center. The issues have been at right tackle and both of the guard positions. The pass blocking hasn't been very good, but it also has to be tough playing from behind so often when teams know you're going to pass.
Week-by-week, I continue to be impressed by the Browns' offensive line. The Raiders only have 13 sacks on the season, which is tied for the lowest mark in the NFL. In terms of objectives for this week, I guess you could say that we still need more consistent play out of right guard Shawn Lauvao, and that the screen game needs to be better.
The Browns' defensive line has been very good since the return of Phil Taylor, and it got even better last week with the return of Ahtyba Rubin. From clogging the running lanes to generating a pass rush, everyone is making a contribution from the top of the depth chart all the way down to the bottom.
The Raiders' defensive line just hasn't been able to bring that intimidating presence during the 2012 campaign. Longtime defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who had averaged seven sacks over each of the past two seasons, hasn't had a single one this year. The team's best defender, defensive tackle Richard Seymour, remains out with an injury. Their starting defensive ends have combined for 4.5 sacks, but they aren't a threat to generate consistent pressure.
This one is a rarity: the Browns being favored at the linebacker position. While I'd still like to see more high-impact plays from our outside linebackers, I suppose it's at least a positive that Kaluka Maiava and James-Michael Johnson aren't blowing coverages left and right. D'Qwell Jackson seemed to be more on top of his game last week with the dynamic duo back up front on the defensive line.
The Raiders suspended starting middle linebacker Rolando McClain this week, which means veteran backup Omar Gaither will make the start in his place. That might actually be a good thing in the eyes of fans, considering McClain's less-than-stellar play and conduct. Our Raiders affiliate singled out outside linebackers Philip Wheeler and Miles Burris for "showing some great skills," as Wheeler came over from the Colts and Burris is a rookie. The Browns get the edge for stability at the most important position, middle linebacker.
Cleveland's secondary will be without Dimitri Patterson again this week, but there weren't many issues last week except for a pass interference call in the end zone. Depending on the weather, Oakland might be wise to target Brown again, even though they've struggled with completing those long bombs this year (they have done more with the catch-and-run). Cleveland will also be without safety Usama Young, but Tashaun Gipson had replaced him in the starting lineup last week anyway.
The best member of the Raiders' secondary is Michael Huff. Originally drafted as a safety, Huff has moved to cornerback and played reasonably well. This Raiders secondary was highly touted a few years back when they had Nnamdi Asomugha and Stanford Routt, but now both guys are gone and it's really a whole different group that has underachieved and blown way too many coverages.
While Phil Dawson remains perfect this season, you could basically say the same thing about the Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski. Janikowski has connected on 23-of-24 kicks this season, and his only miss was a 64-yard attempt. The Raiders can also boom the ball on punts with Shane Lechler, but it's worth noting that Lechler's net average is down significantly this year.
Oakland's coverage units have struggled, where they rank 22nd in the league defending punts and 28th in the league defending kickoffs. They've yet to find much success in the return game either, where they rank 32nd on punt returns and 20th on kick returns.
Despite not practicing on Wednesday or Thursday, Joshua Cribbs is expected to be the team's kick and punt returner on Sunday. If he feels sore at any point, though, the team won't hesitate to put Travis Benjamin in his place.
This is a tough one to project due to the weather conditions. Sometimes the weather leads to high-scoring affairs still, but other times, it leads to a 7-6 win like the Browns had earlier this season against the Chargers. San Diego's defense is more stout than Oakland's, which is near the bottom of the league across the board.
Taking that into consideration, along with the fact that Cleveland's defense has really turned things up a notch over the past two weeks, I love the Browns' chances this week, even in the midst of a 12-game losing streak. The Browns played an excellent half of football the last time they were on the road, but failed to close the book in the second half. They won't have to worry about that against a team like Oakland.