This week, the Cleveland Browns go back on the road to take on the Green Bay Packers. With the Packers nursing a lot of significant injuries, could this be Cleveland's time to steal a victory? Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
Aaron Rodgers gets the advantage at quarterback, and it's one of our easier decisions of the season. Rodgers has it all -- the arm, the accuracy, the decision-making, the mobility, and the leadership. He has only faced the Browns once in his career, and that came in 2009. He went 15-of-20 for 246 yards and 3 touchdowns in a game that Green Bay won 31-3 in Cleveland. Ouch.
This week, head coach Rob Chudzinski tried to pump up starting quarterback Brandon Weeden by saying, "I thought he’s had his best couple of days of practice here: very focused and receptive to the coaching." It's probably best that Weeden be on the road this week -- he needs to play without thinking about the negative fan reaction around him, and hopefully a good performance can get him back in the good graces of the fans.
How bad are NFL running games this year that Cleveland ranks 22nd in the NFL on the ground? Holy smokes. Last year that mark would have had us ranked around 30th in the NFL. In a league where many teams can't run the ball very well, the Packers of all teams are one of the best running teams in the league. Led by rookies Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, the Packers average 5.18 yards per carry.
The thing that intrigues me this week about Cleveland's running game is the fact that Fozzy Whittaker is expected to get a couple of reps at the position. I have no idea how the guy will run, but as I've said before, I'm all for trying different guys until we find a gem. Maybe Whittaker will be "that guy." Despite resting his knee Thursday, Willis McGahee will still start for the Browns.
The Packers have three big weapons at the wide receiver position: Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and James Jones. Cobb and Jones both suffered injuries last week, and it looks like Green Bay will only have Nelson as a reliable player at the position. Tight end Jermichael Finley will still be available, but has had a history of dropping a few passes he should've hung on to.
Cleveland counters with a healthier group of players. Tight end Jordan Cameron hasn't had flashy stats the past couple of weeks, but based on the Packers' issues at linebacker and the fact that tight ends have had success against them this year, this could be a breakout game for him again. It would be nice to see Davone Bess get a little more involved in third down situations. Other than that, Josh Gordon and Greg Little are enough to counter the threat of Nelson to yield an "even" ranking here.
The Packers did a lot of shuffling on their offensive line this year, and so far, it seems to have paid off. Aaron Rodgers is getting enough pass protection, and the Packers' different run blocking scheme in 2013 has done them wonders. Our Packers affiliate tells us that center Evan Dietrich-Smith has struggled with consistency, though.
Cleveland did a fair job blocking the Detroit Lions' front four last week, but overall, I'm just disappointed in the unit. There are still way too many run plays that are going for negative yardage and killing a drive. When defensive lineman cross around the line, they are able to confuse our blockers too often. Where is the dominant line we were expecting?
The Packers have a lot of bulk up front in their 3-4 alignment with B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, and Johnny Jolly. Those three guys are one of the big reasons why Green Bay ranks third in the NFL against the run.
The Browns are pretty much on an even scale here, although I would question why Phil Taylor isn't receiving more reps than he's been getting; his snap count has declined over the past couple of weeks. Taylor might have a matchup he can take advantage of this week; both teams excel at plugging the run gaps, although I think Cleveland's unit can generate a better pass rush.
For as much as the Browns' linebackers struggled this week, this position is their biggest advantage this week. They will be getting Jabaal Sheard back, a guy who looked dominant against the run and showed an impressive bull rush against the pass. The inside linebackers don't have to worry about a receiving back this week either.
The Packers' regular starting linebackers include OLB Nick Perry, ILB A.J. Hawk, ILB Brad Jones, and OLB Clay Matthews. One of their top reserve linebackers is OLB Mike Neal. This week, Perry, Jones, and Matthews have all been ruled OUT with injuries, and Neal might be out too. That leaves three linebackers to start with virtually no NFL experience.
The Browns still don't have a lot of depth at cornerback, but Joe Haden and Buster Skrine are proving to be a dynamic duo, something that Cleveland fans really didn't expect from Skrine. T.J. Ward was all over the place last week, but missed several tackles that could have given the defense a big lift.
The Packers used to thrive off the play of veteran cornerback Charles Woodson, but he is no longer there. Without him and slot cornerback Casey Hayward (injured), the Packers aren't getting a lot of interceptions and rank 28th in the NFL against the pass.
Kicker Mason Crosby has rebounded in 2013, connecting on 13-of-14 on field goals, including 2-of-2 from beyond 50 yards. The Packers switched to punter Tom Masthay on kickoffs this year, and he gets a touchback on 50% of his kickoffs. Masthay is typically one of the league's better punters.
Earlier this year, we saw the Browns pull out all the stops against the Minnesota Vikings on the road. I don't think we'll see trick plays on special teams this week, but Travis Benjamin could have another big return day, given the Packers' depth issues. Cleveland doesn't run the ball effectively in the first place, so I expect them to go with a pass-heavy approach, which should pay off against a team that is missing three-fourths of their starting linebackers.
Offensively, Aaron Rodgers should be good enough to overcome the loss of his wide receivers to put together some nice drives. I think Ray Horton will be the guy who pulls out all of the stops with some creative blitzes and personnel packages this week, though, to counter the struggles his defense had a week ago against the Lions. What does that all mean? We're in for an upset Sunday, Browns fans!
Cleveland Browns 27, Green Bay Packers 23
Disclaimer: if the Packers had not suffered all those injuries last week, I would have picked them to win by ten points. I think those injuries will really combine to hurt them this week.
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