This week, thetake on the in a game that features the much-anticipated return of WR Josh Gordon. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
Browns: Brian Hoyer took a step back last week with his completion percentage, but it's a statistic that can look worse than it really is. For example, Hoyer's 40% completion percentage was no where close to being as bad as Andy Dalton's 30% completion percentage the week before.
Everyone on the Browns needs to play better, including Hoyer, but Josh Gordon's return removes some of the excuses out of the equation for Hoyer. This is his time to firmly take the reigns, and if he doesn't, the Johnny Manziel talk will intensify.
Matt Ryan averages six more pass attempts per game than Brian Hoyer does. Ryan has been an upper-tier quarterback since he came to the NFL, but he's taken a bit of a back seat in terms of "quarterback buzz" because of how poorly the Falcons played in 2013 and started in 2014.: The Falcons throw the ball a lot --
Ryan's objective on offense isn't to just chuck the ball to Roddy White and Julio Jones this year. Atlanta has very serious offensive line issues, so they gameplan around that to try to protect Ryan. With that said, Cleveland's depleted defense can't afford to give Ryan time to sit in the pocket and find his target.
Browns: Despite Cleveland's commitment to the run, they are only averaging 3.45 yards per carry, which ranks 29th in the NFL. However, the decision to settle on the two rookie running backs -- Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West -- will be a breath of fresh air.
Besides the offensive line having their issues since the departure of Alex Mack, it didn't help that we had players trying to hit the home run just to win playing time. Now, the rookie backs can play more natural and will hopefully have more holes with Josh Gordon being a threat in the passing game.
Steven Jackson is the Falcons' featured running back, but he doesn't handle a full load like he used to with the Rams. He's averaging just 12.8 carries for 46.7 yards rushing per game (3.6 average).:
The Falcons could be looking to give fourth-round pick Devonta Freeman some more touches; he had 6 carries for 28 yards against the Panthers last week. Freeman also plays a greater role as a receiving back than Jackson does. Jacquizz Rodgers has fallen to third on the depth chart.
Browns: We won't have Jordan Cameron yet, but think about this moving forward: Josh Gordon, Jordan Cameron, Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, Miles Austin, and Travis Benjamin. With how well everybody has been catching the ball and getting yards after the catch, adding some height to that group gives Cleveland the potential of having one of the best receiving units in the entire NFL.
I might be being overly optimistic of Gordon's presence, but I see it taking Cleveland to the next level. The downside, of course, would be if Gordon doesn't know the playbook and Brian Hoyer anticipates something else, leading to third down incompletions or interceptions.
: It just so happens that the Browns are facing a group of receivers this week who are just as dangerous as them, but in different ways. Roddy White and Julio Jones still make up one of, if not the best, one-two punch at wide receiver in the NFL. (Why aren't the Falcons an elite them, then? Because they don't have much else on offense, and then have even less on defense).
The Falcons' tight end is the 6-foot-8 Levine Toilolo -- he usually gets about 2-3 catches per game. Atlanta's depth at receiver is pretty fair with Harry Douglas and Devin Hester; Hester is a threat to carry the ball too.
Browns: Cleveland's offensive line (post-Mack) has been dominated by players who have looked fantastic on tape this season, including Khalil Mack, Gerald McCoy, and J.J. Watt. Fortunately, Atlanta doesn't possess such a dominant player on defense, meaning Cleveland should be able to generate the same level of pass protection and push in the run game that they were able to against the Bengals two games ago.
Jake Matthews, the No. 6 overall pick in the draft, has played terribly. He is recovering a little from an ankle injury, but teams have been able to take advantage of him regularly.: Even though Matt Ryan doesn't take a lot of sacks, he's under pressure and getting hit a lot. Left tackle
If Atlanta only had one weakness on their offensive line, things wouldn't be so bad. The Falcons lost starting center Joe Hawley at the beginning of the year and then lost his replacement, Peter Konz, a few weeks ago. They are now on their third center in undrafted free agent James Stone. Stone will make his fourth start against the Browns and has held up reasonably well (probably better than Nick McDonald, in fact), but we're not going to see a dominant performance. Atlanta's offensive line has already been decimated with injuries all-around -- one more and they will be on to even more street-level players.
Browns: It was pretty humbling to watch Ahtyba Rubin, Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, and Sione Fua perform so poorly against the Texans last week. Rubin is battling with a knee injury that has reportedly hurt his productivity. Kitchen was a click too slow getting to the running back in the hole last week. The good thing for the Browns is that they really aren't facing a unit that overmatches them this week.
Jonathan Massaquoi, who has been limited the past couple of weeks due to injury, but appears to be healthy now. Still, "best pass rusher" only equates to two sacks on the season, and Atlanta has just 13 sacks all year. Veteran Kroy Biermann starts at one of the defensive end positions.: Per our Falcons' affiliate, the team's best pass rusher is defensive end
In their 4-3 alignment, the Falcons tend to go to a rotation of 8 different defensive linemen. All around, it's a unit that is mediocre at best -- if Cleveland is able to run the hurry-up offense and prevent Atlanta from subbing when defensive linemen Corey Peters and Malliciah Goodman are off the field, the Browns can have some success running the ball. The Falcons have a depth advantage this week, not a "J.J. Watt" advantage. Big difference.
Browns: Karlos Dansby and Jabaal Sheard are both liekly out this week (Dansby listed as doubtful, Sheard as questionable). Losing two of your starting linebackers, particularly the defensive leader in Dansby, is pretty rough.
Barkevious Mingo should see significantly more reps this week, and if he's lined up against Jake Matthews, you'd like to think the slight potential is there for Mingo to have a breakout game. Craig Robertson will fill in for Dansby. He plays the run fairly well, so hopefully the dropoff against a Falcons team without a threatening tight end won't be as great.
Joplo Bartu and Prince Shembo on the outside, with Paul Worrilow manning the middle. Bartu and Worrilow entered the league as undrafted free agents in 2013, while Shembo is a fourth-round pick this year. Worrilow has two sacks this year, but the outside linebackers have combined for zero sacks. Worrilow can be taken advantage of in coverage if Cleveland can get him matched up on somebody. For Cleveland to have injuries and still be "even" with the Falcons shows just how little of an impact Atlanta's linebackers have.: The Falcons' trio of linebackers feature
Browns: Cleveland's secondary will have their hands full trying to strike a good balance this week of covering Roddy White and Julio Jones while also trying to offer some help for the struggling run defense. My personal opinion is to trust the front seven and let the secondary focus on the receivers, because I don't think the Falcons will stay committed to the ground. Justin Gilbert is clearly No. 4 on the depth chart at cornerback, per defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil, but it's because of how well the team thinks K'Waun Williams is playing.
Dwight Lowery is a very quality safety. The team's other starting cornerback, Robert Alford, is out with a broken wrist, meaning Robert McClain will start in his place. We're told that strong safety Kemal Ishmael is a "big hitter, but he's a liability in deep coverage." Ishmael, a seventh-round pick from 2013, does have three interceptions on the year, including two over the past two weeks.: Although Atlanta is ranked dead last in the NFL in pass coverage, our Falcons affiliate cautions us that cornerback Desmond Trufant is one of the top 10 cornerbacks in the NFL and that safety
Browns: Billy Cundiff has missed two straight field goals, one from 44 yards and the other from 38 yards, to drop to 16-of-20 on the season. One would expect his accuracy to be better in a dome this week. Christian Yount had a bad snap last week, so hopefully he's not going to slip into another funk. Marlon Moore has been ruled out for this week's game with a hamstring injury, so Taylor Gabriel is expected to take his place on kickoff returns. Travis Benjamin was firmly declared as the team's primary punt returner again. He's on round three.
Matt Bryant is 16-of-18 on field goals this year, but the Falcons trust him from long range. He is 4-of-6 from beyond 50 yards in 2014 with a career long of 62 yards. Matt Bosher, the team's punter, handles kickoffs. He only gets a touchback 52% of the time, which is in the bottom half of the NFL. As a punter, he ranks slightly ahead of Spencer Lanning in terms of distance, but his punts rank second in the NFL for drawing fair catches. Devin Hester returns kickoffs and punts, and it goes without saying that he remains one of the best in the business at it.:
The Browns are 5-2 since their bye week. When I look at the two teams Cleveland has had really "off" games against, Jacksonville and Houston, I see a team that can cause issues in the defensive front. Atlanta doesn't have that luxury, nor do they block very well on their own offensive line. The Browns didn't bring it at home against the Texans -- maybe it a hangover from their big road win over the Bengals. Everybody seems to be looking forward to what the return of Josh Gordon brings to the team, and his presence will help cover up the loss of Karlos Dansby...at least for this week.
Cleveland Browns 28, Atlanta Falcons 21
To buy tickets, visit the NFL Ticket Exchange.