This week, the Cleveland Browns take on the Indianapolis Colts. At 7-5, the Browns need to win at least three of their final four games of the season to even think about having a shot at the postseason. Of those four games, this week's contest against the Colts projects to be their toughest test, simply because you pretty much know you're going to have to beat QB Andrew Luck in a shootout.
When your head coach is just coming off of a big decision between starting QB Brian Hoyer and QB Johnny Manziel, from the outside, it doesn't seem like the Browns would be in position to beat the Colts. That isn't the case, though -- far from it, in fact. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
Browns: Things were bad last week for Cleveland's offense, but as I pointed out in my game review, it was not like Brian Hoyer had a meltdown. He has proven time and time again to have a short memory, and he faces a Colts defense this week that gives up a lot of yardage on the ground and through the air. That type of balance works in Hoyer's favor. His receivers will be open this week, so he just needs to avoid what happened against the Falcons a couple of weeks ago.
Colts: Andrew Luck is by far the best quarterback the Browns will have faced this year. He is a complete quarterback with a dangerous group of receivers, having thrown for 34 touchdowns and averaging 333+ yards passing per game. One problematic area for him has been the amount of fumbles he's had -- he has 11 fumbles on the year, losing 5 of them. Luck has also faced a lot of secondaries that rank in the mid- to lower-half of the league, so one could say that Cleveland will be the best unit he's faced in 2014.
Browns: Prior to Wednesday, we didn't know what Mike Pettine was going to do at the quarterback position. Heading into Sunday, we don't know what he's going to do at the running back position. Isaiah Crowell suffered a hip injury last week and did not practice Wednesday. He was limited in practice Thursday and Friday, but my belief is that he will give-it-a-go on Sunday.
Pettine said that Terrance West had a good week of practice, but admitted to reporters that he might be benched on Sunday because of his fumble last week. The big story could be if the Browns "let the chains off the beast" of Glenn Winston.
Winston said his reps with the first-teamers increased from one rep to 3-4 reps per session, which is a pretty dramatic increase. Winston said he views himself as a similar runner to Crowell, but that he's faster. He also said he has the best hands on the team. He certainly doesn't lack confidence. A few weeks ago, the Patriots unleashed Jonas Gray on the Colts out of nowhere for 200 rushing yards. Could Cleveland do the same to Indianapolis?
Colts: Whatever happens, the Browns cannot let Trent Richardson beat them. Based on Richardson's horrible vision, it's hard to even think about him having a big day against his former club. Still...there's always a little bit of concern that it might happen. Richardson does have some value for the Colts, though -- he is a very good blocking back for Andrew Luck, and he's still a good receiver out of the backfield.
Boom Herron has received more touches the past two weeks due to the season-ending injury to Ahmad Bradshaw, and Herron has responded better than anyone could have imagined. He has 20 carries for 153 yards (7.65 YPC) and 1 touchdown. He's also caught 7 passes. The negative? He has lost a fumble in each of the past two weeks. Between Richardson's ineffectiveness on the ground and Herron's fumbling issues, I'm giving Cleveland the edge.
Browns: I never want to say that losing Miles Austin is a good thing, because that doesn't sound right. Austin was a productive player, but if it means more reps for Taylor Gabriel and Travis Benjamin again, I think it allows Cleveland to put defensive backs on their heels more often.
It's tough to find a defensive back who can guard Andrew Hawkins one-on-one, let alone two defensive backs who can guard both Hawkins and Gabriel. On top of that, you're trying to utilize your best cornerback on Josh Gordon. The matchup advantages are there for Cleveland. If Gordon has been playing all season and was looking good, and if Jordan Cameron was a lock to be back on the field, Cleveland would absolutely deserve an "even" ranking to the Colts at wide receiver / tight end.
Colts: The Colts utilize a two tight end set often and typically stick with a rotation of three receivers. At receiver, T.Y. Hilton is one of the most explosive receivers in the game, Reggie Wayne is perhaps the best veteran receiver in the game, and Donte Moncrief has proven to be another explosive, downfield threat for the Colts.
At tight end, Dwayne Allen is returning from injury, and Coby Fleener has put up career days in two of his past three games. Luck will spread the ball around to all of his threats, which makes it a good think that the Browns have a nickel back (K'Waun Williams) who they have confidence in.
Browns: If Cleveland was going to lose last week, they might as well have gotten a free look at young center Ryan Seymour, who filled in for the injured Nick McDonald. McDonald is healthy and ready-to-go this week, but as DBN's Tim Miller showcased, the coaching staff might opt to make the switch and go with Seymour. Mike Pettine said he would not reveal his decision until gameday.
Joe Thomas is also coming off of his worst game of the season as he had difficulty containing Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes. It's a rare blemish on the future Hall of Famer's career, so I'd expect him to be back in All-Pro form this week against the Colts.
Colts: The Colts will be without starting right guard Hugh Thornton for the third straight week, as veteran backup Joe Reitz takes his place. Reitz has played quite well as a fill-in, and he has plenty of starting experience with the Colts over the past few years.
Overall, the Colts' offensive line is pretty solid, especially at left tackle behind Anthony Costanzo. With that said, the unit proved they could have a shaky day. Two weeks ago in the first half alone against the Jaguars, Andrew Luck was hurried 11 times on 23 dropbacks, sacked 5 times, and knocked down 6 times. Luck's mobility allows him to escape from pressure many times, so Cleveland will have their work cut out for them trying to bring Luck down.
Browns: Ahtyba Rubin is no longer listed on the injury report for Cleveland, which is good news because his play has steadily gotten better since Mike Pettine began hinting that his he finally seemed healed up. With Desmond Bryant and Billy Winn both healthy and Ishmaa'ily Kitchen working as many reps as he did last week, this unit is finally at a bit of a "steady" point again, so-to-speak.
Colts: Stats can be deceptive. The Colts are 12th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, while the Browns are 29th in the NFL. When you look at rushing yards allowed per play, though, the Colts are 29th in the NFL, while the Browns are 24th. Teams can pass the ball at-will against the Colts' defense, and other times, they throw to maintain pace in a shootout against Andrew Luck.
When it comes down to it, the Colts lack a dominant presence on the defensive line. Defensive ends Ricky Jean Francois and Cory Redding have combined for five sacks on the season. Redding is the Colts' best defensive lineman but won't have the same type of impact that any of the Bills' rushers did a week ago. Arthur Jones received a $30 million contract this offseason but has been injured most of the year. He returned over the past two weeks and has historically been an effective run-stopper.
Browns: Cleveland's linebacker unit has held together pretty strong over the past two games without Karlos Dansby. The veteran linebacker is hard at work trying to return for this week's game from a knee injury, but he will be a game-time decision. Jabaal Sheard's reps are increasing back toward the level of a starter.
If Cleveland could have use a big game from Paul Kruger, this is it. And, if the Browns could ever use a game in which Barkevious Mingo can effectively spy quarterback Andrew Luck, this is it. These guys can't pursue up the field every snap because Luck will make them pay. Cleveland gets the slight edge at linebacker this week because I see Kruger as the best overall linebacker on either team, and Dansby's potential return could be a boost in the leadership department.
Colts: D'Qwell Jackson is one of the Colts' inside linebackers this season, and he's racked up a team-high 101 tackles. Even by admission from our Colts affiliate, though, saying, "he has missed some plays and some tackles. He is terrible in coverage, and that's one of the main reasons the Colts have struggled to cover the tight ends. I don't want to sound too critical of Jackson here because he's a good guy and a good leader who can play well at times, but he's very limited and for the most part this season he has not been impressive."
Jerrell Freeman is the Colts' other inside linebacker, with Erik Walden and Bjoern Werner as the outside linebackers. Walden and Werner have combined for nine sacks. Werner has struggled this season while Walden has been about average.
Browns: This will be a tough one for Joe Haden. He has been simply outstanding for two months now, to the point where he is denying receivers of even the cheap catches and making some pretty spectacular interceptions. He has to be careful this week, though, because T.Y. Hilton looks like the type of receiver who could be his kryptonite (i.e. like Antonio Brown). We'll find out on gameday.
Nonetheless, the confidence of Buster Skrine and K'Waun Williams is at a very high level right now. Williams will especially be counted on to play a lot of snaps this week. Luck likes to go downfield a lot, which will test the awareness of free safety Jim Leonhard. Leonhard had a great interception last week, but Kyle Orton didn't attack the deep middle part of the field.
Colts: Yummy. The Colts have a below average secondary, but cornerback Vontae Davis was by far the team's best defensive back. He has been ruled out with a concussion. Just how good was he compared to the other Colts' cornerbacks? Per PFF via our Colts affiliate, "Davis has lowest opponent passer rating (41.7), while cornerback Josh Gordy has highest (140.6)."
It'd be pretty funny name-wise if we saw Josh Gordy vs. Josh Gordon this Sunday. Either Gordy or Greg Toler will line up against the star receiver, and with how the rest of the Colts' defense plays, Cleveland could face an even better matchup than they had against the Falcons two weeks ago. It wasn't a coincidence that Colt McCoy started lighting up the Colts last week once Davis had to leave the game.
At safety, the Colts go with Mike Adams and LaRon Landry. Adams leads the team with four interceptions and is still playing just as he did in Cleveland -- not a weakness, and slightly above average.
Browns: Marlon Moore should be back this week for kickoff returns, and Travis Benjamin will return punts. Billy Cundiff has missed a field goal in four straight games, but has retained his job and will be counted upon for driving the ball deep against Joshua Cribbs on kickoffs. The Browns are very good at defending kickoffs and punts, and Cribbs said he plans on taking everything out this week. Johnson Bademosi said he's going to stop him shy of the 20 yard line. It is ON!
Colts: We all know how much of a threat Joshua Cribbs is as a return man. In just two games with the Colts, he's been great on kickoff and punt returns. If it hadn't been for penalties, he'd already have a punt return for a touchdown and a couple of other returns for about 20 yards each.
That's not all the Colts have, though. They are even better at covering kickoffs and punts than the Browns are and Adam Vinatieri is one of the league's most reliable kickers still, connecting on 25-of-25 attempts this season. Punter Pat McAfee handles kickoffs, where he leads the NFL in touchbacks. He's also the best punter in the NFL. There is no area of special teams that the Colts are weak at, so Cleveland needs to be very careful this department doesn't cost them the game.
You like to look for a blueprint of how to beat the Colts, and the Patriots mapped it out a couple of weeks ago, running the ball 44 times without the Colts being able to stop it. This is a defense that Ben Roethlisberger shredded for 522 passing yards and 51 points on the road. This week, without Vontae Davis, and with the ability to run the football, it would be very surprising if Cleveland couldn't move the football and compete with the Colts in a shootout.
The Browns were able to exploit the Falcons' defense two weeks ago, and the Bengals' defense four weeks ago. If Brian Hoyer doesn't make awful throws to wide open receivers, Cleveland can run the type of gameplan that will keep the Colts' defense guessing throughout the game.
The real challenge this week is whether Mike Pettine's defense can stop Andrew Luck and the Colts' offense. This is the quote this week that stood out to me from Pettine:
"[The Colts] do a lot of different things, but when you look over the course of four games, you’re going to see a lot of different things. Over the course of one game, they seem to have a set plan for that week and they settle into it pretty quickly. We’ll just see where we are with [Joe Haden] matching them, and if our plan holds up, we’re good with what we’re doing. If not and we have to make some in-game adjustments, I think we’re flexible enough that we can do that."
That tells me that Pettine is going to try to predict what specialty game plan the Colts will feature this week, and his unit has prepared hard for that. If he has the right creative gameplan in place, we could see Luck have a "pedestrian" day against one of the best secondaries he's faced this season. The Colts will rally with some stats late, but this is a week where Hoyer will make the throws necessary to complement his strong running game, and Josh Gordon goes off for 100+ yards -- not because of good chemistry, but because he'll be that open.
Cleveland Browns 31, Indianapolis Colts 24
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