This week, the Cleveland Browns take on the New Orleans Saints with both teams entering the game at 0-1. Will the Browns pull off the upset in their home opener, or will the Saints' juggernaut offense just steamroll through them? Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
It's takes a team effort to beat Drew Brees. It's not often a team succeeds in trying to stop Brees, which is why you can't just run your standard base defenses -- you have to 1) break out something new that Brees hasn't seen before, and then 2) hope it actually works and doesn't backfire. Putting Brees under pressure is a must -- although Cleveland had three sacks last week, they didn't get enough consistent pressure on Roethlisberger.
Brian Hoyer's performance in the second half last week was viewed positively among the fans, but despite being a "local kid," he's still under a lot of pressure to perform. It shouldn't be this way, but if Hoyer turns the ball over, you can guarantee a good percentage of the crowd will be singing for Johnny Manziel to come in. Don't get your hopes up, though -- it's not going to happen. I pray that Kyle Shanahan sticks with the formula that worked last week for Hoyer, and that involves establishing the quick passing game and running game before moving on to the longer developing plays.
It's remarkable how one game can turn around a unit's reputation. Last year, the Browns running game was pitiful. After cleaning house, the tandem of rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell was excellent last week, averaging over 6.1 yards per carry. Both running backs seemed to understand the zone blocking system, with West featuring some open field moves and Crowell being a one-cut guy with power.
The Saints lose some of their flare at running back this year with the departure of Darren Sproles. They still rely on a three-back system vs. having a featured back. Veteran Pierre Thomas will get some touches, but he'll also be Brees' go-to receiving back. Mark Ingram will likely see the most carries, and Khiry Robinson will get a few rushes too, perhaps in short yardage situations.
If you're looking for a team with a diversity at the wide receiver position in terms of skills, the Saints define that. They have the best tight end in the game in Jimmy Graham, and then the 6-4 Marques Colston on the outside. Speedster Kenny Stills averaged over 20 yards per catch in 2013. Then, you have Brandin Cooks, who when things are all said and done will probably be the most productive receiver in this year's draft class.
The Browns' group of relative unknowns didn't play too bad in Week 1, all things considered. However, with Jordan Cameron not practicing all week, I'm not optimistic about him "being a game-time decision." Gary Barnidge and Jim Dray will only get open if the defense decides to leave them uncovered. Travis Benjamin could use his speed to exploit the Saints' cornerbacks after Keenan Lewis.
Overall, the Browns' offensive line came away looking very impressive last week, particularly against the run. Cleveland favored the right side behind John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz, with 21 of their 30 run plays going to that side. Joe Thomas also put up a fantastic game to begin the year.
The Saints did a great job protecting Drew Brees last week, as he wasn't sacked once. Terron Armstead, a third-round pick in 2013 who plays left tackle, doesn't have a lot of experience but has exceeded expectations so far. Ben Grubbs and Jahari Evans at the guard positions are Pro Bowlers. The center and right guard positions grade out well too.
The Browns could be back to full strength this week on the defensive line as Desmond Bryant and John Hughes were limited participants in practice. Both players, especially Hughes, are solid against the run, and Bryant has proven to be a difference maker when he's healthy.
The Saints feature one great defensive end on Cameron Jordan, but he's expected to be matched up with Joe Thomas this week. Good luck with that. The Saints' other two starters are Akiem Hicks and Broderick Bunkley. Hicks is in his second year as a starter and is viewed as a very effective run stopper.
Is it time to be concerned about Barkevious Mingo yet? It's still early in his sophomore season, but he's battling a shoulder injury this week and still didn't look anything like a No. 6 overall pick last week. Our best bet anyway would be to continue plugging away with Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard from the outside. It'll be interesting to see if Chris Kirksey gets the responsibility of covering Jimmy Graham at all this week.
The Saints have two veterans at inside linebacker in Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne. They may not make highlight-reel plays, but they are expected to be a consistently good tandem. The star of the unit is outside linebacker Junior Galette, who had 12 sacks in 2013 and just received a 4-year, $41.5 million extension. Mitchell Schwartz better be ready for the pass rush he'll be getting from Galette's side.
It's frustrating to see how much the Steelers were able to carve the Browns' secondary last week, and that stemmed from down performances by Joe Haden and Justin Gilbert. Gilbert is the player who is more concerning; we're putting him in a prominent position as the No. 3 cornerback, and he looks lost out there. The other three cornerbacks behind him on the depth chart are all rookies as well. Donte Whitner will cover Jimmy Graham for at least half the game.
The Saints should have a dangerous duo at safety in Jarius Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro, but Vaccaro struggled last week and one has to wonder if Mike Pettine will know how to exploit any of Byrd's personal weaknesses (if there are any). The cornerback position is where things get shaky: Keenan Allen is a good first cornerback, but the depth after him is prone to getting beat.
Billy Cundiff and Shayne Graham are pretty much pushes as the kicker position; both guys were castoffs who now look to be settling in with their respective teams. Thomas Morstead handles kickoff and punt duties for the Saints. He is one of the best punters in the game, and he's consistent both indoors and outdoors. Spencer Lanning isn't as good, but he's looked consistent this year compared to 2013.
RB Travaris Cadet is returning kickoffs again after doing it off-and-on since 2012. He's had some success with a career 26.8 return average, but he's never had a touchdown return. Electric rookie WR Brandin Cooks will be fielding punts for the Saints. He only had 2 attempts last week and signaled for a fair catch on each of them. The Browns could opt to go with Marlon Moore on kickoffs this week while leaving Travis Benjamin in on punt returns.
I think we're going to see a good battle this week, with both teams stepping up their game. I trust Drew Brees and his quartet of weapons to come through in the clutch more than I do Cleveland's weapons, though. This is a pass/fail league, but Mike Pettine will have to bank on beating the Ravens the following week to keep the season optimistic heading into the bye.
New Orleans Saints 26, Cleveland Browns 20
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