On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns (2-3) take on the Denver Broncos (5-0) in Week 6 of the NFL regular season. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
I wrestled with the idea of giving the Browns the edge at quarterback this week. Josh McCown is coming off the best statistical three-game stretch of any Browns quarterback, throwing for 300+ yards in each game and for 457 yards in victory against the Ravens last week. His ball placement has been impeccable to the Browns' shorter receivers, allowing the team to take advantage of their quickness in space to get separation against the defense. His 300+ yard streak should end this week against Denver's tough defense, so we'll see if the veteran is patient enough to pick his right spots to be aggressive against their secondary.
The Broncos are 5-0, but it's definitely not because of Peyton Manning. If this were any other season, Manning would have such an unquestioned edge over any Browns quarterback, and to suggest otherwise would be ridiculous. Given Manning's legacy, though, I can't bring myself to give the Browns the edge at quarterback. His arm strength and accuracy has declined significantly, particularly on his outside throws and anything in the intermediate range. If the defense he's facing isn't playing good, though, he can still utilize the short passing game and the middle of the field to run the offense at a fast pace.
The Broncos' running game has struggled immensely this year. Starting RB C.J. Anderson has 54 carries for 139 yards (2.6 YPC) after averaging 4.7 YPC in 2014. The saving grace has been Ronnie Hillman, who has 46 carries for 212 yards (4.6 YPC). I hate to cherry pick and take away runs, but if you remove his 72-yard touchdown run from the equation, you're looking at him averaging 3.11 YPC.
Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson have still been trying to find a more consistent rhythm in the running game, but I think the team might have found something by running the ball out of Shotgun with the field spread. It takes extra defenders out of the box as they've been forced to respect the passing game.
One big difference between Kyle Shanahan's offense and John DeFilippo's offense is the utilization of the running backs in the passing game. Last year, the Browns' running backs combined for 20 catches, 303 yards, and 1 TD all season. This year, through five games, the Browns' running backs already have 30 catches for 286 yards and 2 TDs. Crowell is battling a toe injury this week, so his utilization will be up-in-the-air. Robert Turbin is expected to make his debut and is setting his sights high. He told Mary Kay Cabot of the Plain Dealer, "I feel like this is going to be my team" and that he his aiming for 1,000+ yards rushing even though there are only 11 games left.
Five games is a large enough of a sample size where the Browns' receiving group deserves respect. It's not often that a team deploys a successful rotation of four wide receivers, none of whom are prototypical No. 1 receivers. I felt the Browns did it back in the days of Kevin Johnson, Quincy Morgan, Dennis Northcutt, and Andre Davis, and now they are doing it with Brian Hartline, Travis Benjamin, Andrew Hawkins, and Taylor Gabriel. Cleveland gets the edge because of the tight end position, where Gary Barnidge has taken the league by storm. Over the past three weeks, all with McCown back, Barnidge has 20 catches for 319 yards and 3 TDs.
The Broncos' top two receivers are still very much dangerous in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Thomas has 38 catches for 416 yards, while Sanders has 34 catches for 418 yards. That's as even as you can get. Peyton Manning teams have typically had four threatening receivers, including the tight end, but much of the offense has been focused exclusively on those two receivers this year. Former Browns receiver Jordan Norwood will come in for three-receiver sets, but he only has 10 catches for 81 yards on the year. Tight end Owen Daniels, who is a well-established receiver, has not been heavily involved in the receiving game, where he has 12 catches for 61 yards on the year.
|OL||Mitchell Schwartz received a lot of flak all offseason, but Pro Football Focus has him ranked as the No. 5 offensive tackle in all of football. Along with Joe Thomas (ranked No. 1), the Browns are the only team with two offensive tackles in the Top 12 of their rankings. Joel Bitonio's production is starting to surge again, showing the same type of effectiveness he had as a rookie. Alex Mack is the lone lineman still trying to return to his Pro Bowl form, but his performance hasn't been a significant liability.
Left tackle Ty Sambrailio will miss his third straight game, but he was one of the team's biggest liability to begin with. Right tackle Ryan Harris has been filling in during his absence, but remains a liability in pass protection. Left guard Evan Mathis is the group's most effective player, but he will be a game-time decision this week after not practicing all week with a hamstring injury. Center Matt Paradis and right tackle Michael Schofield are both second-year players who have shown some promise, but are still struggling overall. Right guard Louis Vasquez is a stable presence -- if he and Mathis both play, the Broncos can at least feel secure with their guards.
|DL||The Broncos' starting defensive line in the 3-4 defense features Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson at defensive end, with Sylvester Williams playing nose tackle. Wolfe, one of the league's best run-stopping defensive ends in 2014, returned in Week 5 after serving a four-game suspension and was very effective. Jackson is a good all-around player. Antonio Smith and Vance Walker will see substitute reps at defensive end, with Smith offering a good pass rush in nickel situations.
Desmond Bryant returned from a two-game absence last week, playing about 40% of the snaps. We'll see if his snap count increases to around 60% this week, which would be his normal workload. Danny Shelton had three high-impact plays against the run last week, each of which were the type of "eye-popping" plays the Browns' coaching staff had been looking for. I'd like to see the Browns continue using Armonty Bryant some more as a defensive tackle on third downs, where he has the quickness to swim past blockers or pull off stunts.
The Browns' linebackers have struggled all year, particularly last week against the Ravens. Jim O'Neil deployed the biggest personnel change last week with Nate Orchard, Scott Solomon, and Tank Carder all having significant roles, while Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo barely saw the field. This week, though Kruger told Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal that he expects to return to his role as a predominantly pass-rushing linebacker, and defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil confessed that he needs to make sure he gets Mingo more involved in the game. With Solomon out for the year, I expect resurgences for both Kruger's and Mingo's workloads this week.
The Broncos will be without outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware this week, a big loss on the pass-rushing front as he has 4.5 sacks on the year. Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett are expected to take turns filling in for Ware, and our Broncos affiliate believes both players have flashed starting-caliber potential. Von Miller, the team's other outside linebacker, has 3 sacks, but remains one of the game's best pass rushers and overall linebackers in general. Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan are the team's inside starting linebackers, with Marshall in particular playing at a high level.
|DB||The Browns already faced one tough secondary this year (Jets), but when you factor in the Broncos' safeties, Denver might take the cake as the toughest unit to go up against. Aqib Talib and Chris Harris are the team's starting cornerbacks, with Bradley Roby coming in as the nickelback. Per PFF, Harris has gone 26 games without allowing a touchdown. The cornerbacks have combined for 5 interceptions. The Broncos' safeties are T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart. Ward will be looking to play all-out against his former team, but is still very much the same type of player he was in Cleveland (stout against the run, liable in coverage).
Cleveland will be without starting cornerback Joe Haden and starting free safety Tashaun Gipson this week. Pierre Desir will start for Haden and Jordan Poyer will start for Gipson. With Peyton Manning using the short passing game and the high winds expected, this is the week for the Browns' cornerbacks to be more aggressive. The coverage wasn't too bad last week with the return of Williams, but Desir will face a tough test against one of two of the AFC's better receivers.
|ST||Travis Coons is 11-of-11 on field goals this season, including 8-of-8 over the past two weeks. Coons is only getting a touchback on 48.1% of his kickoffs, among the worst percentage in the NFL. Brandon McManus gets a touchback 78.6% of the time, which ranks 4th in the NFL. He's also 12-of-12 this year on field goals, including 4-of-4 on attempts of 50+ yards. The kicking edge goes slightly in favor of Denver.
Andy Lee had his worst game of the season last week, but it wasn't a "bad" game, and he's still the overall top punter in the game when you account for punt average and net average. You'd expect Denver punters to thrive statistically, but Britton Colquitt is averaging 5 yards let per punt on his net average. The Broncos are 24th in the NFL in average punt return yards given up, while the Browns rank 12th.
In the return game, Justin Gilbert's attempts might be limited again this week, but the ever-so-dangerous Travis Benjamin should have a few cracks to make an impact. Remember that last week, Benjamin was neutralized because Baltimore kept directional kicking out of bounds. Emmanuel Sanders handles punts for Denver, and either Omar Boldin or Andre Caldwell will handle kickoffs.
Because Denver's offense has not been piling up the points this year, Josh McCown has to have the mentality that he has to be very safe with the football. Even if it means he has to throw away a bunch of passes and disappoint the home crowd with forcing Mike Pettine to send the punting unit out, playing the game of field position is the only way to have a fighting chance against Denver's defense.
Defensively, I think the Browns need to take risks on jumping shorter passes on what is expected to be a cold and windy day. Peyton Manning hasn't been pushing the ball downfield as well as he used to, so Cleveland can dare him to try -- something I never thought I'd associate with a guy like Manning.
Ultimately, I have to lean toward Denver with my final score prediction because of how consistently dominant their defense has been. Also, given how poor the Browns' defense has been playing, there's no reason why I shouldn't believe that Manning will have plenty of time to throw and so he can pick apart the Browns' linebackers in coverage.
Denver Broncos 23, Cleveland Browns 20
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