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Browns vs. Chargers: NFL Week 4 Preview and Prediction

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Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns (1-2) take on the San Diego Chargers (1-2) in Week 4 of the NFL regular season. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.


Position-by-Position Evaluation

Pos Advantage Reason
QB Philip Rivers is in his 12th year in the NFL and has been one of the league's top quarterbacks during that span, with his consistent production overshadowed by the Chargers often underachieving as a whole. Rivers has 5 touchdowns and 4 interceptions through 3 games, but his completion percentage (74.5%) is out of this world and even well higher than his career percentage (64.9%). However, it has been noted by PFF that Rivers has actually been struggling to push the ball down the field, with most of his completions being of the shorter variety.

Josh McCown is in his 13th year in the NFL, but doesn't have share an ounce of the credentials that Rivers does. That's not to say that McCown can't out-duel Rivers on a particular Sunday, but one guy is a franchise quarterback while the other is a career backup who teams are looking to as a stop-gap quarterback at the tail end of his career. McCown had some ugly throws during the first half of his return game vs. Oakland before rebounding with an aerial assault in the second half. The Browns will try to stick with a balanced attack early this week again, but when McCown has a receiver open, he can't miss again.
RB The Chargers selected Melvin Gordon with their first-round pick, replacing the departed Ryan Matthews. Gordon has averaged about 14 carries for 63 yards over his first three games, but has yet to find the end zone. I'm sure he is salivating at the thought of facing the Browns' worst-ranked run defense or getting touches with a lead for once. The reason I give the Chargers the edge at running back is because of Danny Woodhead, though. He has 12 catches for 119 yards this season and helps give the Chargers a reliable receiving back for when Rivers wants to run the hurry-up offense.

After a pretty good showing in Week 2, Isaiah Crowell missed some opportunities in Week 3 and didn't seem to finish runs as well. His inability to convert at the goal line was a momentum-killer in the first half last week, and if Robert Turbin is able to go against the Ravens next week, don't be surprised to see him get opportunities right away. The Chargers are vulnerable against the run, but I think this could be the week that Duke Johnson is given the reigns as the team's lead back to see how he can perform.
WR
TE
Chargers tight end Antonio Gates is serving the final game of his four-week suspension, so he won't play. Tight end Ladarius Green, once thought to be Gates' successor, has been a disappointment and might miss the second straight week with a concussion. The tight end threat is removed from San Diego's gameplan, but to compensate, they operate out of a three-receiver set for the majority of the game. Keenan Allen is the team's best receiver. He will play every snap and has 29 catches for 315 yards and 2 touchdowns this year. Malcolm Floyd and Stevie Johnson will each play around 90% of the snaps, with Johnson having had more balls thrown his direction than Floyd in his first year with the club.

I feel like I do a disservice to the Browns' receivers and tight ends when I don't give them at least an "even" ranking here. The offensive line and cornerback positions are supposed to be significant edges for Cleveland each week, but both units have been big letdowns. The receivers, meanwhile, get no respect as a credible unit, yet have probably been the most consistent unit on the club this year. Travis Benjamin's utilization this past Sunday proved that the offensive coaching staff has bought in on him being a No. 1 receiver for the Browns. Cleveland teased the idea of Dwayne Bowe looking good in practice, and I think he should be active for when Cleveland gets into the red zone. The Browns need a taller receiver who can line up on the outside for the threat of a one-on-one matchup.

OL Through three games, the biggest letdown on the Browns' offensive line has been Joel Bitonio. He has started the year in a sophomore slump after looking like he could be a future Pro Bowler as a rookie. I thought Alex Mack was a bit shaky in the first two regular season games but was a lot smoother against the Raiders last week -- hopefully he can continue that trend this week, particularly with his run blocking.

For as much as the Browns' offensive line has underachieved, the Chargers' offensive line is in complete shambles. I'll quote Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union Tribune to highlight what I am talking about:
On Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, the Chargers could very well, due to injuries, be without their regular starters at left tackle, left guard and center. Their right guard will again play on a bum ankle. Their right tackle will probably start at left tackle. A backup center who was signed Tuesday and introduced himself around the locker room Wednesday will be active, as will a tackle who was on the practice squad last week.
DL - The Chargers operate a 3-4 defense with Kendall Reyes and Corey Liuget on the outside and Sean Lissemore playing the nose tackle position. Our Chargers affiliate cited Lissemore as one of the reason San Diego's run defense has not fared well: "Lissemore is asked to be the guy that eats up blocks and frees the linebackers to make plays. That simply is not in his skill set." With Alex Mack trending upward and Lissemore scuffling, this could be the week Cleveland controls the line of scrimmage.

Desmond Bryant is inactive for the second straight week with a shoulder injury. Had he been active, I would've given the Browns the edge at defensive line. With the Chargers possibly having turnover on their offensive line, it'll be interesting to see if Danny Shelton can have more of a force up front due to the group trying to build chemistry with each other and having less time to actually scout their opponent. John Hughes and Xavier Cooper had rough weeks filling in for Bryant last week, so I wonder if we'll see Jamie Meder get some more early-game reps this week.
LB - The Chargers' starting outside linebackers are Melvin Ingram and Jerry Attaochu, with Kyle Emanuel coming off the bench. Overall, San Diego's pass rush has been non-existent, however Emanuel, a rookie fifth-round pick, has shown some intrigue. Their starting inside linebackers are Manti Te'o and Donald Butler. Te'o has good instincts at the position but has missed way too many tackles already this year.

Paul Kruger is getting about 5-10 fewer pass rushing opportunities this season, as he's taken more responsibility of dropping back into coverage. I think Cleveland should let him stick to his strength, but this came about due to Barkevious Mingo's initial injury and the fact that Armonty Bryant, filling in for Scott Solomon, is not going to be relied on in coverage. Craig Robertson is out this week, so Christian Kirksey's timeshare will be increased a bit with Tank Carder coming in off the bench.

DB This goes back to my beef with the receiver ranking earlier -- Cleveland's receivers deserve a respectable ranking, but aren't getting it yet. The Browns' secondary doesn't deserve the edge based on their play, but their talent on-paper still lets them win the battle over a Chargers unit that is playing well. If I had advice for each of the Browns' starters in the secondary, it would be:

Tramon Williams - Change nothing
Joe Haden - Stay focused on your technique
Tashaun Gipson - When the ball is in the air, stop taking a chance that the ball will be tipped and just be prepared to go for the tackle
Donte Whitner - Wrap up better and don't break to the outside so hard when you're the last line of defense on a run

The Chargers will be without starting strong safety Jahleel Addae for the third straight game. Cornerback Brandon Flowers is set to return this week, with Jason Verrett opposite him and Patrick Robinson also in the mix. Veteran Eric Weddle remains the best play in the secondary and the one who Josh McCown needs to pay the most attention to.
ST The Chargers parted ways with former kicker Nick Novak and went with rookie Josh Lambo this year. The former professional soccer player is 4-of-5 with a long of 40 yards, and is 6-of-7 on extra points. Travis Coons gets the slight edge at kicker -- though he has fewer attempts, he hasn't missed in camp, the preseason, or during the regular season.

Veteran Mike Scifres is the Chargers' punter, with a net average of 37.3 yards per punt, putting him near the bottom of the NFL and nowhere close to the remarkable 47.6 net average that Andy Lee has.

Cleveland obviously made two critical special teams errors last week (roughing the punter and a muffed punt), but Travis Benjamin remains one of the league's most threatening return men. Justin Gilbert could return kickoffs this week with Shaun Draughn having a back injury. Jacoby Jones would be the Chargers' kick and punt returner, but he's out this week. Keenan Allen will handle punts and Branden Oliver will handle kickoffs.


Prediction

I promise you -- I was willing to put my homer-ism aside and pick the Chargers to emerge victorious this week. However, the fact that they'll be without three starting offensive linemen -- and maybe even four -- is an absurd advantage that Cleveland should have heading into this game, both in clogging the gaps for San Diego's running game and generating a pass rush similar to what we saw against the Titans in Week 2.

Cleveland hasn't had significant issues defending the run up front -- it's just that when players reach the second level, the tackling has been awful. San Diego might not even reach the second level this week, and Cleveland's offense will find more sustained success against a defense that doesn't stop the run well up front and has been absent a pass rush.

Cleveland Browns 21, San Diego Chargers 17

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