On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns (2-5) take on the Arizona Cardinals (5-2) in Week 8 of the NFL regular season. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
Way back in 2002, Josh McCown was a third-round pick by the Arizona Cardinals. Could they have imagined that 13 years later, he'd not only still be around, but a starting quarterback in the NFL? McCown is coming off of a game against the Rams in which his shoulder was banged up. He missed Wendesday's practice and did light work on Thursday and Friday, with the expectation that he'll be ready-to-go for Sunday. McCown hasn't played terrible over the past two weeks, but he's missed a couple of reads and wasn't able to guide the team to a touchdown-scoring drive last week.
If any fanbase believes that veteran quarterbacks can still be effective in the later stages of their career, it's Cardinals fans. Carson Palmer was the No. 1 overall pick in 2003, but he might be playing the best football of his career in 2015. He's thrown for over 2,000 yards in 7 games, completing 65.3% of his passes with 16 touchdowns and 5 interceptions (QB rating of 108.9). Palmer isn't a threat to run, but he's been making very good decisions from the pocket and can still make all the throws. Palmer is 9-4 in his career against the Browns.
Mid-way through the season, the running game situation for the Browns has left me irritated. The coaching staff needs to pick their traditional running back between Isaiah Crowell or Robert Turbin and stick with it the whole game, while letting Duke Johnson maintain his current role. I'd probably give Turbin the shot to see if his vision is better than Crowell's when it comes to squeezing through those narrow gaps.
The Cardinals' running back situation sees Chris Johnson as the starter after Andre Ellington suffered a Week 1 injury. Johnson has had three 100+ yard rushing games already, including runs of 30, 60, and 62 yards. Andre Ellington's reps have been limited since he returned several weeks ago, but he's made the most of his opportunities. This week, the Cardinals are supposed to make it a point to get Ellington more involved in the gameplan again. On top of all that, the team's third-round pick, David Johnson, has made some big plays in limited duty as well. Ellington and D. Johnson can both make plays in the receiving game too.
Larry Fitzgerald is back to being a start-studded receiver, but now he has a great compliment to start with him in John Brown. Fitzgerald has 64 catches for 622 yards, and Brown has 37 catches for 562 yards. Brown is questionable to play this week with an injury, but signs are pointing to him playing. The team's other wide receiver who sees consistent reps if Michael Floyd. Arizona hadn't really used their tight ends as receivers this season, but Jermaine Gresham had 4 catches for 62 yards last week after having 5 catches for 51 yards in 6 games prior to that.
The big news for the Browns this week at receiver is that Andrew Hawkins is out with a concussion. Hawkins was often near the team-lead in snaps in Cleveland's four-man rotation of receivers. That would lead one to believe that Dwayne Bowe might finally receive a chance to contribute. If the team sticks with their traditional four-receiver rotation, that would mean around 40% of the snaps going to Bowe. However, when Brian Hartline was hurt earlier this year, Cleveland opted to go to a three-receiver rotation instead, despite the fact that Bowe was available. Marlon Moore is also an option to fill in.
|OL||Although the Cardinals have a tough defense, the Browns' offensive line has probably gone up against tougher units up front the past two weeks (Denver and St. Louis). Mitchell Schwartz is coming off of his worst game of the year, and the offensive line had too many penalties on the road last week. Hopefully, the element of being at home will cut out those penalties that typically serve as drive-killers.
Jared Veldheer was a big free agent signing for the Cardinals in 2014, and he's played the left tackle position pretty well despite being hit with some penalties. This offseason, the Cardinals signed Mike Iupati, one of the best left guards in football, and he's delivered on his contract, being graded as the team's top offensive lineman by PFF. At center, Lyle Sendlein isn't a liability and he is rarely penalized. The right side of the line is rounded out by right guard Jonathan Cooper and right tackle Bobbie Massie. Cooper has had a bit of a down year.
|DL||The Cardinals' starting defensive line includes Calais Campbell and Frostee Rucker on the outside, with Rodney Gunter at nose tackle. Campbell is one of the best defensive lineman in the game today, racking up a lot of tackles and getting hits on the quarterback more than any other player on his defense. Rucker is a stable presence on the other side, but won't dominate like Campbell will. Gunter was the team's 4th-round pick in 2015; he'll probably only play 40% of the snaps.
Arizona doesn't have a definitive advantage on the defensive line -- not like the Broncos and Rams did. Until someone steps up on Cleveland's line, though, I look at Campbell and say, "is anyone playing at as high of a level as he is?" and the answer is "no." Danny Shelton's reps seeing a decline is being attributed to him having nagging injuries, and Cleveland might factor that in this week when thinking about his availability for the quick turnaround game in Cincinnati. Defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil says that, ideally, he wants Shelton out there for 60-70% of the snaps.
|LB||The Cardinals' typical outside linebackers include a trio of LaMarr Woodley, Alex Okafor, and Dwight Freeney. Okafor is out again this week with an injury, so Markus Golden, the team's second-round pick in 2015, will start in his place. The Cardinals don't generate a lot of sacks, but Golden has done a good job pressuring quarterbacks. At inside linebacker, the Cardinals' starters are Deone Buccannon and Kevin Minter. Buccannon, who converted from safety, has been playing quite well in coverage to serve as one of the spark plugs defensively for the defense.
Cleveland will get Craig Robertson back this week, which will hopefully bring a shred more stability to the run defense -- but let's be honest, one guy isn't going to fix the run defense. The real struggle for Cleveland is at outside linebacker, where Paul Kruger and Nate Orchard continue to not make any impact plays. When Cleveland can't get to the quarterback, it exposes everybody else all-the-more.
|DB||Joe Haden and Tashaun Gipson make their much-anticipated return to the starting lineup this week. I'm happy that Haden is back, because it will make defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil more willing to dial up some exotic blitzes. However, Haden and Gipson both struggled prior to their injuries. If they are able to perform like they can when they are at their best, Cleveland might actually have a chance to pull off an upset this week. How can I bank my prediction on so many "ifs," though?
The Cardinals' secondary is dangerous with exceptional players in cornerback Patrick Peterson and free safety Tyrann Mathieu. Although Mathieu can get burned when he takes chances, the positives of his play out-weigh the negatives -- sort of like when Troy Polamalu was at his best. The team's other starting cornerback, Jerraud Powers, is questionable with a hamstring injury. Rashad Johnson is the team's starting strong safety.
Chandler Catanzaro, at 24 years old, is in his second season with Arizona. He was 29-of-33 as a rookie, and is 11-of-13 in 2015. Like Travis Coons, he isn't known for attempting long-distance kicks. He did miss an extra point last week against Baltimore. Coons remains a perfect 14-of-14 on the year for Cleveland, but is still working on getting his kickoff distance back to where it was in Week 1. Coons is getting a touchback on 38.9% of his attempts, while Catanzaro is also pretty low at 53.3%.
The Cardinals' punter, Drew Butler, is statistically the worst in the NFL. He only averages 40.3 yards per punt with a net average of 34.0 yards. Compare that to Andy Lee, who averages 48.8 yards per punt with a net average of 43.0 yards, and you can see why the Browns might have a field position advantage in the right type of game situation on Sunday.
Justin Gilbert might get a couple of attempts to return kickoffs this week, given Catanzaro's average. Whether Travis Benjamin gets some attempts remains to be seen -- if the punts are high and short, Benjamin might be forced into some fair catches. David Johnson returns kickoffs for Arizona, while Patrick Peterson handles punts. Johnson has a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown this year. Peterson is only averaging 6.7 yards per punt return. He went crazy with 4 punt return touchdowns in 2011, but has been dormant in that department since then.
I'll make a list of the good things the Browns have going for them this week:
- ILB Craig Robertson, CB Joe Haden, and FS Tashaun Gipson are back.
- Cleveland should have the advantage in the field position game, given each team's punter situation.
- The Cardinals laid an egg on the road in Pittsburgh two weeks ago while facing a pair of backup quarterbacks. They also nearly let the Ravens back in the game last week.
That's probably the extent of it. That's not a knock on Cleveland, because I think they can rebound and put a competitive performance up against the Cardinals. However, Arizona is one of the most complete teams in the NFL, and with Cleveland still not able to stop the run at a consistent clip, they won't be able to "dare" Carson Palmer to beat them like they've tried a good portion of their past two games when the defense has appeared to make some improvements.
Arizona Cardinals 31, Cleveland Browns 20
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