- After a rough start to the season against Pittsburgh, Kirk Cousins has settled in for the Redskins, including a strong 296-yards, 2-touchdown, no-turnover performance on the road against the Giants last week.
- Cousins has shown a history of running hot and cold. Last year, he threw 6 touchdowns and 8 interceptions in his first six games. In the final 10 games, he threw 23 touchdowns to just 3 interceptions, completing nearly 70% of his passes on the year. He benefits from a strong receiving cast, and if he can leverage them like he did in the second half of last year, the team will have no choice but to give him the long-term extension he had been seeking this offseason.
- The last time Cousins faced the Browns was in 2012, when he subbed in for the injured Robert Griffin III. He lit the Browns up with rollout after rollout. This year’s Browns defense has looked much more disciplined as far as the edge defending keeping contain on the quarterback (note: Cousins has some good mobility, but is not someone who will take off and run).
- Cody Kessler’s performance last week can best be described as playing better than the tremendously low bar that was set for him. I thought he had a pretty decent grasp of the offense, which was assisted by him only having to play 83% of the snaps as Terrelle Pryor’s plays of handoffs sometimes helped set the young quarterback up with better situations.
- Kessler’s accuracy on short passes was good, and he did some nice purposeful underthrows to let the receiver come back to the ball. He needs to be careful if he tries to challenge Josh Norman this week, though, who will no doubt be looking to bait the young quarterback into some mistakes. Kessler also threw almost exclusively to the right side of the field last week, which is a tendency that he needs to mix up this week. I’m sure he received some coaching points from Hue Jackson and company about that.
- The Redskins opted not to re-sign Alfred Morris this offseason, instead rolling with second-year back Matt Jones, a third-round pick from a year ago. In 2015, Jones averaged 3.5 yards per carry on 490 yards rushing. This year, he’s up to 4.1 yards per carry, but his maximum rushing output in a single game has been 65 yards.
- Washington is not a very good running team, and they are probably wise to stick to their strengths of throwing the football. Chris Thompson, a fifth-round pick from 2013, is the team’s backup running back and should get about five touches. Jones hasn’t caught a lot of passes this year but can be utilized in that capacity.
- Surprisingly, an ESPN report ranked the Redskins as having the 19th best backfield in the NFL. Then, when I started looking at spots 20-32, it wasn’t as surprising: there are some bad backfields in the NFL. It isn’t like it used to be.
- That same report ranked the Browns’ backfield 11th! That’s some pretty respectable recognition, and they’ve earned it through three games despite the team’s 0-3 record. Here is what the report said about Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson:
“It's the well-rounded skill set that I like most about this duo, as it profiles similarly to Cincinnati's backfield. Crowell can carry the football 20 times a game, while Johnson has nifty receiving skills as a passing-game outlet.”
- Johnson got into a groove last week on the ground too with 10 rushes. Although he had 5 catches, they only went for 12 yards as Cody Kessler often dumped him the ball when it was way too late into a play. Isaiah Crowell’s 274 yards rushing is tied for 2nd in the NFL, and his 6.1 yards per carry average is also second, only behind the Falcons’ Devonta Freeman.
Wide Receiver / Tight End
- This is where the Redskins are dangerous. Washington is going to deploy a three-receiver look a lot, but a little less than the Dolphins did a week ago. Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson are the team’s outside receiver, and Jamison Crowder will work from the slot.
- Garcon and Jackson are both fast receivers, but Jackson is more likely to hit you with the big play, averaging 17 yards per catch compared to Garcon’s 11 yards per catch. The more surprising story this year has been the play of Crowder, who has 16 catches for 175 yards and 2 touchdowns. Crowder was productive a year ago, but he’s on pace to eclipse his 2015 totals by a significant margin.
- If the Browns are lucky enough to cover the receivers, then they’ll still have to figure out who is going to handle tight end Jordan Reed. Reed led the Redskins last year with 87 catches for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns in 14 games. He doesn't have a touchdown yet this year, but still has 16 catches for 190 yards. Cleveland benefited last week from Miami not having a threatening tight end after Jordan Cameron suffered a concussion, but remember that the previous week, Dennis Pitta carved Cleveland’s defense up with ease in third down situations.
- Veteran tight end Vernon Davis will also get some work in multiple tight end looks.
- Who is the most exciting player on the Browns right now, and a guy who could (in my estimation) legitimately compel fans to buy tickets to see Cleveland play? That would be Terrelle Pryor, who stepped in to the No. 1 receiving role last week with an all-around, Hall of Fame-worthy performance (more on that on Sunday).
- There’s a case to be made that the Browns should not use Pryor at quarterback this week because the opposing team will have prepared for it. I can understand that point of view, but I don’t think it matters. It’s being used in small enough doses, and if Pryor is just handing the ball off to Isaiah Crowell, he can pound out some more yards if one or two defenders hesitate thinking about Pryor. That hesitation also gives the offensive linemen an edge.
- After Ricardo Louis got his taste of “the speed of the game” last week, we’ll see if the next step is moving into a starting role while Andrew Hawkins only operates from the slot. I’m not sure how well Louis can block yet, but having a bigger receiver on the outside would *seem* to make sense for blocking purposes.
- Who would have thought that Gary Barnidge’s best game of the season last week would come not with RGIII, not with Josh McCown, but with a Kessler-Pryor platoon at quarterback? Both of Cleveland’s backup tight ends, Randall Telfer and Seth DeValve, are without a catch this year. I wonder if that could change this week, particularly with a Pryor-to-Telfer pass.
- When it comes to a couple players of strength and then several areas of shuffling and vulnerability on the offensive line, there are a lot of parallels between these two teams. Let’s start with Washington’s strengths: LT Trent Williams and RG Brandon Scherff, each former first-round picks (2010 and 2015, respectively), are very good at their positions.
- The team’s starting center has been Kory Lichtensteiger. Although he’s been with the club a long time, he was playing at a below average level and fans are a bit relieved that he had to go on injured reserve this week. Taking his spot in the lineup is Spencer Long, a third-round pick from 2014. He started 13 games at left guard last year, having to fill in for the injured Shawn Lauvao, but began 2016 on the bench. This will be his first career start at center.
- For the second straight year, Shawn Lauvao, the former Brown, has suffered an injury after three games that’ll keep him out of the starting lineup. Arie Kouandjio, a fourth-round pick from a year ago, will get the start instead. It’ll be the first start of his career, and he was inactive for the team’s previous three games. Morgan Moses will continue to anchor the starting right tackle spot.
- The Browns’ offensive line continues to perform well in run blocking and seemed to benefit from John Greco playing center over Cameron Erving last week. Due to the off-the-field incident with Alvin Bailey after last week’s game, though, the assumption is that the Browns will have to shuffle the offensive line again.
- The speculation has focused on Austin Reiter, who the team signed off the Redskins’ practice squad last week, possibly making the start at center and allowing Greco to shuffle back over to right guard.
- That would not address the right tackle position, where Austin Pasztor was terrible last week with countless penalties and sacks given up. Looking at the bright side, though, Cameron Wake was simple a mismatch for Pasztor, and the Browns didn’t gameplan to give him much help. Pasztor won’t face the same challenge this week.
- The Redskins operate a 3-4 defense. Their defensive line consists of LDE Ziggy Hood, NT Cullen Jenkins, and RDE Chris Baker. Baker is probably the team’s best run defender in the front seven. Overall, it’s a very underwhelming group, ranking toward the bottom of the NFL. Baker and Hood will play about 70% of the snaps, and Jenkins will go about 35% of the snaps.
- Ricky Jean Francois will also see some snaps as a rotational player, but that’s the extent of their rotation. Unlike the Browns, who cycle between six players throughout the game, the Redskins stick with their top four. One of those guys who could have been in their rotation, Stephen Paea, was released and scooped up by the Browns. Paea has, in turn, had a very solid start to the year, according to PFF, including as a pass rusher from the defensive end position.
- So far, Danny Shelton is 3-for-3 in terms of solid performances and he’s going up against another inexperienced center this week. Even though Washington has done some shuffling up front, their offensive tackles are pretty solid, so I’m not sure we’ll see young defensive end Tyrone Holmes have the same type of impact in his limited pass-rushing attempts.
- Washington's linebackers include OLB Preston Smith, ILB Will Compton, ILB Mason Foster, and OLB Ryan Kerrigan. Kerrigan is the team’s most proven pass rusher, averaging 9.5 sacks per year in his first five years in the NFL. He has 1.5 sacks in 2016.
- One new wrinkle for the team at outside linebacker is the fact that they are increasing the amount of rotational reps that Trent Murphy is receiving. A second-round pick in 2014, Murphy has already forced 2 fumbles this year and has a team-high 3 sacks. Murphy’s success is attributed to him being asked to bulk up this offseason. Originally, it was done so he could convert to defensive end, but injuries at outside linebacker forced him to stay there.
- At inside linebacker, rookie second round pick Su'a Cravens has been impressive and logged a game-sealing interception against the Giants last week. He was drafted as an inside linebacker/safety hybrid, so Washington loves the versatility he brings to the table. Overall, Washington’s linebacker group has flashed some potential as pass rushers and against the run, but they aren’t as physically dominant or instinctive against the run.
- Cleveland lost OLB Nate Orchard to an ankle injury last week, and OLB Corey Lemonier was just ruled doubtful with an ankle injury. That forced the team to sign OLB Cam Johnson for depth purposes. Cleveland’s defense is often in the nickel with one outside linebacker and two inside linebackers, though, so it shouldn’t be a big deal this week.
- The Browns get the edge by far at inside linebacker, but Washington gets the edge at outside linebacker.
- The Redskins' secondary will be shaken up this week. Josh Norman is one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL and will likely take on the challenge of Terrelle Pryor. Their other starting cornerback, Bashaud Breeland, is out with an ankle injury. Slot cornerback Dashaun Phillips is also out with a hamstring injury.
- Who replaces Breeland and Phillips? Veteran Greg Toler is expected to take one of the spots. Rookie Kendall Fuller, a third-round pick who has been inactive every game this season, is expected to see some playing time. It’s quite a few changes for a secondary that has already struggled against the pass.
- The Redskins' starting safeties had been David Bruton and DeAngelo Hall. Hall tore his ACL last week and is out for the year. Will Blackmon will take his spot, although that might not be a bad thing as Hall’s transition from cornerback to safety hadn’t been the smoothest.
- Cleveland will have to do some shuffling of their own, as Tramon Williams is doubtful with a shoulder injury. The Browns have so many players ruled out that even if Joe Haden doesn’t really play, he’ll probably still be active as he tries to get over his groin injury. Ultimately, though, it’s sounding optimistic that he’ll suit up to play.
- If Haden is able to be a full-go, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jamar Taylor operate from the slot in nickel situations, and Briean Boddy-Calhoun playing on the outside. Alternatively, if the Browns always want to keep Taylor on the outside, they could play Marcus Burley for the first time this season, as he used to play nickelback for the Seahawks.
- At safety, Ibraheim Campbell was a limited participant in practice this week. Even if he is able to play, though, I think Derrick Kindred will be kept in the starting role.
- This ranking was close to being “even,” but ultimately, I think Washington will deal with three positional changes (starting cornerback, slot cornerback, and free safety) on a unit that was already struggling, while Cleveland will only be missing their slot cornerback. Considering how Tramon Williams is probably the cornerback I’ve been most irritated watching, the team might actually see better results there.
- The Browns are rolling with K Cody Parkey again after he missed three field goals last week, including a game-winning attempt. In Parkey’s defense, his first time with the team was Sunday morning. Going against him, though, three field goals is a lot of misses, and he failed to already win one job in Philly. Parkey does have a good leg for kickoffs.
- K Dustin Hopkins has had a lot of field goal attempts through three games due to the Redskins’ red zone struggles. He’s 11-of-11. Last year, he was nearly perfect on kicks but was 2-of-4 from beyond 50 yards. Hopkins has had 15 of his 19 kickoffs go for touchbacks, a rate that is fourth-best in the NFL.
- The Redskins’ punter is Tress Way. He’s only attempted 5 punts in 3 games, so his stats aren’t a good sampling for this year. He, along with Britton Colquitt, are pretty much the definition of an average punter in the NFL.
- In the return game, I’d expect Jordan Poyer to return punts for the Browns. Tracy Howard attempted a couple of kickoff returns for Cleveland last week; he is usually the upback, so I think it was a strategic decision by Cleveland to have he and George Adkinson on opposite sides of the field in the event of directional kickoffs.
- The Redskins' kick returner is RB Chris Thompson and their punt returner is WR Jamison Crowder. Crowder has a 50-yard punt return this season. Thompson has only tried to return two kicks but has some explosiveness.
- The return game and punting games are even, but the Redskins get the special teams edge due to the kicker spot.
This year, we’re going to list predictions for multiple staff members here at DBN. If they opt to participate each week, we’ll also keep running tallies of everyone’s record in picking Browns games.
Chris Pokorny: “This is a game where I’d really like to pick Cleveland. The team’s competitiveness over the past two weeks, despite a bunch of injuries, has been encouraging. It’s hard to imagine so many unknown players (i.e. all of our undrafted free agents) thriving like they did a week ago. Also, Josh Norman might be able to neutralize Terrelle Pryor as a receiver. Although the Redskins’ pass coverage isn’t very good, I don’t know if Cody Kessler has enough other weapons to take advantage of that.
If the Browns are going to succeed on offense, it’ll have to be with a strong effort on the ground by Isaiah Crowell. Even if Crowell has a good day, can we bank on Cody Parkey putting it through the uprights when necessary? On defense, I pointed out some flaws in Jamar Taylor’s game, and Washington features a pass-heavy attack that will take advantage of that, along with the team’s issues covering tight ends on third down. It’ll be another close game, but the pass rush won’t get to Kirk Cousins enough and he’ll find his talented group for some big plays.” Redskins 27, Browns 20
Matt Wood: “I'm actually starting to get a little convinced that the Browns are not the worst team in the NFL. That being said, they can't cover Redskins WR's. DeSean has two long TD's and Browns hang for a bit.” Redskins 31, Browns 20.
Jon Stinchcomb: “Regardless of having been inundated with nothing but bad news since the start of the season, I think the Browns are due to squeak one out eventually. The Redskins might be the kind of opponent where it could happen. If the Browns can force some errant throws by Cousins and take advantage on the other end, it might just be doable.” Browns 17, Redskins 13.
Zach Miller: “Browns play around and hang within a score or two. I don't think they'll create a new way to lose Sunday, but I for sure see a loss.” Redskins 24, Browns 17.
Josh Finney: “Everyone is immediately ready to write off the DCPFBT, but they have talent at the positions the Browns will struggle with. (elite TE, good edge rusher, and waterbuck-type-deep threat WR)
If you can't get in Captain Kirk’s face and shrink his tunnel vision, Gruden will dissect you through the air.
There's tape on TP now, Washington will force the Browns to beat them Downfield and with someone else. I'm not confident the Browns can do that unless they can kill offensively with a different weapon. (Duke, Gary Barnidge in the second level, or tbd)” Bonercats 27, Browns 17.
Dan Lalich: “The Browns offense struggles to make anything happen but gets a big play out of Pryor for their lone TD. Kirk Cousins has a bad game, including a safety, and the Browns run defense holds up.” Browns 11, Redskins 5.
Who do you think will win, Browns fans? Let us know in the comments section below!