This week, the Cleveland Browns take on the Dallas Cowboys in Week 9 of the NFL regular season. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
- The Browns could have had Carson Wentz this year, but decided he wasn’t good enough for the No. 2 overall pick. But then you have Dak Prescott, who was also under consideration by the Browns. He went in the fourth round, which was around the area that Cleveland was aiming to select their quarterback. Instead of Prescott, they chose Cody Kessler at the end of the third round.
- Right now, this shouldn’t boil down to whether the right decision was made between Wentz vs. Kessler vs. Prescott. The fact is that all three quarterbacks, all things considered, have actually played very well to start their rookie campaign. The magnitude of success each of them has had is a reflection on the talent around them. The Cowboys have one of the most complete teams in the NFL, so Prescott has been able to lead Dallas to a 6-1 start. Wentz is working with a mixed bag of talent and has Philadelphia at 4-3. Kessler has not stated every game, but he obviously has the rawest group of talent to work with, and Cleveland is off to an 0-8 start.
- When it comes to Prescott, he’s not Ben Roethlisberger. He’s not Aaron Rodgers. He’s not Tom Brady. Prescott’s best asset so far, though, is that he is so well in tune with the offense, which is one of the reasons why some fans don’t think Tony Romo should start when he comes back. Romo may be the better quarterback, but how can you mess with the level of success Prescott is having right now? He's completing 65.2% of his passes with 9 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He's also fairly mobile, having run the ball 27 times for 105 yards and 4 touchdowns.
- When it comes to Cleveland, Kessler is back and will start against the Cowboys. Josh McCown, who started last week’s game while Kessler was still in the concussion protocol, will be the backup. This will be Kessler’s first game in which he gets to work with rookie receiver Corey Coleman.
- It would have been awesome to see Ezekiel Elliott in a Browns uniform, having come from Ohio State. Cleveland could have stayed at No. 2 and drafted them if they really wanted to. However, it probably wouldn’t have been the right thing for the franchise long-term. He’s a workhorse back, and who knows how long that style of play will last in today’s NFL. He needed to go to a club that was ready to contend now, which is why the pick made so much sense for Dallas.
- How has Elliot responded? By leading the NFL in rushing with 159 carries for 799 yards (5.0 YPC) and 5 touchdowns. That has come in 7 games; all of the top backs behind him haven't even had their bye week yet. He hasn’t been as involved in the passing game (15 catches for 150 yards), but I still view him as an all-purpose back. If Elliot needs a breather, which he seldom does, the team can go to veteran Alfred Morris. Morris has never been known as a receiving back, so he’ll get about 3-4 carries per game and that’s it.
- The Browns have a great running back duo that has been slowed down a bit by so many changes on the offensive line week-to-week. Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson squared off against a top-ranked run defense (the Jets) last week, but the Cowboys are a little more susceptible to giving up some plays on the ground.
Wide Receiver / Tight End
- Cowboys start wide receiver Dez Bryant was inactive for three games in October with a knee injury before returning against the Eagles last week. In four games this season, Bryant has 15 catches for 263 yards and 2 touchdowns. Those are numbers that don't jump off the page for a player of Bryant's caliber, but my confidence in Cleveland stopping any receiver, let along an elite one like Bryant, has been gone for awhile now.
- Besides Bryant, the Cowboys feature Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams. Beasley is tough and consistent slot receiver who leads the team with 37 catches for 443 yards and 3 touchdowns. Williams flashes the big play ability, but has also had some issues with drops in the past. He has 22 catches for 336 yards and 1 touchdown.
- Veteran tight end Jason Witten doesn't put up Pro Bowl numbers, but he's probably the best complete tight end in the NFL when you factor in his work as a blocker. It’s comparable to what Heath Miller brought to the table for so many years in Pittsburgh.
- Still working with a nagging hamstring injury, Terrelle Pryor took advantage of Jets CB Darrelle Revis in the first half of last week's game, catching 6 passes for 101 yards. He was shut out in the second half for a variety of reasons. With Dallas having some injuries in the secondary this week and rookie Corey Coleman returning to action, things could finally open up for Pryor again.
- When we last saw Coleman, he caught 5 passes for 104 yards and 2 touchdowns. That was really the last time we saw one of our receivers catch a deep pass, so hopefully Coleman brings the explosiveness factor back to Cleveland's passing game. Andrew Hawkins should continue to see playing time in the slot, but Ricardo Louis, Jordan Payton, and Rashard Higgins should all be set to take a back seat again.
- Although the Cowboys have cracked down on defending tight ends over the past few weeks, some teams have had success against them including Washington, Chicago, and San Francisco. I’ve felt that Gary Barnidge needs to be worked into the offense more, beyond just the first play of the game. They tried to get Seth DeValve some work in his return to action last week, but he seemed a bit lost on a few plays.
- I feel like wide receiver/tight end is the position where Cleveland is closest to being even with Dallas. To avoid the embarrassment of giving Dallas a clean sweep, I made this category “even.”
- The Cowboys’ offensive line consists of LT Tyron Smith, LG Ronald Leary, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin, and RT Doug Free. This is a group that has the level of stability I’d like to think the Browns had at the position last year, except that they also do very well as run blockers.
- It's not often that you say a team's strength of the offensive line is from center to right guard, but that seems to be the case for Dallas. Frederick, a first-round pick in 2013, and Martin, a first-round pick in 2014, have been two home run picks for Dallas as they are each multi-time Pro Bowlers and All-Pro caliber players.
- The Cowboys are without LG La’El Collins, but our Cowboys affiliate explained why he prefers that Leary is in the starting lineup. At left tackle, Smith, another former first-round pick (and a three-time Pro Bowler), is one of the top players at this position. Free, the only veteran of the group at right tackle, is the closest thing to a “weak” spot on the line, but he has 98 starts under his belt for a reason: “weak” is only a relative term here.
- The Browns’ offensive line did a fine job in pass protection against the Jets last week, and the same should be expected this week against a Dallas defense that doesn’t generate significant pressure. C Cameron Erving is dealing with a shoulder injury but is expected to play. Right now, the left guard position is in a state of uncertainty: we don’t know if Alvin Bailey, Spencer Drango, or a mix of them, will man the spot. Shon Coleman didn’t get any reps at right tackle last week after getting a taste of it (in place of Austin Pasztor) the week before.
- The Cowboys’ operate a 4-3 base defense, and the only player really guaranteed starter-level reps is DE/DT Tyrone Crawford. After him, you’ll see a constant rotation, and about 50% playing time each, for DE Jack Crawford, DT Terrell McClain, DE Benson Mayowa, DE DeMarcus Lawrence, DT Maliek Collins, and DE David Irving. I thought about making this category even with the Browns, but ultimately, I gave Dallas the edge because of the sack numbers this unit has put up.
- T. Crawford leads the Cowboys with 3.5 sacks, and J. Crawford has added in 1.5 sacks. McClain has 1.5 sacks, and Mayowa has 2 sacks. Combined, those 8.5 sacks indicate that each of these guys can get to the quarterback at times, but only T. Crawford right now is really known for his pass-rushing abilities, and overall the group is “average” against the run. Lawrence can be the pass rusher they need to step up, but he’s been slowly worked back in after a four-game suspension to start the year.
- With how much teams are abolishing the concept of a pure 4-3 or 3-4 base defense, or the fact that teams have different types of defenses, I’m considering merging the “defensive line” and “linebacker” sections in these preview to a “front seven” section. It’s particularly relevant to the Browns, because I feel like I want to lump Emmanuel Ogbah into the defensive line category, but I still have him at outside linebacker.
- Carl Nassib used his length to knock down three passes last week. Hue Jackson echoed my sentiments afterward: that is nice to see, but now it’s time for him to start knocking down quarterbacks. His work against the run hasn’t been something to write home about either.
- Danny Shelton could be facing the biggest challenge he’s had all season in Travis Frederick. The Cowboys are also very good on the ground. I feel Cleveland has done well against traditional running plays because of Shelton, so we’ll see if he can rise to the challenge this week.
- The Cowboys’ starting linebackers include ILB Anthony Hitchens and OLB Sean Lee, as Dallas operates mostly out of the nickel. When you look at the suspensions or injuries of DE Randy Gregory, LB Jaylon Smith, and LB Rolando McClain, Dallas has the pieces they need for the future, and possibly even later this season. For now, though, Lee is really the only standout linebacker they have.
- If Jamie Collins had been with the Browns for an extended period of time, they I’d probably be giving Cleveland the advantage at the linebacker position. However, it’s not certain how much he’ll be worked in to the defensive gameplan in his first week with the club.
- I think Collins’ presence can completely change the perception of the Browns’ linebacking corp, and then carry a trickle down effect to the other units as well. If we’re calling the Browns’ group of starting linebackers as Collins, Christian Kirksey, and Emmanuel Ogbah, then I’m liking what I see. Get Nate Orchard back in a couple of weeks, and the unit could be one that leads Cleveland to a few victories this season by stopping the bleeding of yards allowed on defense.
- The Cowboys’ starting cornerbacks are usually Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr, with Orlando Scandrick also getting some work. Claiborne probably won’t play this week with a hamstring injury, though. Dallas used three cornerbacks most of the time, so Carr and Scandrick should start on the outside, with impressive rookie Anthony Brown operating out of the nickel spot.
- Dallas’ starting safeties are FS Byron Jones and SS Barry Church. Church suffered a forearm injury last week, so the team will look to J.J. Wilcox to step up in his place. Wilcox, like most strong safeties, is known for his physicality but can be exposed if he’s left in coverage too much. Despite Dallas’ injuries, Wilcox started last year and their three available cornerbacks have each done some good work too.
- Joe Haden played the entire game last week, and neither he nor Jamar Taylor seemed to be slowed down too much with their groin injuries. Despite that, each of them are still taking things cautiously in practice this week. Briean Boddy-Calhoun played only one snap last week. It was feared he suffered a concussion on the play, but he didn’t.
- I’m sick of repeating myself about the Browns’ poor play at safety each week. There is no upside on the horizon either. What is frustrating is that such a liability can hurt the development of the rest of this team. For every miss against the run or in coverage by this group, it keeps the defense on the field and prevents the offense from having good field position.
- Cody Parkey remains perfect since his miscues in Miami, but Dan Bailey is one of the better kickers in the NFL. He is 14-of-16 on field goals this year, including two makes from beyond 50 yards.
- Chris Jones is the Cowboys’ punter. His average (47.4) is in the top 10 in the NFL, but his net average (39.0) is closer to the bottom 10 in the NFL. That is a surprise, because his net average was in the top 5 in 2015 at 42.5. I’d probably give him the edge over Britton Colquitt. I was at last week’s game, and Colquitt had several opportunities to pin the Jets inside the 10 yard line, punting on a short field. Instead, his punts were only getting to around the 17 yard line.
- Lucky Whitehead returns kickoffs and punts. Kickoffs are pointless to speak about in today's NFL. He has 10 punt returns for 80 yards this season. Cleveland is without their special teams ace this week in Tank Carder, who has a concussion. Ricardo Louis is starting to be trained for kickoffs. Duke Johnson should continue returning punts despite Corey Coleman’s return to action.
This year, we are listing predictions for multiple staff members here at DBN.
Chris Pokorny: “It’ll be great to see Corey Coleman back and the debut of Jamie Collins, an injection of hope on both sides of the ball. However, Dallas has the tools to dominate the time of possession and field position with their offensive line and rushing attack, and I can’t see Cleveland’s offense being able to match that for four quarters, especially if they have to continue working with long fields.” Cowboys 31, Browns 17.
Matt Wood: “Think the Browns sell out to slow down Zeke but get killed on the top by Dez. As for the offense they look okay, Coleman makes a splash play but they struggle to run again.” Cowboys 31, Browns 20.
Jon Stinchcomb: “For whatever unexplainable reason, something is telling me this could be that yearly game where a bad Browns team beats a legitamately good contender they generally have no business beating. However, everything else is telling me the Cowboys win this one handily.” Cowboys 35, Browns 10.
Zach Miller: “Browns shock America's Team behind 350+ passing yards from a revitalized passing game with Coleman back. Defense does enough to slow the 'boys down just a bit. Elliott goes for 135 and two scores, but it won't matter!” Browns 31, Cowboys 30.
Josh Finney: “I think the Browns can move the ball on this defense, but (like the rest of this season) they'll get crushed on TOP and field possession. This Dallas offense has had its way with FAR Better defenses than the Browns. Collins will help a lot, but he's not going to make the safeties take better routes to tight ends and running backs, and Zeke is gonna go absolutely bananas.” Cowboys 38, Browns 20.
Dan Lalich: “The Browns are getting some pieces back on offense, but they will struggle to get them integrated this week. The Cowboys overlook the Browns, focusing instead on their big matchup with the Steelers next week. That, along with the festering QB controversy, leads to a sloppy game for both sides. They each move the ball at will but can't quite get it done in the red zone.” Browns 11, Cowboys 5.
Who do you think will win, Browns fans? Let us know in the comments section below!