The Cleveland Browns may be catching break on Sunday when they host the Carolina Panthers at FirstEnergy Stadium.
The Panthers come into the game riding a four-game losing streak and with starting quarterback Cam Newton sporting a sore right shoulder that has coincided with Carolina’s fading playoff hopes.
While Newton and the team has been putting on a good front about the extent of the injury, the results speak for themselves, as Jonathan Jones at si.com pointed out this week:
In last week’s loss to Tampa Bay, Newton was subbed out for backup Taylor Heinicke for a second time this season to throw a Hail Mary. In the past three weeks on passes traveling at least 15 yards, Newton is 6-for-19 with one touchdown and four interceptions. On throws traveling more than 20 yards, he’s 3-for-12. The greatest air distance he’s gotten on a completed pass all season is 40.5 yards, which is third-worst in the league behind 39-year-old Josh McCown and rookie Nick Mullens. A second offseason shoulder surgery in three years is likely for Newton once the season is complete.
Newton may be hurting, but the Browns are still wary of what he can do on the field, as safety Jabrill Peppers told ohio.com:
“A guy that big and can move that well and is so nimble, it definitely creates a problem in terms of bringing him down in the pocket or even when he gets out on those designed quarterback runs. He can be a problem. He’s 6-5, 250-260. He’s bigger than most running backs. We’re just going to try to make him beat us with his arm.”
Not having to worry about the deep ball would certainly be a plus for the Browns, especially given that the Panthers enter this week’s game averaging 140.8 yards per game, the league’s second-best mark. Carolina took it to another level the past two weeks as they averaged 194 rushing yards and 8.45 yards per carry in their games against the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The #Browns defense has allowed 17.8% of opponents’ rushes to go for 10+ yards, the worst rate in the league.— PFF CLE Browns (@PFF_Browns) December 4, 2018
The #KeepPounding offense has rushed for 10+ yards on 19% of their rush attempts, the best rate in the league.
Even though those rushing totals have not resulted in wins, the ability for the Panthers to break a big play in the run game - Carolina has rush for 10-plus yards on 19 percent of their runs this year, the best in the league according to Pro Football Focus - is something the Browns need to contain, as head coach Gregg Williams told clevelandbrowns.com:
“We are always after trying to eliminate the explosive plays. We did a really good job last year in the pass game. We have done it again here in the pass game. We have had a few runs pop. From a defensive point of view, you are always trying to make sure that you are eliminating those types of explosive plays. We had a couple of those last week. We played really dominant in a lot of different areas, but a couple of plays pop that put them into scoring opportunities. We kept them out of the touchdowns, but there were field goals. You have to try to keep points off of the board. They usually result on a series where there is an explosive play. We have to limit those.”
The Browns could be catching a break if Newton’s shoulder limits Carolina’s passing game on Sunday.
The defense just needs to make sure that the Panthers don’t turn that perceived advantage against the Browns.