Friday, November 23, 2012

It's Brown Friday!

Forget Black Friday. It's Brown Friday, the Friday before the Steelers-Browns game.

Don't let the Browns' 2-8 record fool you. They are fully capable of beating the Steelers on Sunday in Cleveland.

They are "victory-capable," as Steelers' head coach Mike Tomlin might say. And they feature a star running back who has "a downhill run demeanor," as Tomlin actually did say during his press conference on Tuesday.

That running back would be Trent Richardson, the stud rookie selected third overall in last April's NFL draft, who is "as advertised," Tomlin said. Richardson has been nicked up by injuries throughout the season, however, and is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry, which is Rashard Mendenhallesque.  Still, however, Richardson  displays attitude, explosion and power, and he's done most of his damage as a check-down outlet receiver for rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, the Browns' other first-round draft choice this year (22nd overall).

Brandon Weeden
We have to talk about Weeden, the 28-year-old rookie out of Oklahoma State. While Richardson is the linchpin of the Browns' offense, Weeden is the quarterback. After an unfortunate four-interception debut in the season opener vs. Philadelphia, the Browns have stayed with him, and he's done better as the season has progressed.  Despite showing flashes, however, Weeden often plays like the rookie he is, albeit an unusually old rookie.

Whether by improvisation or by the design by Browns' offensive coordinator Ray Childress, the Browns have pretty much limited Weeden's downfield throws. “I think he’s really decisive and getting more so,” Childress said. “I don’t see him back there, nursing the ball at all. He gets the ball out."

Because Weeden gets rid of the ball so quickly, he doesn't take may sacks (16 in 10 games). It's hard to say how well the offensive line has performed, though, considering Cleveland's so-so running game. What we do know is that Cleveland's offensive line has two stellar players: Center Alex Mack (who, some argue, is better than the Steelers' Maurkice Pouncey); and five-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, who may be the best offensive tackle in the NFL. He will square up against Brett Keisel and James Harrison much of the day.

Childress has always run a wimpy horizontal, sideline-to-sideline offense, and Weeden has shown a tendency to immediately dump the ball to the running backs. That means a lot of check-down outlet passes to Richardson, who leads the team with 37 receptions for a 7.8 yard average.
Long-suffering Browns' fans

It doesn't help that Cleveland's receivers are less than average. Rookie Josh Gordon has shown flashes and can get deep (an impressive 19.6 yard average on 24 catches), but the other starter, Greg Little, wouldn't even be on the Steelers' roster, as injury-ravaged as it is. Yes, we are saying the Steelers would keep undrafted rookie David Gilreath over Little.

Cleveland just doesn't have enough play makers on offense, and the coaches have relegated the dangerous "gadget-capable" Joshua Cribbs so far down on the depth chart, he may as well sit in the Dawg Pound, he is that deep into the doghouse. Cribbs has gone out of his way to mouth off about his lack of playing time, and the more he bitches, the more he sits. Tomlin made a point this week to mention rookie receiver Travis Benjamin a 5'10" 165-lb. rookie from the University of Miami and a native of Belle Glade, Fla., which means he's fast. Tomlin really did describe him as "gadget-capable" and an "understudy" of Cribbs.

It's worth noting that Cribbs remains exceptionally dangerous on punt returns (13.6 yard average, which is excellent) and kickoff returns (28.4 yards per return, also very good).  He could take it to the house on any return, and he's done it before vs. the Steelers.  This season, the Steelers have surrendered two punt returns for touchdowns.

The Browns are physical on both offense and defense, we'll give them that. With a 4-3 defensive front, they mount a better pass rush than the Steelers. Tru dat. Spearheaded by former Pitt Panther defensive end, Jabaal Sheard, the Browns racked up seven sacks last week in Dallas, the Browns have tallied 27 sacks this year.

Back to the offense for a second.  The perception is they are a weak offense, and that's probably true. But consider this: Although the Browns have scored only 19 touchdowns in their 10 games this season, that number is just three fewer than the Steelers' 22 touchdowns. When it comes to scoring points, Pittsburgh's offense hasn't been that much better than Cleveland's.

Make no mistake: This will be a tough game.  It is Cleveland-Pittsburgh. But they are the Browns. Last Sunday they would have defeated the Cowboys -- but they committed 12 penalties for 129 yards, and a stunning seven of those penalties were called on the secondary.  The Browns have a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot -- no Plaxico Burress jokes, please.

This year's Cleveland Browns are physically tough, very talented at certain positions, very good on special teams play and are capable of beating the Steelers.  They won't.  At least we'd like to think they won't.  If they do, season over.

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