I am not going to sugarcoat this or try to blow smoke, but this Cleveland Browns squad is not a bad football team. Is the rookie quarterback struggling? Yes, he is, but there are some things that I really like about his game and what they are trying to do offensively.
On the positive side, Brandon Weeden has been able to take every snap so far this season, and if he has had his problems, on film it appears that right now he is not as accurate as he needs to be. I do believe that he understands where he needs to go with the ball and that would show you his smarts, but when he gets in trouble, he makes it difficult for his receivers to make plays.
What Weeden really needs is a ball-catcher on the outside that can make plays to get him out of jams. With this current group of Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi and Josh Gordon, he doesn't have that. I do like Gordon's game and I feel in due time he has the potential to be a star in this league, but he is a rookie now and still has a lot to learn when it comes to route-running and how to get open. Where he has been effective is in using his speed to get deep. Cowboys cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr will have to be ready for that because he has the ability to close the cushion quickly as he makes his way up the field. Of these Browns receivers, Gordon is the one that would worry me the most, just because of his explosiveness.
Another area of concern for the Cowboys on this Browns offense would be at running back. Rookie Trent Richardson has the ability to beat you in so many different ways. I always knew that he ran the ball well and with a physical style, but I lost focus in his ability to make violent start-stop cuts, attacking the hole and jumping out of them to take the ball in a different direction.
Coaches always talk about getting tacklers to the ball when it comes to bringing runners down. Richardson is not one of those backs that you can bring down one-on-one, and if you try to do so, he will break the tackle and add more yards to the run.
Where Weeden also uses Richardson – and this reminds me of how Peyton Manning used Marshall Faulk out of the backfield during his rookie season – was on check-down routes. When things breakdown, Weeden does a really nice job of hitting Richardson on the move, allowing him to get to the outside and in space. Richardson is one of those backs that looks for contact, and trust me, if I am seeing this on film, so are the Dallas defenders. This Cowboys defense needs to get ready for an all-day game against Richardson, who is one of those backs that will keep coming at you down after down.
I honestly don't watch many Browns games in my spare time, but after taking a peek at them the last couple of days, I have to say that I am very impressed with their offensive line and their ability to protect the quarterback. The Browns are outstanding at three of the five positions up front. The two tackles, Joe Thomas on the left side and rookie Mitchell Schwartz on the right, are as good a pair as the Cowboys have faced this season. I was extremely high on the Falcons tackles, but Thomas and Schwartz are better.
The challenge this week will be trying to get pressure on the edge against these two. Thomas is more of a grabber than Schwartz and is also smoother away from the line, but Schwartz can hold his own. It's rare that you see either tackle out of position or overextended on their sets. In the running game, they both can pull to the outside and look comfortable in space, or they can cut off the backside to help give Richardson a crease to hit.
Another area of strength on this line is at center. Alex Mack on film plays like an outstanding athlete. There are times where you see him uncovered and pulling on plays to the outside, but instead of lagging behind, he has beaten Richardson to the corner and gotten around it. Mack really does a nice job as a position blocker. He plays on his feet, and like these tackles, you rarely see him on the ground or struggling to finish his block. This will be an interesting matchup with Thomas, Schwartz and Mack handling the front seven for the Cowboys. These three players do an outstanding job of sustaining blocks.
Where the Browns have had their true problems this season has been on the defensive side of the ball. Dick Jauron is a fine defensive coordinator, but except for two or three positions, he is not working with very much. Like the Eagles, the Browns play a 4-3 front, although it's not the wide "9" that Philadelphia use with the ends.
Like the Cowboys, the Browns have had to go with backups along the defensive line and that has hurt the scheme in a lot of ways. Jabaal Sheard and Frostee Rucker are the starters at end with Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor at the tackles. Both Rubin and Taylor have missed time and will most likely be back in the mix against the Cowboys. In their place, John Hughes, Ishmaa'ily Kitchen and Billy Winn have not got the job done at all. In the games I studied, this group really struggled to get pressure.
Rucker is their best down linemen and they like to use Sheard in stunts to try and give him a run at the quarterback, but just looking at Sheard's size, he doesn't seem like a big or physical player, and he will line up over right tackle Doug Free. I believe that Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett will try and take the ball at him to see if he can handle it down after down, along with Juqua Parker when he is in the game.
Throughout the season, the one thing that has been a constant has been the number of outstanding linebackers the Cowboys have faced week to week. They have matched up against some guys that are athletes and others who are point-of-attack players. This Browns group, though, is neither. D'Qwell Jackson, James-Michael Johnson and Kaluka Maiava do nothing for me. I don't see them play with any stoutness or speed. If you take the ball right at them they struggle to get off blocks, and if you get it to the edge, they don't close to make the play. In this league, if your linebackers struggle, you don't make any plays on defense. Cleveland doesn't have that guy on defense who can make plays down after down.
In the secondary, the Browns best player is Joe Haden and it's not even close. If Haden does have a weakness, and the same can be said for Sheldon Brown on the other side, it's that he isn't a good tackler. And if the ball gets outside, he really has problems.
But Haden can cover and he can do it quite well. There is not much wasted movement in his game. He does a really nice job of staying in position in the route and rarely do you see much separation as he carries his man up the field.
Haden is not afraid to take a chance on a route, but I would not call him a "guesser," say, like Asante Samuel. I think he sees and plays the ball very well and he doesn't give you many windows to fit the pass in there. I think Garrett has to be careful in the way he attacks Haden because he is the one player on this defense that can make plays.
Sometimes when you are a struggling football team, one of the easiest units to fix is your special teams. You find players that might not be ready for starting jobs now, but they develop as the season goes on.
The Browns really do a nice job on their special teams overall, in part because they have one of the most dynamic and physical return men in the game, Josh Cribbs. The challenge for Cowboys coordinator Joe DeCamillis is to keep Cribbs from breaking this game wide open.
The one area where Dallas has been outstanding this season is in covering punts. Brian Moorman and his teammates lead the league in this area and will need to continue to do so against Cribbs. Garrett spoke of it on Wednesday during his media time that you need to get tacklers in position to get Cribbs on the ground because if you don't, he can make life difficult.