After Cleveland finished the 2007 season 10-6 and just barely missed the playoffs, some observers thought this could be the Browns’ year to take over at the top of the AFC North. The schedule-makers agreed, giving them five prime-time games (the most in franchise history, and one more than the Super Bowl champion Giants). But after coughing up two-touchdown leads late in back-to-back home games, the team sits at 3-6, three games south of the Steelers and Ravens and ahead of only the woeful Bengals in their division.
OFFENSE (#27 total yardage, #21 rushing, #25 passing, #25 scoring):
In September 2007, starting quarterback Charlie Frye was so spectacularly bad in the first half of the season opener, the Browns shipped him off to Seattle before the next game. And with No. 1 pick Brady Quinn scrambling to catch up after a lengthy training-camp holdout, the door was open for Derek Anderson to win the job. The former Baltimore practice-squad reject seized the opportunity, passing for 3,787 yards and 29 touchdowns to become the first Browns quarterback to be named to the Pro Bowl since Bernie Kosar made the trip 20 years ago. He cashed in after the season, signing a three-year, $24-million contract to remain in Cleveland.
But Anderson’s sub-50 percent completion rate this year, and his late pick-six to seal a loss against the hated Ravens (dropping the team to 3-5), had the fans chanting Quinn’s name. The Browns acquiesced, benching their team captain to hand the reigns to the projected franchise quarterback. Was it the right move? Time will tell, but Quinn got off to a promising start in his debut, completing 23 of 35 passes for 239 yards and two touchdowns against the Broncos, without taking a sack or turning the ball over.
The Browns-Broncos prime-time game had at least one very interested observer in Buffalo, with Bills head coach Dick Jauron impressed by the young quarterback’s performance. “Anytime in a football game you put 30 points up on the board offensively, that’s a pretty good evening,” Jauron said. “It starts with that because that the point of an offense. Then, possessing the ball, keeping the ball and limiting the number of times that you turn it over and all those things he did an outstanding job with. I thought he was accurate with his throws, he looked like he directed their offense without any problems and he did not look like he got rattled. Those are all big pluses for a quarterback.”
Judging by last week’s game, the switch could mean a change in the distribution of passes among the Browns’ receiving corps. Anderson loved to look downfield for Braylon Edwards, but with offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski seeking to protect the inexperienced Quinn by working underneath the coverage, Kellen Winslow caught a season-high 10 passes for 111 yards and the first two-touchdown game of his career. Still, don’t expect the Bills defense to shut out Edwards; he’s caught at least one pass in every NFL game he’s played, a streak that currently stands at 51. The other starting wideout spot has been a problem; Joe Jurevicius has missed the entire season after developing a staph infection following knee surgery, and free-agent pickup Donte’ Stallworth is just as fragile as ever. That left the memorable duo of Syndric Steptoe and Steve Sanders to share time on the other side for the first four games, with underwhelming results. The Browns will likely use plenty of two-tight end sets to compensate, with veteran Steve Heiden joining Winslow on the field, and also sneak special-teams star Joshua Cribbs (yes, Joe’s nephew) onto the field on offense every now and then.
Workhorse Jamal Lewis leads the team in rushing again (167 carries – 593 yards, 4 TDs), but he’s averaging just 3.6 yards per carry – almost a full yard under last year’s numbers – and after the Browns’ second straight fourth-quarter meltdown, he questioned the effort put in by some of his teammates. This situation bears watching. Backup Jason Wright and change-of-pace back Jerome Harrison get a few plays here and there; fullback Lawrence Vickers didn’t practice all week and is listed as doubtful for this game.
The Browns could also be without one of their best offensive linemen, left guard Eric Steinbach, who missed last week’s game with a torn abdominal muscle and was limited in practice. If he can’t go on Monday night, Seth McKinney will get another start between center Hank Fraley and Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas. Guard Rex Hadnot and tackle Kevin Shaffer give the Browns a veteran presence on the right side of the formation.
DEFENSE (#t27 total yardage, #26 rushing, #21 passing, #t15 scoring):
After the Browns finished 2007 near the bottom of the league rankings in both rushing and overall yardage allowed, general manager Phil Savage went to work rebuilding the line. He traded a second-round pick to Green Bay for Corey Williams, for the Packers who shifted to left end in Romeo Crennel’s 3-4 set, and shipped starting cornerback Leigh Bodden and a third-rounder to Detroit to steal Pro Bowl tackle Shaun Rogers away from division rival Cincinnati, who thought they had a deal done with the Lions.
Rogers has been a disruptive force in the middle so far, leading the team with 4.5 sacks and adding six tackles for loss and 12 QB pressures. Jauron, who coached him during his stint in Detroit, isn’t surprised. “He did a tremendous job for us there,” Jauron said. “He was a force on the field, and there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to be the same player in Cleveland, and that’s what he looks like.”
Robaire Smith was supposed to complete the revamped line, but was lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon in Game 2, moving Shaun Smith into the starting lineup. Rogers (neck) and Williams (shoulder) practiced on a limited basis Thursday and Friday after not practicing at all on Wednesday; both should be ready to play, but if either is forced to miss any time, there’s not much depth behind them. And that run defense? As you can see by the numbers above, it hasn’t improved much, if at all.
Willie McGinest and Kamerion Wimbley line up at outside linebacker in the Browns’ scheme, but neither has made much of an impact this season. Wimbley, who notched 11 sacks in his rookie year, tailed off to five last season and has just two so far in 2008. Meanwhile, McGinest, who turns 37 next month, may not have much left. Shantee Orr, brought back when Antwan Peek was placed on IR, and seventh-round pick Alex Hall (St. Augustine), who has made an immediate impact with three sacks in limited action, should see more playing time on the outside this week. D’Qwell Jackson and Andra Davis man the inside, with the former leading the team in tackles by a significant margin.
Eric Wright took over as the Browns’ top cornerback when Bodden left for Detroit, and leads the team with three interceptions. The other planned starter, Daven Holly, blew out his knee in minicamp, leaving that job to Brandon McDonald. The second-year player has had his ups and downs ... mostly downs, lately, as he was torched by Brandon Marshall in the Broncos’ comeback win last Thursday. Expect to see more of Travis Daniels in the base defense on Monday night, and maybe even in the starting lineup.
Although he denies it, the team claims strong safety Sean Jones’ surgically-repaired knee is still bothering him, and they plan to rotate him with Mike Adams, who started while Jones was out. Brodney Pool is the free safety, with Nick Sorenson also seeing time in the backfield.
Phil Dawson, the last remaining player left from the Browns’ 1999 roster, is having another solid season in Cleveland. He’s 17-of-19 (including a perfect 15-of-15 from 49 and in), and connected on a 50-yarder in each of the last two games, including a career-long 54-yard kick against Baltimore. He’s never made a field goal in Buffalo, though, missing a 45-yarder in his only previous trip in 2004.
Punter David Zastudil is having a decent season, with a 38.7-yard net average and 13 of 41 kicks inside the 20. The cover teams are solid, allowing just 20.4 yards per kickoff and 7.1 yards per punt, both good enough to put them in the top seven in the league.
The unit is led by Joshua Cribbs, who Crennel calls the best special-teams player he’s ever seen. “He is a returner and a cover guy and that combination is kind of special,” the Browns head coach said on Monday. “As a returner he is special but when you watch the coverage plays he is involved in, you have an appreciation for what he is able to do. The other teams know that he is a good cover guy and he is still able to make the plays and get to the football.”
Cribbs trails only New England’s Ellis Hobbs in kick-return average, running one back 92 yards for a touchdown against Baltimore two weeks ago, and also leads the coverage teams in tackles.
Monday night will mark Brady Quinn’s first road start since college. Can the Bills defense find a way to rattle the young signal-caller, or will he be able to follow the same short-passing, control-the-ball formula that proved so successful for Buffalo’s opponents in each of their losses? On the other side of the ball, who’s going to line up at wide receiver across from Lee Evans? The Browns are vulnerable to the pass, and have given up a combined 71 points in the last two games, but can the Bills take advantage of a shaky secondary?
If the middle of the Buffalo offensive line can keep Rogers occupied, and if the defense finds a way to make Quinn uncomfortable, the Bills should win this game with the help of an amped-up Monday Night crowd.
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