The Cleveland Browns come out of week 10, their bye week, with a record of 4-5. The Browns defeated the Baltimore Ravens 2 weeks ago for their first victory over Baltimore in 11 straight match ups (Cleveland’s last victory over Baltimore was back in 2008). The Browns are clearly a team that is maybe 1 or 2 pieces away from being a true contender. A lot of that credit has to go to Ray Horton, the defensive coordinator, for helping scheme one of the best defenses in football.
BYE WEEK INJURY NEWS
Jason Campbell went down early in the 1st quarter against Baltimore, on the Browns 2nd offensive series. Campbell would miss the remaining 2 plays of that drive and return for Cleveland’s next offensive possession. Campbell has been diagnosed with bruised ribs (never a good diagnosis for a Quarterback, in particular a mobile quarterback) but is scheduled to play week 11, at Cincinnati.
Greg Little, who played a terrific game against Baltimore, has a sprained shoulder and is listed as day-to-day. Little has been arguably the most improved offensive player on this Browns roster.
The Browns are the most surprising team in football right now with a 4-5 record, and don’t look now Cleveland fans…but the Browns are right in the hut for the 6th AFC Wild Card spot, or even the AFC North division title. Many Browns fans, myself included, would argue that the Browns could realistically be 6-3 or even 7-2, squandering very winnable games at home against Miami and on the road at Baltimore and Kansas City.
Brandon Weeden is clearly persona-non-grata in the Cleveland Browns locker room. Weeden, who lost his starting job to Brian Hoyer after week 2, is probably the worst 1st round draft choice in Browns franchise history. Weeden was in the game against Baltimore for 2 snaps, and in one of those snaps he forgot to set his protection and was sacked for a loss of 10 yards. Weeden alone provides so many cringe worthy moments for Browns fans, that I’m going to rank him separately and give him a solid: F-. He gets an F- because as soon as he stepped onto the field on Sunday, I know I was not alone in saying “no, no, no, no, no, no, NO!” Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell on the other hand have turned into rather productive and efficient quarterbacks for Cleveland. Hoyer went down against Buffalo with a torn ACL on a horrific slide, which ended his season. But Hoyer had led Cleveland to 2 straight wins at that point in his season. Campbell is finally showing the flashes of talent that had Washington use a first round pick on him, just 8 years ago in 2005. Campbell who was an “on again, off again” starter for Washington, went through 4 offensive coordinators in 4 years in our Nation’s capital. Now that he’s finally in a set offense, Norv Turner’s terrific West Coast-style scheme, Campbell is finally delivering offensive numbers that make him WORTHY of that 1st round draft status. Campbell and Hoyer are clearly not the long term answers for the Browns…but anything has to be better than Weeden at this point.
Trent Richardson was supposed to be the star player on this Browns roster throughout this season, he didn’t make it past week 2. After making arguably the riskiest trade (in terms of a public relations stand point) in NFL history, the Cleveland Browns trotted out the rag-tag team of Willis McGahee (who was sitting on his couch when Cleveland called), Chris Ogbonnaya, Bobby Rainey (no longer with the team) and Fozzy Whittaker (who was still on the practice squad week 3). Needless to say, this Browns backfield is not breaking any Dickersonian esque records. BUT, this Browns backfield has provided production, and more importantly, protection to the Browns quarterbacks. Nobody was expecting Pro Bowl caliber numbers out of McGahee, and frankly he’s putting up the same statistics as Richardson was in Cleveland (and Indianapolis for that matter). McGahee is obviously not the long term answer at running back for Cleveland, but he can help the Browns manage the clock and will occasionally break out for a 7 or 8 yard gain. Whittaker has been tremendous as a check down route for Campbell over the last 2 weeks. Whittaker had MAJOR injury problems playing for Mack Brown at Texas, and he has bounced around the NFL from practice squad to practice squad, BUT “Fozzy Bear” (as I’ve been calling him) has shown that he can provide the burst of speed out of the backfield that McGahee or Ogbonnaya cannot.
The most inconsistent group on offense for the Browns, are the guys spread out wide. Josh Gordon has arguably been the best wide receiver in the NFL when you consider the fact that he was suspended for the first 2 games of the season and his quarterbacks have been Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell. Compare that to Wes Welker or Calvin Johnson, who have Peyton Manning and Matt Stafford (2 of the best in the business) throwing them the football. When you look at Gordon’s numbers, adjusted for those first 2 games, he’s the 4th best wide receiver in football behind Welker, Johnson and Julio Jones (who’s out for the season with an Achilles injury). Across from Gordon all season has been Greg Little. Little, who had a MAJOR case of the drops the past 2 seasons, has shown stark improvement and is certainly a candidate for “most improved player” on this Cleveland roster. Davone Bess has also earned his share of resentment from Cleveland fans. Before the game against Baltimore, where Bess caught 2 touchdowns and made a juke move that was so impressive it was played on repeat on ESPN, Bess had been allergic to the end zone. Bess also almost single handily lost the game to Kansas City in week 8. Bess had 3 critical drops (one of them coming in the end zone, and another coming on 4th down where Bess would have extended a potential game winning drive) and a CRUCIAL fumble on a punt at midfield (Cleveland would have taken over at the KC 40, in prime position to score). Bess himself nearly took full blame for the Kansas City loss, and he bounced back with the best statistical performance of the year. Bess is a veteran on this Wide Receiver squad that is showing why he’s a leader.
Jordan Cameron has emerged as the premier pass catching tight end in the AFC. That title previously belonged to Antonio Gates of San Diego, but Gates is obviously getting older and his production has been cut considerably since his incredible campaigns between 2007 and 2011. Cameron comes from the same mold as Gates, a basketball player who simply didn’t have the hops to make it to the NBA. Cameron is a HUGE target for Browns quarterbacks, and is not at all afraid to go over the middle of the field. Lots of Browns media have been high on Cameron since OTAs, and he’s showing why people were so high on him. Before week 9 against Baltimore, Cameron didn’t produce a fantasy football day below 10 points (I should know, I have him in 2 of my own leagues). After being the best draft pick Mike Holmgren made in his tenure as Browns GM, Cameron is a fixture for the future in Cleveland.
The Browns O-line is anchored by left tackle Joe Thomas. Thomas, since he was drafted 3rd overall in 2007, has been a fixture of the Browns running and passing attack. Thomas is one of the best left tackle’s in the NFL and is certainly well on the way to a Hall of Fame career. John Greco at left guard is certainly a serviceable player, but there is nothing particularly amazing about him. I believe he is a little bit slow coming out on his “pull” routes (where a guard on either side will run behind the center, creating a hole between the center and other guard), in particular on misdirection runs for McGahee. Alex Mack at Center is also one of the best in the NFL. There are certainly better centers in the NFL (Nick Mangold of the New York Jets is the first that comes to mind) but Mack fits the personality of this team and the city of Cleveland (a blue collar, hard nosed guy), he should be a fixture on this line for a long time to come. Shawn Lauavo is a guy who I have been high on for a long time. Taken in the 3rd round of the 2010 NFL draft by the Browns, Lauavo has been a productive linemen for the Browns since taking over the right guard position last season. In the same way as Alex Mack, there are certainly better right guards in the NFL, but Lauavo is a very productive player and you probably won’t find anything better than him within your free agent price point. Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle is the perfect compliment to Joe Thomas at left tackle. I completely trust Schwartz in any sort of protection package or blocking scheme. He is a guy who should be a fixture on this Browns o-line for a long time. A lot of the offensive line issues the Browns had early in the season, I truly believe is because of quarterback Brandon Weeden. The offensive line will go into each individual play with an already set protection package (that is standard football procedure, down to pee-wee leagues) BUT it is the quarterbacks job to then set that protection and give each offensive lineman his assignment. When Weeden stepped in for Jason Campbell early on against Baltimore week 9, he took a sack for over 10 yards. That’s because he did not set his protection and Elvis Dummervil went literally straight up the middle un touched. The Browns offensive line has been above average this season, and terrific when Brandon Weeden is not the man under center.
DEFENSIVE FRONT SEVEN
I’ve decided to grade the Browns defensive line and linebackers together as one unit. This is because the Browns love to change up their front seven, sometimes having as many as 5 down linemen (guys in the traditional 3 point stance) and sometimes having as little as 0 (in their “chaos” package). The Browns front 7, on the whole, has been nothing short of excellent. Since the defense really started coming together week 3 (when they were finally given some time off the field with Hoyer at quarterback instead of Weeden) they have been one of the best in football. Barkevious Mingo has not yet made a case for himself to be Rookie of the Year, but he certainly has shown breakneck speed and a real talent for getting after the ball. Paul Kreuger has occasionally taken a stupid penalty, but has been a terrific free agent signing for Cleveland. Desmond Bryant has also become a great contributor on the right side of the defense. Jaabal Sheard is arguably the most improved defensive player on this Browns team (right in the competition with defensive back Buster Skrine, but we’ll get to him). Sheard has been a true leader for this Browns front 7, and should be for years to come. But, Cleveland despite blitzing constantly has not been getting to the quarterback enough. Eventually one of those blitz packages is going to come back to haunt the Browns. They need to be better at getting to the opponents quarterback if they want to be taken seriously in the AFC.
The Cleveland Browns secondary has been nothing short of tremendous this year. Joe Haden has emerged as a truly lockdown cornerback in the same conversation as Darelle Revis or Antonio Rodgers-Cromartie. Haden, in my opinion, is the most valuable weapon on this Browns roster. It doesn’t matter if you put him up against a high value tight end (like Jimmy Graham), a speedster wide receiver (like Dewayne Bowe) or even a huge down field target (like Calvin “Megatron” Johnson), Haden has been able to (at the very least) greatly hamper their production. Having Haden in your secondary essentially shuts off one half of the field with one player alone. Ray Horton obviously feels comfortable putting Haden on an island in man to man coverage, or having him take an entire half of the field in Cover 2 zone defense. Buster Skrine has also emerged as more than just a nickel back option for the Browns. Skrine last year couldn’t find his way out of Pat Shurmur’s dog house and eventually was dropped down to special teams and dime coverage. Now Skrine is arguably the most improved defensive player on this Browns squad (right up there with Jaabal Sheard). TJ Ward as well is becoming a very serviceable safety in the NFL. Ward is a hard hitter who came in with the same draft class as Joe Haden, back in 2011. Ward is certainly someone who deserves a contract extension to remain here in Cleveland. Although, there are a few issues remaining with the Browns DBs, mainly maturity issues. There have been countless penalties thrown against the defensive backfield, penalties that were not touchdown saving or needed by any means. If the Browns expect to contend in the AFC, they need to start playing mistake free football. The defensive secondary is no exception.
Cleveland Browns head coach, Rob Chudzinski, has clearly changed the culture inside the Cleveland Browns locker room. Chudzinski this season, if nothing else, has shown that he will not accept losing. There seems to be a fire lit under this Browns squad, and I fully give credit to Chudzinski and the front office (led by Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi as CEO and GM respectively). When it came time to make a tough decision, the coaching and management team both agreed that Trent Richardson needed to be moved away from the team for as much value as possible. The fact that this coaching staff is trying to move as far away from previous regimes as possible, is an impressive sign and commitment towards winning. The Browns are also led by defensive coordinator Ray Horton and offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Turner was previously the head coach of the San Diego Chargers (and a long time ago in a galaxy far far, he was also the quarterbacks coach for the OLD Cleveland Browns) and clearly is bringing that experience with him. Turner is a quality coordinator who at some point will likely be offered a head coaching position. Horton is also an NFL journeyman, most recently being the defensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals. Horton is one of the best in the business at designing blitz packages, and it is clearly working thus far in Cleveland.
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