Authors: Dan Bryden (@PlainMilksFine) and Chris Worthington (Follow on Twitter @C_Dubs87)
Stop us if you’ve heard this before: "This is the NFL, and on any given (Sun)day any team can beat any other team." Did you say stop? We thought so. The word "parity" has probably never been uttered more often than when commenting on the current state of NFL play. No winless team remains (yes, even Kansas City won a game), and only Atlanta stands undefeated at the season’s approximate halfway mark.
So when we write that, based on extensive film study and analysis, the Browns are a very solid team, we don’t wish to subscribe to the same tired narrative brought to us by talking heads. No, the Browns haven’t lit the league on fire so far, but we hope to convince our readers that this is a game that Ravens fans should not look past.
We have examined the Ravens/Browns first meeting in Week 4 as well as the Browns/Chargers in a soggy Week 8 matchup. This is what stood out:
The Browns Heavily Favor the Running Game
The Browns like run formations for several reasons: their lack of receiver depth, a solid run game, and a rookie quarterback. They run a lot of singleback sets with both one and two TEs. They also occasionally run two-back sets with their FB Owen Marecic. Fortunately for the Ravens, the Browns don’t zone rush often. Against the last three zone rush teams (KC, Dallas, and Houston), the Ravens gave up 622 rushing yards at 4.8 YPC.
Instead, the Browns use a power running scheme with man blocking and pulling guards. When the FB Marecic is on the field they like to run a weak Iso lead, where Marecic leads the way through the hole and takes on a man, probably the WILL. Cleveland also tries to get Richardson to the outside on toss plays, with pulling linemen and WR crack blocks paving the way.
Richardson’s fantasy owners know that he had a solid game last week against SD (including one of your writers, who had him on the bench. Shocking insider fantasy tip: it looks like Richardson has fully recovered from his rib injury). The SD game was played in cold, rainy conditions, and Cleveland was more or less forced to run the ball. Though Richardson was stopped for little or no gain several times, he still managed 122 yards on 24 carries (5.1 YPC). Even more impressive were his seven forced missed tackles, at least three of which came during his 26-yard run for the game’s only TD. And most impressive of all were Richardson’s incredible 68 yards after contact (more than half of his rushing total). Richardson is good at taking what he is given and always falling forward. He doesn’t have blazing speed but he has a great combination of quickness, agility, and power.
We believe that the Browns success will be tied to their running game. Against Baltimore in week four the Browns only ran the ball 15 times, which is not a recipe for success. In that game the Ravens maintained very good gap control on the line and tackled well. Also, the Baltimore secondary set the edges of the run well and blitzed efficiently. Unfortunately, Webb’s loss hurts a lot here. He was great at tackling near the LOS and was the best blitzer out of our secondary. Jimmy smith and Cary Williams are not good here (nine missed tackles between them for the year).
The Browns Passing Game Has Improved Dramatically
QB Brandon Weeden deserves a lot of credit here, and OC Brad Childress’s play calling has shown increased in faith in Weeden as well.
Interesting, the matchup in week four is a microcosm of Weeden’s improvement throughout the year. In the first half he felt a lot of pressure (Ravens blitzed A LOT). He did not keep his eyes downfield; he looked for his checkdown, Richardson almost immediately after the snap; and he threw 2 INT-worthy throws (the Ravens didn’t hold on) due to poor defensive recognition. Here are a few specifics worth noting:
· Weeden didn’t recognize the zone blitz (Kruger dropped into coverage) or Man-Free-Robber (Pollard dropped into coverage)
· The play calling did not help Weeden. He was forced to make outside throws with heavy pressure.
But the second half was a different story. He seemed more poised in the pocket and played more efficiently. The play calling, obviously adjusted at halftime, helped him a lot. He began throwing short routes in the middle of the field in the voids left by blitzing LBs. In the first half, a beautiful 2-man route (a go route with a deep cross underneath) was wide open, but Weeden never saw the cross. In the second half he hit the cross on the same play for a big gain. He also saw success in the second half with swing plays designed to beat the pressure. Here are a few other complex (for a rookie) pass calls that he was given:
Now, Weeden still has limitations. He rarely attempts deep passes and those attempts are generally based off double moves (seam or wide). He sticks in the pocket, sometimes to the point of being detrimental, as hits and batted passes disrupted too many plays. He also stares down his receivers too often, and Reed had an easy time helping in coverage over top.
The Browns Defense Has Improved With the Return of Joe Haden
There have been a lot of stats about the Browns defense thrown around this week in fantasy world. ESPN has Cleveland ranked 28th against the pass. But they also have not allowed a passing touchdown in their last two games (since Haden’s return). Then again, that SD game was played in conditions that made it nearly impossible to pass. So how will the Browns D stack up against Baltimore this week?
Against the run, Cleveland defenders seem to flow very quickly to the ball, especially on runs to the outside, and don’t miss many tackles. Despite playing against a large number of run formations last week (mostly due to weather), they showed impressive gap control against the run. LDE Jabaal Sheard was impressive setting/squeezing the edge against the run. Joe Haden showed good run support and tackling from the secondary. And it was hard to miss how many tackles LB James-Michael Johnson made. He seemed to be in on every play.
Like we noted in our last Cleveland write-up, the Browns run a 4-3 Over and tend to stick to it. They don’t do anything too outrageous up front—not a lot of stunts—but their linemen are effective and play their gaps efficiently. Occasionally they will line up in Wide 9 on obvious passing downs. Both of their interior linemen, John Hughes and Billy Winn, got good pressure against SD, including a sack from Winn.
On early downs against SD, Cleveland ran a lot of cover 1 and cover 3. On third down, they clearly favored cover 2, although they began to vary their formation later in the game (showing Cover 3 Sky at one point). This is a departure from Cleveland’s defensive scheme pre-Week 4. Early in the season, the Browns rarely deviated from their Tampa 2 look. With Joe Haden back in the lineup and with CB Buster Skrine getting more experience, they are calling many more complex defensive calls. This transition to complexity hasn’t come seamlessly though. On the huge drop from Robert Meachum in the Browns week 8 matchup (would have been a sure touchdown), the Browns ran a double corner blitz with an odd Cover 3 look over the top (2 wide safeties and CB Skrine playing the deep middle). The coverage was not effective but the Browns got lucky.
To sum up this team’s defense, they have improved with experience and the addition of Joe Haden on the corner. They have very good LBs and defensive lineman against the run but this aggressiveness can be detrimental especially against play action. If the Ravens can succeed in the run game early, play action passes directed at short/intermediate routes will become very effective. Boldin looks to have a successful game Sunday (he has performed very well against the Browns in the past). Joe Haden will likely mirror Torrey Smith on the outside in an attempt to keep Baltimore from throwing the deep ball. Lastly, Cleveland will have DT Phil Taylor back from injury this week. He is admittedly not 100% and will likely be a rotational player on the defensive line.
Neither the Ravens or the Browns are built to come back from behind more than one score. Both teams need to be careful with ball control and field position in the beginning of the game. Hopefully the Ravens will build a slow lead against this stingy defense and force the Browns to abandon Trent Richardson and the run game.
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