The Cleveland Browns are hosting the New England Patriots on Sunday, so we spoke with Chris Pokorny of Dawgs By Nature to get the inside scoop.
1. Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson are huge parts of the Browns offense. Has anyone been able to slow them down and, if so, how did they do it?
To this point, nobody has been able to slow Cleveland's rushing attack down -- even though the Browns sacrificed pass protection this offseason when they lost C Alex Mack and RT Mitchell Schwartz to free agency, their replacements have excelled in run blocking.
The thing with Cleveland's running game is that it's not just a, "we're going to run the ball 50 times down your throat because we can." Head coach Hue Jackson has been selective with his play calls, and the assistant coaches deserve a lot of credit because despite some shuffling (due to injuries) on the line, the communication and execution of pulling linemen and our fullback has been very good. On top of that, both players are often making the first man miss -- Crowell does it with his power, and Johnson does it with his shiftiness.
We're still waiting for the other shoe to drop and for a team to stifle Cleveland's ground game. Another reason it's been successful is the threat of Terrelle Pryor operating the read-option in some packages. The team didn't do it last week against Washington because, as head coach Hue Jackson bluntly said, they thought they had the big advantage over Washington already just with your typical runs. The week before against the Dolphins, Pryor forced 1-2 defensive players to keep their eyes on the quarterback, which allowed the running back an extra hair of a second to get upfield before contact.
2. How has Terrelle Pryor turned into one of the most exciting players in the NFL? Is there anything he can't do?
Two weeks ago, we all joked that the Browns should've just put him in the game at kicker (the Browns missed three field goals with a new kicker in that game, including one that would have won it at the end of regulation).
This preseason, the transformation I saw with Terrelle Pryor was incredible. His route running was polished compared to December of last year; if I had been watching him for the first time, I would have had no idea that he was "new" to this. He wasn't dropping any passes, and was able to get open deep. The big challenge to start the regular season was to see how he'd fare against press coverage, and he's passed that test with flying colors so far.
If there is one element of his game that I think he still needs to work on, it is getting more comfortable with running his go routes and maintaining a fair position in bounds for the quarterback to get him the ball. He was able to succeed at this in the preseason, but in the regular season, defensive backs kind of wall him off to the sideline, which slows him down a tad and makes it difficult for him to haul in the passes.
The fact that he can throw the ball relatively decent and is a threat to out-run an entire defense is a nice gadget to have for certain packages. Because of Pryor's athleticism, he can make the read-option work as opposed to something that has seemed to fade in the Wildcat. Now, the big question for Cleveland fans is how soon can we lock Pryor up long-term, and how much will it cost? Even with such a small sample size, the fear is already there that he could out-price the Browns.
3. The Browns strength has to be their offensive line, but injuries are mounting. How does Cody Kessler handle pressure? Can he scramble?
Cody Kessler doesn't have stone feet -- he can scamper toward the sideline to extend a play a little. However, you're not going to see him do that unless pressure is coming right at him, and it's not something he cares to do at this point. There have been a few times where it appeared as though he could have gained two or three yards by running the ball for a first down after he scrambles, but instead he's opted to take the extremely safe route by just tossing the ball out of bounds.
Last week, I was surprised at how effective Kessler was at finding wide open receivers on quick decisions when Washington brought pressure. However, that might be more attributable to how bad of a defense the Redskins have. He has missed a few opportunities on heavy blitzes over the past two games. I can recall two plays in which he had one-on-one coverage and threw the fade or another route when the receiver was running the opposite option route.
No matter how you put it, with or without pressure, the part of Kessler's game that needs to improve is his downfield throwing. Everything right now it 10 yards or shorter, and although he's accurate on those passes and has had some success, to be a starter in this league, you need to occasionally be able to push the ball downfield.
4. How has the Cleveland defense fared against tight ends this season?
The Browns' defense has been ripped apart by tight ends. It's probably their No. 1 weakness defensively. Dennis Pitta converted an absurd amount of third downs for the Ravens several weeks ago as Cleveland generally left him uncovered. Last week, I anticipated a big game for Redskins tight end Jordan Reed, and he caught two touchdowns in the first half.
This offseason, the Browns changed both of their starting safeties and replaced them with youth. Nobody in the unit has shown the ability to hang with good receiving tight ends. At inside linebacker, the team also tried to get younger by replacing Karlos Dansby, who was one of the best coverage linebackers in football, with Demario Davis, who had a history of struggling in coverage against the Jets. All of those liabilities were on display against the Redskins last week, which you can take a peek at here in our film study of the Redskins' first touchdown drive of the game.
5. The injury report looks pretty rough for Cleveland. What would you consider to be a strength of the Browns on both sides of the ball?
On offense, I've already talked about the strength of the running game and Terrelle Pryor. Those are good core pieces to have. The hidden strength is the playcalling of Hue Jackson. When you look at the sheer amount of youth on this roster, it'd be easy to say that this team has no business even competing in NFL football games right now. Jackson's creative playcalling keeps opposing defenses off-balance. I mean, who would guess that the Browns, at 0-4, have the 12th-ranked offense in the NFL?
On defense, there isn't one particular strength that stands out, as this is a very young group that is doing better than expected, but still has an abundance of lapses that has them giving up an average of 28.8 points per game. The most surprising player (in a good way) is nose tackle Danny Shelton. He did not meet expectations as a rookie, and this preseason, he seemed to be really struggling. Once the regular season started, though, he turned in arguably the three best performances of his career, which included a great run-stop percentage. He's just one player, though, so that's why it's not a standout strength when teams can exploit the defense in so many other ways.