Philadelphia @ Cleveland – Game #1 Preview
The rematch is here, and this one counts! The Browns have not been successful in regular season openers the past few years, as many fans painfully recall (1-12 record, and eleven of those have come at Cleveland Browns Stadium). They face another difficult task with the Philadelphia Eagles, and the odds makers do not give the Browns much of a chance (around a nine point underdog). Nevertheless, this is still the NFL and anything can happen when the two teams take the field.
Offense: Brandon Weeden will face a defense that many veterans do not want to see, let alone a rookie making his first career start. The Browns’ quarterback struggled against this same team two weeks ago, succumbing to two fumbles from the defensive pass rush. I anticipate a couple of errors by the rookie; I just hope they can be lessened. For example, if he throws an interception, I look for the defense to rise up and force a three and out (as opposed to a pick six by the Eagles, etc.) If these types of things occur, the team could possibly have a puncher’s chance; otherwise there could be a lot of empty seats in the second half. One thing the rookie may have at his disposal for the first time this season is the third overall draft selection Trent Richardson – which should help the offense immensely.
The Alabama product will have all eyes on him, due his high expectations and the fact he has been injured all preseason and kept from full contact for about a month. When healthy and in the game, the Browns game plan will likely shift to more runs and screen passes to the rookie than if Hardesty, Jackson, or Ogbonnaya were playing. One thing the team did not see from these three running backs, during the past few weeks, is an ability to break off a long run. The team is banking on the rookie to accomplish this and cause the Eagles’ defense to adjust their strategy and play calling. How many touches he gets is still up in the air, however, and the score may dictate – more than anything – their use of Richardson.
After a somewhat disappointing preseason, I envision Greg Little to come up with a few nice catches in this game. Rookies Travis Benjamin and Josh Gordon will be targeted a couple times, but I would be surprised if they had big numbers in their first career game. Facing a tandem like Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha will be extremely tough for the receivers to find an opening and have productive days; it may take a slot guy like Benjamin, Jordan Norwood, or Josh Cribbs to get the offense going. Along these lines, the tight ends could compile some statistics as well – a now-healthy Ben Watson, Jordan Cameron, or Alex Smith could be the beneficiary in the Browns’ passing game when other teammates are not open.
Many people covering the team (and fans alike) still shudder at the Browns offensive line’s performance against the Eagles in the preseason. I hope the unit watches more film this week than they have in a long while; they need to be aware of all the scenarios the Eagles front seven will present. Defensive end Jason Babin is expected to return from injury and will give the Browns all they can handle; rookie Mitchell Schwartz will face the man who recorded eighteen sacks last season – not exactly a dream matchup. It’s fair to say the offensive line for the Browns will probably struggle at times during this game. I fear for injuries as a result but hope the team can hold up after a physical, first game of the season.
Defense: The pairing of Jabaal Sheard with Frostee Rucker and/or Juqua Parker will be seen by fans for the first time this season. The defensive ends will have to not only contain LeSean McCoy (the Eagles’ running back who rushed for over 1,300 yards last year), but also Michael Vick – who loves to bail on passing plays when he finds running lanes. Rookies Billy Winn and John Hughes will be involved in a majority of plays during their first NFL game, the duo will try to stop one of the best rushing attacks in the league. Helping them out is veteran Aythba Rubin, who holds the key for a successful rushing defense by the Browns – assuming he continues to be a disruptive force as he has been in the past. With the fast and physical style the Eagles play, this is one of those games where a rotation of multiple players will help, as the defense stays relatively fresh throughout the contest.
D’Qwell Jackson will be the leader of the defense on Sunday (as well as team captain); injuries and suspensions could have rookies and second year players along side him during the game. Proper communication is imperative between the linebackers, as one player slightly out of position could lead to a long gain or touchdown. L.J. Fort, Craig Robertson, and Kaluka Maiava will be called upon to step up and limit plays consistently. Judging by the speed and athleticism of the young Browns’ defense, I could see a few blitz packages (early on) coming Michael Vick’s way. The containment by the remaining defenders will be the difference between a good or great day by the opposing quarterback and whether the Browns switch to more of a base defense.
The philosophy of the secondary could likely be dictated by Joe Haden’s availability in the game (based on his possible suspension for Adderall use). Should the cornerback play, the Browns will employ more man coverage with help from safeties. The coaching staff is confident that Haden can keep up with Jeremy Maclin and Desean Jackson, two of the better wide receivers in the NFL. Should the University of Florida standout be held out of the game (by the league), the Browns will likely employ a more conservative (zone coverage) approach. Having Dimitri Patterson, who has been injured most of the preseason, available will be huge to the secondary at the Nickel position. However, second year player Buster Skrine has not shown an ability to cover great receivers – he would probably get the start opposite Sheldon Brown. In this case, the coaches will use all the help they can (from the secondary) so the opponent’s potential for a great passing day is lessened.
Special Teams: The issues that occurred the past couple of weeks in the special teams had better be cleaned up if the team does not want to get embarrassed. The Browns have no margin for error when it comes to field position – any blocked punt will likely lead to a short touchdown, and poor coverage can lead to a return TD from a returner like Desean Jackson. The Browns need to get an advantage here to make it as difficult on the Eagles’ offense as possible.
Coaching: It’s finally time to see the full arsenal known as the West Coast Offense (2012 version) for the Browns. I hope Shurmur does not put too much weight on Weeden’s shoulders early on – however if the rookie can exploit something, I hope the coach is not afraid to let the quarterback take a risk or two. Therefore, in addition to several shorter passes to running backs and receivers, I anticipate Brandon Weeden running play-action plays and going deep a few times to keep the defense honest – this was rarely seen by the 2011 team.
With all the youth at the linebacker positions, I believe Dick Jauron will utilize the team’s pass rush more from the defensive line. The younger players will likely be given fewer responsibilities until they prove they can handle them.
Prediction (My 2012 Record 0-0): The Browns open up with an extremely talented team at home – I see this game as a test similar to the 2008 opener when the Cowboys came to town. They trounced the Browns 28-10 that day, and I could see something like that happening again on Sunday. I believe the Eagles will win 27-13.