Browns at Cowboys – Game #10 Preview
Following the layoff, the Browns head south to Dallas on Sunday – the first time the franchise will play in the new Cowboys’ Stadium. This appears to be another tough match-up for the Browns, but ultimately one where they can pull out a victory. There are a few headlines regarding this contest – including facing “America’s Team” and the two high-profile owners (who will likely garner several mentions during the contest). Add that to the rumors of Browns’ president Mike Holmgren potentially taking the Cowboys’ coaching job in 2013 if it becomes available, and this contest may have a fair amount of off-the-field intrigue.
Offense: The Cowboys will face another rookie quarterback for the second consecutive week when they go against Brandon Weeden. Last Sunday, Nick Foles came in to relieve the injured Michael Vick; the University of Arizona signal caller had a decent outing with 219 yards, one touchdown, and an interception. Whether Weeden’s supporting cast is as talented remains to be seen, but I believe the Browns’ quarterback is better than the Eagles’ rookie (who saw his first regular season action last week). Weeden will, no doubt, see pressure most of the day from the likes of DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, and Victor Butler (to name a few). The defensive coordinator of the opponent is former Browns’ assistant Rob Ryan, who has a philosophy of employing multiple blitzes and rushes to disrupt offenses. Weeden will have to get the ball out rather quickly – especially during third down and long. It may be advantageous to keep the ball on the ground (on earlier downs) in order to create manageable situations. Regardless, the rookie must play much better than he did against the Ravens and eliminate any turnovers – the Cowboys offense will make the Browns pay if they do.
LeSean McCoy (and the group of Philadelphia running backs) performed well against the Cowboys, given the number of carries. The veteran averaged over five yards per carry on sixteen carries (82 yards total), including a run of twenty-three yards. Judging from these stats, Trent Richardson can have success on Sunday. As with many of the past few games, there will be two main focal points around the rusher: the health of the star and to what capacity the team will use him. I envision similar outcomes to the past few weeks – the rookie should get around twenty carries for just over one hundred yards. One (glaring) thing missing from the Browns’ last contest was scoring a touchdown – the offense needs to get Richardson into the end zone this game. He currently has five rushing scores and leaning on him may be the best way to get the offense going again after it has sputtered the past few weeks.
The Eagles were able to spread the ball to nine different receivers against the Cowboys; this has been one of Brandon Weeden’s strong points. Greg Little and Josh Gordon will both be facing tough matchups against rookie Morris Claiborne and veteran Brandon Carr (who had a touchdown on a returned interception last week), but they will be regularly targeted. Hopefully the experience gained this year will help them perform better than they did against a similarly talented group like the Eagles in week one. Provided both Josh Cooper and Mohammed Massaquoi are healthy, it will be interesting to see how playing time and opportunities are divvied up. Both were non-factors last contest, but have shown they can be reliable options for the offense. I look forward to one making a big play this contest; whether it is a long catch and run or just picking up a critical first down. Can Travis Benjamin be the wildcard and come away with a long grab or two? That is one of many questions Browns’ fans hope to be answered in a positive manner.
As mentioned, the offensive line for the Browns could have issues protecting the quarterback on Sunday. Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz will see DeMarcus Ware coming off the edge multiple times and may need help (whether it’s from guards, tight ends, or running backs) containing the pass rusher. Most of the pressure in their recent game came from linebackers – Alex Mack and the guards will not only have to prepare for the defensive tackles, but also any players filling the interior gaps. The running game continues to get stronger for the Browns; the offensive line has been doing a solid job at opening holes. I still look for improvement in this area though; watching the Houston Texans’ offensive line excel in person last Sunday, and the Browns have a ways to go to get near that level.
Defense: It will be the battle of disappointing units when the Browns’ defensive line squares off against the offensive line of the Cowboys. Pressure has been hard to come by, and the quick release of Tony Romo could continue the trend of the Browns’ front four not making things tough for their opponent. The first and second-string centers of the Cowboys were injured in pre-season, and the team began the 2012 campaign with a make-shift offensive line. For that reason, I feel the Browns should focus their defensive attack on the interior (rather than the edges). Assuming Phil Taylor and Athyba Rubin are near mid-season form, the pair of defensive tackles (along with the two rookies) should be given assignments to shoot the gaps on passing plays. The run defense may catch a break, as veteran DeMarco Murray will likely continued to be sidelined with an injury. This leaves the team with one main rusher in Felix Jones, who has been only a part-time running back (due to his smaller frame). The Browns must still focus on stopping the run but they will, more than likely, see many passing attempts from Tony Romo.
In the passing game, the Browns must figure out how best to contain Jason Witten. The tight end already has sixty-six catches this season (including eighteen three weeks ago against the Giants) and can have a huge game if not keyed on. The longtime veteran might not rack up a huge total of yards, but moving the chains is an important part of his game. The linebackers for the Browns must do something they have had a knack for – forcing turnovers. Unfortunately, Felix Jones has only lost two fumbles this season, but the team lost both games that those occurred. If D’Qwell Jackson, James-Michael Johnson, and Kaluka Maiava can be physical and punish the runner, the team may ultimately have success. Getting in the head of the opposing quarterback and forcing errant passes will be crux of scoring an upset of the Cowboys, however.
Romo has had games this year that include four and five interceptions; the veteran has thrown the football to the other team in six of the Cowboys’ nine games. Joe Haden, Sheldon Brown, and the Browns’ secondary must come away with extremely important takeaways. (More importantly, the offense must take advantage of these with touchdowns – not field goals or punts). The home team will likely have a good deal of passing yardage otherwise; thus proving that they can make it miserable for the Browns if no pressure or errors take place. I look forward to the steady improvement by the pair of safeties; they could be called upon to help with coverage on Dez Bryant and Miles Austin. Facing a team that does not have an outstanding third wide receiver, and Buster Skrine will be expected to blanket whomever he covers and make plays to help the defense.
Special Teams: It will be a very difficult task for the Browns to win the clash between special teams. Last week, Dwayne Harris returned a punt for a seventy-eight yard touchdown for the Cowboys. The team also limited the return game of the Eagles, not allowing the home team to get a huge gain. One area where the Browns may try to take advantage, is the fact that opposing punter Brian Moorman did not have a tremendous game (averaging just over forty-yards per punt); perhaps Josh Cribbs can help flip the field a few times with respectable returns.
Coaching: In some respects, Jason Garrett and Pat Shurmur are mirror images; both coaches have been rumored (in the media) to lose their job at some point this season. They also get second-guessed frequently on play-calling decisions – this contest might come down to which one makes a coaching mistake late. The Cowboys have a perceived more talented roster and may, as a result, be more aggressive (in front of their home crowd).
Prediction (My Record – 5-4): I believe the victory last week gives the Cowboys added confidence forward, which they will take with them into the matchup on Sunday. I think the home team will play very well but will succumb to an interception or two – thus eliminating a blowout. I think it’s another loss for the Browns, and the Cowboys come away with a 31-20 victory.