Browns at Broncos – Game #15 Preview
The Browns head west to the Mile High City; Denver has not been too kind to the visitors in recent history (no wins there since 1990). This Sunday’s task will be no different, as Peyton Manning and the Broncos are sitting with the second-best record in the AFC and have a great chance to clinch a first-round playoff bye. The home team is on a long winning streak (nine games) and is cruising; it will take everything for the Browns to score the upset.
Offense: The passing game underperformed for the Browns last week; they will face the 8th best team against the pass in this contest. Brandon Weeden will likely not have a great deal of yardage through the air, but he must avoid turning the football over. Some of his issues earlier in the season popped up once again last week – this includes missing wide-open targets down the sideline. The underneath and crossing routes that usually yield success for the signal caller are becoming problems as well. Opposing linebackers have been sitting in the middle of the field, and waiting for the opportunity to intercept a pass (which occurred twice against the Redskins). Joe Flacco only put up 254 passing yards – along with two touchdowns, an interception, and was sacked three times against the Broncos. The Browns cannot afford to hand the football over to Manning; one interception might cost the team the game. Furthermore, Weeden must avoid sacks as well; these will set up difficult circumstances, which could cause the offense to force something and result in a mistake.
Just to make things more difficult, the Browns match up against the 2nd ranked rushing defense. Coming off last week’s pitiful performance, the members of the running attack for the visitors should have a chip on their shoulder. Realistically though, the Browns will probably not do well on the ground (statistically) – especially if they fall behind early in the game. Trent Richardson has not gone over the 100 yard mark in any of the previous five games; the odds of that streak continuing is extremely high. The rookie has been able to find the end zone six times in that span however; if the team can get near the goal line, the ball will be put in the hands of the third-overall selection of the 2012 Draft. I would like to see Montario Hardesty get multiple carries in this game; besides seeing how he holds up against stiff competition, it would be another test to see if the veteran should be retained. I personally believe the front office should keep the pair of backs going forward, but Hardesty was drafted (three years ago) by Tom Heckert – who may no longer be with the team after the season.
I have enjoyed watching the progression of receiver Greg Little – the veteran has had an improved second half of the season (averaging just under four catches and over fifty yards in his last six games). I anticipate the veteran will keep this going on Sunday, but he will face a tough tandem of cornerbacks in Champ Bailey and Tony Carter. One thing missing from Little’s 2012 season is routinely getting in the scoring column; the University of North Carolina athlete has just two touchdowns this year – I would like to see this total increase in the final two contests. The Broncos did a great job of shutting down opposing wide receivers last week; Anquan Boldin did not record a catch, while Jacoby Jones lead the group with a meager three grabs for fifty-one yards. Josh Gordon will have his hands full in Denver, but I hope to see the rookie recover from a less-than-great game last week. The home team surrendered a fantastic outing from the tight end position in their previous outing, as Dennis Pitta accrued seven receptions for 125 yards and a pair of scores. Jordan Cameron has been up-and-down this season but will have an opportunity to make his mark on this game.
Facing the likes of Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, and Derek Wolfe, and the offensive line for the Browns will face multiple challenges. The front four of the opponent has been dominant against both the run and the pass – the aforementioned trio has combined for twenty-nine sacks (that’s not a typo) in 2012. All five members of the offensive line must have their best game of the season and will still likely need help from Alex Smith or Trent Richardson in passing situations. Unfortunately, I have little faith the group will regularly create sizeable openings for the pair of running backs. As with many contests this season, the Browns will likely use the pass in order to set up the running game. They must do this tremendously, as well as score touchdowns instead of field goals, but the Broncos have not allowed more than twenty-four points in a game during their past nine victories.
Defense: The Browns have never defeated Peyton Manning in his career; if they want to finally beat the future Hall-of-Famer, a good starting point would be pressuring the quarterback. The Broncos allowed two sacks last week against the Ravens – it is possible to take him down. Pressure was hard to come by last week for the Browns though; they could not get to a rookie signal caller a majority of the game. Manning has been known to get the football out quickly, as well as be mobile enough to avoid defenders. Juqua Parker, Frostee Rucker, and Jabaal Sheard must all get behind the offensive line consistently. If both ends break free, Manning will have nowhere to go – one guy coming off the edge will not be sufficient. Knowshon Moreno has done an admirable job while filling in for the injured Willie McGahee. The University of Georgia star has put together back-to-back games of over 100 yards and a touchdown. Phil Taylor and Athyba Rubin must keep the momentum going from last week – if they can slow down Moreno; the Browns will limit their opponent greatly (although they still have to account for one of best quarterbacks in this generation).
Tight end Joel Dreessen is a part of a matchup that the Browns can win; the offensive weapon has averaged just less than three catches and twenty yards over his last five games. He has been able to find the end zone once in that span, but I believe the linebackers and safeties can limit Dresseen. In addition to improving in the passing game, D’Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson have to continue to be involved in defending rushing attempts. They have been two of the leaders in tackles practically every week; the team would be damaged if either or these two allow an opposing running back to get into the secondary (a few times). I enjoyed seeing Jackson make some open-field tackles last game – these are the staple of a solid linebacker. Like the Redskins, the Broncos have multiple, dependable wide outs with a big-play capability. The Browns, as a result, will employ more members of the secondary and may remove a linebacker (possibly Maiava or L.J. Fort) in key situations.
The release of nickel back Dimitri Patterson (an intriguing move by the front office) provides an opportunity for Buster Skrine to solidify himself as the third cornerback for the Browns. The home team has three main playmakers in Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Brandon Stokley who have a combined twenty-two touchdowns. Skrine and Sheldon Brown will see several passes they must defend; it could be a long game (for them) if Manning has his way. Joe Haden will likely have another solid outing, but with as many options as the Broncos have, the veteran may not have an ability to make a huge play. Lately, T.J. Ward has put together a few solid performances in defending the pass, but will miss the rest of the season with a bone bruise. It will be interesting to see how well Usama Young fills in at strong safety – he has been rather disappointing in the free safety spot. The veteran has not had his hand in a turnover in the past five games and was one of the three defenders whom allowed a fifty-four yard touchdown last week. I expect rookie Tashaun Gipson to get a great deal of playing time (which he has earned) – the athlete has had an interception and averaged over three tackles (in limited action) over the previous five contests.
Special Teams: One returner to watch out for is Trindon Holliday of the Broncos. The young veteran ranks 8th in the league in kick return average (27.3 yards) and 9th in punt return average (10.4 yards). He can make plays and find the end zone in either spot, should the Browns’ coverage units break down. Being in the higher altitude, both the kicking and punting units will net higher totals than they normally would; there will be more touchbacks and longer field goal attempts. Phil Dawson and Matt Prater are relatively on the same level, whereas I believe Britton Colquitt is the better punter of the two. Hopefully the veteran does not flip the field too often and make it extremely difficult for Weeden and the offense.
Coaching: Last week’s coaching display by Pat Shurmur proved the Browns are at a disadvantage at the helm. Offensively, the team cannot abandon the running game – especially if the score is rather close. Richardson and Hardesty will make it easier for Weeden to throw by putting the team in advantageous situations (shorter yardage to gain). Defensively, the visiting must do its best to disguise their coverage. Manning will hit his targets, so the best way to stop him is to force interceptions. Also, if the opponent adapts its game plan, the visiting team must do the same to avoid getting blown out.
Prediction (My Record: 9-5): The Broncos are clicking on all cylinders and have been dismantling teams (outscoring opponents by an average of thirteen points in their nine straight wins). If this game were in Cleveland, I would give the home team a shot. But alas, the Browns have struggled on the road with a 1-5 record. The Broncos win this game easily and the visitors lose their second straight game by a score of 34 – 20.