Cleveland Browns 2013 Regular Season Schedule – Analysis (Part Four)
Sunday, Dec. 8 at New England Patriots, 1:00 p.m. ET
Breakdown: The last portion of the schedule for the Browns begins with a tough meeting in Foxborough, Massachusetts, against the consistently great Patriots. This is the time of year when the home team gets into “playoff mode” – where they tend to play with more tenacity and urgency than they may have in mid September. Unfortunately, this begins with future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Tom Brady. He is a career 41 – 6 in December (over an 87 percent winning percentage), which is higher than any other month for the signal caller. Compare this to his 24 -11 September record (just over 68 percent winning percentage), and things do not look good for the Cleveland Browns.
The visitors must be prepared for a high scoring game – and executing (relatively) on pace with the Patriots’ offense. The opponent ranked no worse than seventh in the league in offensive categories like touchdowns, yardage, points, and turnovers allowed. On the flip side, the Browns will face a defensive unit that was porous at best – rated 25th in total yards allowed, 21st in passing touchdowns, and 25th in first downs allowed. It will be up to Brandon Weeden to get it done through the air; the Patriots do have deficiencies on their roster and hopefully the Browns can find the end zone several times as a result. The signal caller can not get baited into making a poor throw, as the strength of the home team’s defense is recording interceptions as they were ranked 5th in that category in 2012.
I hope the depth of the Browns defense will be on display in this contest – the Patriots run an up-tempo offense that could require multiple defensive substitutions. Doing so may be the only opportunity to score the huge upset, although it still seems unlikely. The Browns were able to use the knowledge of Eric Mangini to defeat his former mentor the last time these two teams played. Can Michael Lombardi (who worked with Belichick nearly twenty years ago) pull off the same feat as a General Manager in 2013?
Sunday, Dec. 15 vs. Chicago Bears, 1:00 p.m. ET
Breakdown: It will be interesting to see how the Browns matchup with their NFC North opponent late in the season. One storyline in the contest centers around Bears’ head coach Marc Trestman, who was a Browns’ former assistant (in the late 1980s). He has been a coach in football since 1981, but never a head coach in the NFL – until now. The Bears’ defensive coordinator is Mel Tucker, who used to occupy that position with the Browns in 2008. However, with so much change with personnel and philosophies – neither of the duo will likely be able to recognize their former franchise.
The Bears, in terms of offensive and defensive rankings, are the complete opposite of the team the Browns play a week earlier. The visitors are coming off a year ranked 28th in total yards, 24th in first downs gained, 22nd in passing touchdowns, and 18th in rushing touchdowns. This was part of the reason why the team went from a defensive coach to an offensive one – outside of a healthy Matt Forte; the Bears struggled to consistently move the football in 2012. A part of their woes were due to the inept offensive line; the team chose two a guard (Kyle Long) and a tackle (Jordan Mills) to help fill the void though. Will they pan out? Or can the Browns blow by these “green” professional athletes?
On the other side of the ball, the Bears were (once again) dominant on defense. Last year, they ranked no worse than 8th in the league in points allowed, yards allowed, and turnovers. Their main issue will be trying to replace a few veterans (like Brian Urlacher) on a unit that was deemed as aging. I look forward to seeing the Browns (especially Davone Bess and David Nelson) run under and crossing routes, in order to see how the linebackers can keep up with the speedsters. Should the wide outs be successful in doing this, can Weeden utilize the deep ball to Josh Gordon and Greg Little effectively? This could lead to a great deal of pressure on Jay Cutler and the opposing offense.
Sunday, Dec. 22 at New York Jets, 1:00 p.m. ET
Breakdown: The makeup of the home squad could be entirely different in this contest than what it could have been early in the season. The Jets drafted rookie quarterback Geno Smith in the second round – will he replace Mark Sanchez late in the 2013 season? It has been speculated that head coach Rex Ryan is on the “hot seat” and will need to have a great season to save his job. Will he still be coaching the Jets in December? These two questions are obviously reliant on the team’s success, and if Geno can supplant Sanchez and play well, it would look good for Ryan. Regardless, the Browns’ defensive game plan will be hard to determine until just a few weeks before the matchup.
If the Browns can be as successful as the visiting team’s opponents were last season, they should employ multiple carries of the football. The Jets are coming off a campaign where they were 26th in both rushing yards and touchdowns allowed. Personally, I would love to see the Browns open the game with several Trent Richardson carries and finish in the same fashion. The remainder of the game will be up to Weeden to take what the defenders will allow. The signal caller might not throw for several touchdowns or have a great deal of yardage, but if he can prevent interceptions (the Jets only ranked 23rd in this category last season), the odds of a victory are very strong.
Michael Lombardi’s philosophy of getting out in front early in contests is merited for three reasons. One, it allows linebackers to run freely and do what they do best – which can possibly put the team in position for more success. Therefore, whoever is quarterback for the Jets will now see frequent pressure. Will Geno Smith or Mark Sanchez be able to make the correct adjustments and beat the blitz? The Browns would bet against that. Finally, all NFL fans know about Jets’ fans – they are unruly and do not want to be disappointed. Falling behind early could lead to a disastrous atmosphere where the home team cannot make a comeback.
Sunday, Dec. 29 at Pittsburgh Steelers, 1:00 p.m. ET
Breakdown: For the second season in a row, the Browns finish off the regular season at Heniz Field – whether the situation is the same as in 2012 will remain to be seen, though. Following injuries to the first two quarterbacks, third-string signal caller Thaddeus Lewis got the nod against the Steelers. He played well, completing twenty-two of thirty-two passes for 204 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. However, it was not enough as the Browns fell 24 – 10 to a team recently eliminated from playoff contention.
Was this a one-year misstep, or will the Steelers have nothing to play for in the 2013 regular season finale? Depending on how this question is answered, the Browns could be in for a very tough matchup. Otherwise, the Steelers may hold out several members who are nursing injuries – thus giving the Browns an advantage (provided they are not doing the same). This would be great if this contest would determine either a playoff spot or seeding, but there are many variables that must happen first.
Offensively, the Browns will not have to see James Harrison and Keenan Lewis don the Black and Yellow uniforms they have worn the past few seasons. Now, in addition to veterans Larry Foote, Casey Hampton, and Lawrence Timmons, the Browns will have to see the development of rookies Jarvis Jones and Terry Hawthorne. Hopefully, there will be some drop-off and the Browns will not see as great of defense as they are accustomed to. Defensively, Le’Veon Bell and Markus Wheaton are going to be called upon for the home squad. The Browns were able to corral their opponent’s running attack last season, and now they avoid Mike Wallace (who they play in the season opener). Optimism could be had for Browns’ fans, let’s hope they play the way that some expect.
Recap: Another tough four-game stretch to close out the 2013 season; there will likely be multiple, new starters implemented here by all teams. Breaking the eleven-year drought (where the Browns have not qualified for the playoffs) will likely require at least two wins here. It will not be easy for the team, but doing so can garner momentum that will follow the franchise into the rarely-seen postseason.