Game #7 Preview – Browns @ Packers
For the first time in eight years, the Browns travel to Lambeau Field to do battle in the regular season. Much has changed since then, but they will be looking to replicate the type of game that Trent Dilfer and Braylon Edwards put together to beat the home team. The Packers are coming off a pair of outstanding games against the Lions and Ravens, while the Browns had a horrendous second half last week. This could be viewed as one of the most difficult contests in 2013 and the Browns will have their hands full; it will be up to the locker room to block out the negatives and pull out an unlikely victory.
Offense: I do not envision a scenario where Brandon Weeden has a stellar outing against the Packers. The quarterback has been decent at times (or in “spurts” as Chud labeled it), but multiple mistakes seem to plague him routinely. Like several defenses in the NFL, the home team can be thrown upon fairly easily; i.e. Joe Flacco tossed thirty-four passes for 342 yards and a pair of scores last week. However, the defenders also sacked the Ravens’ quarterback five times – there’s no reason to believe this won’t continue at Lambeau. Weeden has not been able to handle pressure, as evident by taking sacks and turning the football over. I hope Chud and Turner employ shorter routes and three-step drops on third downs, so the quarterback can get the ball out quickly. After it’s all said and done, I expect a performance similarly to that of last week. This includes a few touchdowns, some sacks taken, and a toss to the opponent (I would bet against a second pick, however).
Situations did not dictate it, and the Browns strayed from running the football late in the game against the Lions. I hope that does not happen again, because both Willis McGahee and Chris Ogbonnaya have shown an ability to find a crease in the defense and take advantage. Ray Rice was limited to thirty-four yards against the Packers last week, and it will be a tough task to outperform one of the best running backs in the league. Yards will not be plentiful for any of the backs, but the coaches can still use the running attack to set up scores – whether it is by touchdown or field goal. In the receiving game, the delayed out route to Ogbonnaya in the red zone has been successful, to the tune of two touchdowns. If the Browns want any shot in this game, they will need a wildcard like this to go in their favor.
Assuming Weeden is able to, the Browns are in prime position to spread the football around in the passing game. Micah Hyde, Sam Shields, and M.D. Jennings permitted the Ravens to get the ball to six different athletes multiple times. I have no doubt that Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron will perform to their capabilities, but it will be up to Greg Little, Travis Benjamin, and Davone Bess to pull their weight. At this point, Greg Little appears to be a possession receiver. Having said that, I would like him to run routes where he can find an opening in the defense and wait for the football. This could lead to first downs and a change in coverage. Gadget plays seem to be the only times Benjamin gets the ball on offense; I am certain the staff will come up with a couple this week, and I expect them to work. After garnering some first down conversions earlier in the season, Davone Bess has been a bit of a disappointment. A bounce back game would be welcomed, as the defenders will probably not give the former Dolphin much consideration in their game plan.
Even without the services of Nick Perry and Clay Matthews, the defensive front for the home team will be relentless. The guys upfront must prevent blitzes from A.J. Hawk, Micah Hyde, and others from becoming huge losses for the offense. Pressure will more than likely come from up the middle, so Alex Mack, John Greco, and Shawn Lauvao will have their hands full. Due to the quarterback’s tendency to hold onto the football a little while, I see at least two or three sacks taken by the visitors. The offensive line will not be blocking for a 100-yard runner, but if they can initially push back defenders on running plays, then that part of the offense will be considered satisfactory (at the very least).
Defense: Coming off an underwhelming performance, the defensive line must focus on winning at the point of attack. The three guys upfront were far from dominant and could not stop plays before they developed. Now they are facing a team with a rookie rusher who is fresh off a 120-yard performance on twenty-three carries. The Browns must find a way to slow him down when the ball is in his hands. Another thing to watch for is the pocket presence of Aaron Rodgers – he is not extremely fast, but the quarterback can pick up several yards while running from defenders. The Browns allowed a huge third down conversion on a Matt Stafford scramble last week; this defense cannot afford for this to happen again. Desmond Bryant has provided the most pressure upfront when defending the pass; I look for this to be case again. If he can blow by the offensive line, then he may incur double-teams, which will yield opportunities for other defenders to make a play.
Getting Jabaal Sheard back from injury could be huge for the linebacker unit. Paul Kruger has been playing nearly every snap, and his performance has suffered as a result (just one sack this season). A healthy four-man rotation could work wonders, and I expect this group to get at least a pair of takedowns. Having a fresh duo among Sheard, Kruger, Mingo, and Groves will cause the pocket to collapse from the outside (on passing plays). There is no Reggie Bush on the Packers’ roster, but the home squad still has Eddie Lacy and Jermichael Finley as dependable receiving options. Craig Robertson and D’Qwell Jackson must improve in coverage, as they will be counted upon in a lot of plays and cannot afford to be the weak link of the defense.
It will be up to Joe Haden to mirror Jordy Nelson on Sunday; the former Kansas State star had four grabs for 113 yards and a touchdown against the Ravens. If the cornerback can limit the receiver, then the Browns will have a shot at the upset. Buster Skrine and Chris Owens have had issues covering second and third wide outs in 2013. Depending on James Jones’ status, there’s a chance that Jarrett Boykin could be the next man up for the Packers. He is a speedster who Skrine should be able to keep pace with, however he is giving up a couple of inches to the receiver. I want to see both safeties be a bit more reliable in pass coverage; T.J. Ward and Tashaun Gipson have shown an ability to make tackles and secure interceptions. However, they have been shamed by a few quarterbacks’ throws as well – if this continues, it will be a long day for the visitors.
Special Teams: Status quo will likely be on display in both the kicking and punting games, and both teams will probably be identical in these categories. Tandon Doss came up with a thirty-eight yard punt return against the Packers last Sunday; if the Browns can pin the opponent deep in their own territory, I look for Travis Benjamin to get a shot at some long punt returns. This is another contest where the visitors can win the battle of special teams, but they must get it done on the field.
Coaching: The coaches will be incredibly challenged to figure out the best way to win. Although the opponent has sustained injuries to wide outs, Aaron Rodgers can still find open targets. Offensively, some first and second-string linebackers will not be on the field for the Packers. Will the Browns employ more crossing routes and design plays up the middle? Correctly answering these questions are vital for success on Sunday.
Prediction (My Record: 3-3): I can see the Browns playing hard and having some achievements in this contest. The visitors will keep it close for a majority of the game – only to witness a backbreaking play by Rodgers and the home team’s passing offense. The Packers win this one by the score of 31 – 20.