It’s a Toss Up

Both the Ravens and Broncos games over the last two weeks could have gone either way.  Both of the games went into overtime, and the Browns managed to win one and lost the other.  I could see this week going the same way.  When the Dude asked me who was going to win this week, I answered honestly: I think it’s a toss up.  Let’s look at why.

On Offense

The Browns pass offense has been performing much better than most people anticipated it would going into the season.  Josh McCown put up impressive numbers in Weeks 3 through 5, throwing for 341, 356, and 457 yards respectively.  Even last week against the Broncos, who are currently ranked second in overall defense, McCown managed to put up 213 yardsa.  (In comparison, the Rams starting QB, Nick Foles, has only managed to put up 200 yards once this season.)  Overall, this season McCown has a 64.4 completion percentage and has thrown for 1,416 yards and 8 touchdowns (versus 3 interceptions) for a total QBR of 94.6.

McCown has had great help from a receiving corps that might still be the most underrated in the league.  Travis Benjamin is having a breakout season, with 31 receptions for 528 yards so far.  If he continues at this level all season, he could see a 1,000 yard receiving year, which would be quite an achievement for a guy most people thought was too small to ever be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL.  Similarly, former unknown tight end Gary Barnidge is making quite a name for himself this season.  Although he only has 23 receptions over the last 4 weeks, 5 of them have been touchdowns.  To be clear, that means almost 25% of his receptions this year have led to 6 points for the Browns.  The Broncos secondary is exceptional and intercepted McCown twice last week, but even they couldn’t stop Gary Barnidge in the end zone.

Much of the credit for the success of the Browns offense this season should go to rookie Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo.  In his short tenure as offensive play caller, Flip has shown that he excels at designing plays that highlight the skill sets of his players and minimize their downsides.  And, although the run offense has been less than stellar, Flip has neither abandoned the run nor stubbornly overused it when it wasn’t working.  I was admittedly skeptical of Flip replacing the polarizing but brilliant Kyle Shanahan going into the season, but I couldn’t be happier that all my concerns were unnecessary.

On Defense

This might be the most overly discussed understatement of the season, but the Browns defense is really struggling.  While the Browns defense ranked dead last against the run last season, it at least held opposing QBs to the lowest QBR league-wide–translation: horrible against the run, but great against the pass.  This year, the unit has regressed.

Despite adding defensive tackles Danny Shelton (draft) and Randy Starks (free agency) this offseason, the run defense continues to struggle.  Admittedly, the tackles have improved the north-south run defense, preventing more runners from heading straight up the defense’s gut for excessive yardage.  But the outside run game continues to struggle.  This, in large part, is a result of outside linebackers failing to set the edge and preventing runners from going outside.  No one has struggled more at this task than Paul Kruger, who has played more against the run this season as a result of Scott Solomon’s injuries.  Setting Kruger back in coverage has also almost eliminated the Browns pass rush (Kruger led the team in sacks last season.), which in turn has made life much harder for the Browns secondary.  And that secondary, which was supposed to be one of the best in the league this season, has been plagued by injury all season, with Joe Haden and Tashaun Gipson, both probowl candidates going into the season, missing significant play time.  The brightest spot on the Browns defense this year has surprisingly been the up and coming play of cornerback Pierre Desir, who has taken over the No. 2 CB role in Haden’s absence.

So About Those Rams

What does this mean this week?  The Rams defense is good… not Broncos good, but good.  They will pressure Josh McCown and they have the ability to slow down the Browns’ lukewarm run offense.  The Browns offensive line, and Josh McCown, will catch somewhat of a break because the Rams are down their star defensive end, Chris Long.  But this offensive line has not been playing at the level that was expected going into the season, and this would be a great week for them to break out, both by improving their pass protection and by creating more run lanes.  This week, I would love to see Turbin, Crowell, and Johnson turn into the three-headed run monster that I’ve been dreaming of all year.

And this almost goes without saying, but the Browns defense must step up this week.  Rams RB Todd Gurley is having an exceptional rookie year, and, if the Browns can’t stop (or at least slow down) the run, he will likely have an exceptional game tomorrow.  Hopefully, however, the defense can shut down the mediocre Rams pass offense led by Nick Foles and keep the score close enough that the Browns offense can pull out the win.

But, you know, it’s a toss up.

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