Red Right 88

In Cleveland, hope dies last

Browns vs. Buccaneers – What to watch for in Week 9

browns tampa previewThe Cleveland Browns kick off a week that will see them play two games in five days as they take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at First Energy Stadium.

The Browns are coming off a solid defensive performance against Oakland in a game that many seem to forget that the Browns actually won. Cleveland is a tidy 3-1 at home this season, and a win against the Buccaneers will keep the Browns on the edge of the playoff race in the AFC North and set up an important game Thursday night against Cincinnati.

Before they can start focusing on the Bengals, however, the Browns need to take care of business against Tampa, a team they haven’t beaten since 1995 as the Buccaneers have won all three meetings since 1999.

Sunday’s game marks the final one in a three-game stretch of “easy” games for the Browns and the 1-6 Buccaneers are ranked last in the NFL in both total offense and total defense.

So, no worries, right?

Well, maybe, but there are a few things to watch for if the Browns are going to make it to Cincinnati with something to play for on Thursday night.

Big vs. Little

Tampa Bay starting wide receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson are going to me an interesting matchup for Browns cornerbacks Joe Haden and Buster Skrine (hopefully Justin Gilbert will get some time on one of them instead of Skrine).

Evans and Jackson are both 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, giving them a considerable size advantage against Haden (5-11) and Skrine (5-9). The Browns faced a similar pair of receivers last season against Chicago, when Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery combined to catch 11 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns.

“They present problems on deep balls down the sideline. I think it’s hard to say you’re just going to press those guys all the time,” Browns defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said in published reports. “You probably need to play them more from off and take away some of the deep ball stuff or discourage them from throwing that. Our DBs know that they’re going to be in for a physical fight on Sunday afternoon.”

Exploit the weakness

Both teams enter the game dealing with the impact of an injury on the offensive line, and which defense can take advantage of those problems could determine the outcome of the game.

For the Browns, the offense has struggled in the past two games since losing center Alex Mack to a season-ending injury. Nick McDonald took over at center against the Raiders, allowing John Greco to move back to guard, but McDonald wasn’t very good as Pro Football Focus graded him at -2.2 in the running game and -1.8 in pass protection. McDonald also threw in a false start penalty for kicks.

In his defense, it was McDonald’s first game action since recovering from a wrist injury, so perhaps with another week of practice he will be better.

Rookie guard Joel Bitonio will also have his hands full with Tampa defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who Pro Football Focus ranks as the league’s best defensive tackle with a +21.3 overall grade and +22.3 pass rush grade this season.

In addition to McCoy, the Tampa defensive line features William Gholston, who is third among 4-3 defensive ends with a 10.7 Run Stop Percentage to go along with 13 stops in the running game.

The last time the Browns faced a team with a solid defensive line was against Jacksonville, and we all know how that turned out.

Tampa has its own problems, though, as starting left tackle Anthony Collins may miss the game, meaning the Bucs could turn to old friend Oniel Cousins as the starter. With Cousins being, well, Oniel Cousins, and Paul Kruger, who had three sacks last week against the Raiders, playing at a high level, that is one matchup that should work in favor of the Browns.

A team effort

After scoring 31 points against Pittsburgh, the Browns offense has had a bit of a course correction over the past two weeks.

Running backs Ben Tate, Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West have average just 1.9 yards over their past 55 combined rushing attempts, and the offense has converted just 10 of their last 40 third-down attempts.

On the flip side, Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer has played well at home, posting a quarterback rating of 104.6, completing 63.6 percent of his passes while throwing for four touchdowns and not taking a sack.

The defense has also forced six turnovers over the past two games and Tampa’s Mike Glennon has turned the ball over in four consecutive games as the Buccaneers starting quarterback. If the Browns can bring pressure and force Glennon into some back throws, there could be opportunities for the defense to make a game-changing play or two.

While it would be nice to see the offense return to putting up 28 points a game while running the ball with abandon, the fact is that’s not happening right now as the Browns are struggling to adjust to opposing defenses taking away the running game.

The Browns are taking a hit this week as tight end Jordan Cameron will miss the game after suffering a concussion against Oakland (it wouldn’t be a surprise if he misses the Cincinnati game as well). Jordan’s absence, and the drop off in the running game, has started to expose the wide receivers a bit, as the group hasn’t been as productive in recent weeks without the threat of a running game. (Andrew Hawkins, excluded.)

That being said, if the offense can get back on track against Tampa – the Bucs’ defense has to be ranked last for a reason – the Browns should have an easy time of it. If they can’t? Well, then it’s up to the defense – Tampa’s offense has to be ranked last for a reason – to carry the water, which is OK.

It’s a team game and there is nothing wrong with one unit picking up the slack for another.

The Prediction

This week’s game is much like last week’s outing against Oakland. If the Browns want to show the NFL that they are a team worth noticing, they need to beat the Buccaneers, especially at home.

Tampa is not as bad as the team that gave up 56 points to Atlanta earlier this season – they beat Pittsburgh and have loss twice in overtime – but they are not very good either.

If the offense can stay committed to the run, if Hoyer can continue to play well at home and not turn the ball over, and if the defense can continue its recent stretch of decent play, the Browns should walk off the field with a 5-3 record, setting up a meaningful primetime showdown with the Bengals.

That may sound like a lot of ifs, but this week we’re confident the Browns can get it done.



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