Breaking Down Cleveland Browns' Blueprint for Winning the AFC North

Matt FitzgeraldCorrespondent IIISeptember 6, 2012

Breaking Down Cleveland Browns' Blueprint for Winning the AFC North

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    There's that saying, "Crazier things have happened."

    If the Cleveland Browns manage to win the AFC North division, it might be right up there among the craziest things to happen in recent NFL history.

    Name an ailment that plagues this perennially star-crossed franchise.

    Rookies at crucial skill positions on offense; devastating injuries on defense, including a possible crushing suspension to a rising star cornerback; three divisional foes that made the playoffs in 2011.

    There's another saying, "If you can dream it, you can do it."

    I have fought through plenty of logical resistance, personal pessimism and multiple, multiple trials and tribulations on Madden 13 in an attempt to justify the Browns as a division champion in 2012.

    After searching in vain for a TJ Ward tweet to Browns fans from January, I even pulled some sound from the unofficial Kevin Garnett Archives to squeeze out some inspiration.

    Here's the blue print for a Cleveland Browns AFC North title that I dreamed up.

Trent Richardson Explodes as a Rookie

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    Unless the No. 3 overall pick is totally 100 percent from his arthroscopic knee surgery and goes on an absolute rampage, the Browns' offense will likely struggle.

    At 5'9" and 230 pounds, Richardson definitely has the wrecking ball-type body to shoulder a heavy load in the NFL.

    The question is how long it can last, and whether missing the entire preseason will cause him to hit the rookie wall more quickly than he might have without an injury.

    Richardson's combination of power, speed and agility is special, thus the extremely high draft status. He can also adequately catch the ball out of the backfield and pick up blitzers.

    Fellow rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden will likely lean on Richardson heavily on checkdowns in the passing game.

    The fantastic thing about Richardson, too, is that he has a knack for holding onto the football. According to his profile on RollTide.com, he fumbled the ball just once in 614 career touches.

    That type of ball security will be key for the Browns' season, especially with Weeden's aggressive style likely to lend itself to interceptions. Montario Hardesty is Richardson's likely backup, and he fumbled twice in the preseason.

    By pounding the rock and controlling the clock, the Browns may be able to wear down defenses and play keep away from the explosive offenses they face this season.

Joe Haden Emerges as Shutdown Corner

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    As vital as Trent Richardson is to the offense, Haden is just as important on defense.

    The 2011 Browns' secondary was considered among the best in the league.

    As reported by Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Haden's suspension situation is a bit complicated.

    While he will likely play against the Eagles while he appeals a four-game ban for a positive Adderall test, it's not as likely Haden will be available in the following four games.

    Against much tougher competition at the quarterback position (more on this later), Haden will have to emerge as an elite corner that can blanket one side of the field.

    I'm talking Revis Island-type lockdown. Haden's "House of Horrors," perhaps?

    Maybe the catchy nickname of Haden's territory can be refined over time if he does become the phenomenal player he's capable of being.

    Sheldon Brown is a solid veteran with some fight left, and Dimitri Patterson is underrated but is coming off of an ankle injury. Neither have the potential of Haden.

    While Haden's reputation is growing around the league, he needs to take that next step to give more flexibility to the defensive scheme, which lacks a good pass rush.

Front 7 Young Guns Must Step Up

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    Speaking of lacking a good pass rush, that is just one of the flaws of the defensive front seven in Celveland

    Middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson is the unquestioned field general of Dick Jauron's unit. He is asked to do a lot, and he certainly delivered in his first year in the new 4-3 scheme, leading the AFC in tackles in 2011.

    Thanks to a number of factors, Jackson's role will expand even more in 2012.

    Inexperience surrounds Jackson, and his fellow Week 1 starters at linebacker have a combined zero NFL starts.

    Kaluka Maiava and rookie fourth-round pick James Michael-Johnson were slated to start at weakside and strongside linebacker, respectively. However, Johnson went down with a hamstring injury in the preseason finale against the Chicago Bears.

    Stepping in for Johnson will be a choice of three undrafted rookies. Tank Carder, who was claimed off of waivers from the Buffalo Bills just last week, is in the mix. Also competing are 53-man survivors L.J. Fort and Craig Robertson.

    Veteran Joe Thomas is impressed by the progress of second-year defensive end Jabaal Sheard, as he told Cleveland Plain Dealer beat writer Tom Reed:

    "He's definitely got a lot more confidence and he's more stout against the run. It's going to be fun to watch him in his second season. I think he has a lot more potential and the sky is the limit."

    After an eight-sack rookie season, Sheard is going to be counted on to get the job done. Who else can pressure the quarterback, though?

    That's a question the Browns definitely need to answer, with a combination of free agent acquisitions Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker.

    Ahyta Rubin anchors the big men at defensive tackle. He will have to force John Hughes and Billy Winn to learn to thrive on the fly.

    Judging from the current roster, a lot has to go right for the defense to substantially improve against the run and in pressuring the quarterback.

    If Cleveland somehow pulls all of this off with such inferior personnel to their divisional counterparts, it may be considered a minor miracle.

    In order to win and win consistently this season, it must happen.

Chemistry in the Passing Game

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    Strapped with a full offseason as the presumed starter, Brandon Weeden is as prepared as any first-round pick to start in his first year.

    The biggest concern is whether he will be able to transition adequately from the system he ran at Oklahoma State to the pro style strategy and terminology.

    In college, Weeden used a spread offense that relied on spacing and tempo to run opponents into the ground. The approach will be much more methodical and difficult in Cleveland.

    In a West Coast system, the short drag and slant routes are based on timing, and Weeden may be able to take advantage of some of his speedy, athletic targets to make big gains on back-shoulder throws.

    It's all about chemistry, though, and the Browns need to put in the work to get it fast.

    Mohammed Massaquoi and Josh Cribbs are the grizzled vets of the receiving corps, but MoMass has had difficulty staying on the field, lately due to multiple concussions. Cribbs isn't expected to be used as much in the offense with the addition of so many skill players.

    Outside of that duo, the Browns have Greg Little, who was the team's leading receiver as a rookie last season but had drop issues. Then, according to the team website's depth chart, it's primarily going to be Travis Benjamin and Josh Gordon, who are both rookies.

    It appears Jordan Cameron has made a big leap in the offseason. However, he will be competing with Benjamin Watson and Alex Smith for snaps, and both have proven to be sure-handed targets as well as strong blockers, which Cameron has not.

    The offensive scheme itself is enough for Weeden to wrap his head around, but he has to hope his targets are studying as hard as he is to be on the same page.

Eric Hagg vs. Opposing Quarterbacks

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    Due to Hagg’s alleged emergence, the Browns let free agent Mike Adams walk, leaving the 2011 seventh round pick to fill in as the starting free safety.

    Cleveland had better believe in this guy, or else it could be a massive disaster for one of last year’s best secondaries.

    Hagg will be responsible for keeping things in front of him on the back end. That wouldn’t have been too difficult last season, considering some of the quarterbacks the Browns faced. To name several:

    - Andy Dalton in his first NFL start

    - Matt Moore

    - Jason Campbell/Kyle Boller

    - Charlie Whitehurst

    - Sam Bradford with ~ zero help

    - Curtis Painter

    - John Skelton

    Suddenly it seems clearer why teams ran the ball all the time.

    In 2012 the Browns will go up against a much tougher slate of signal callers, including Michael Vick, Peyton and Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, a rejuvenated Carson Palmer and the top two picks, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.

    It’s going to be a chess match between Hagg and a slew of very smart quarterbacks. It’s up to the Browns safety to make the right decisions and minimize blown coverages.

Vertical Threats Live Up to the "Hype"

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    Legendary musician Frank Zappa was once on a television show with his band, when he stated that “we”—he and his band members—would do an interpretive dance to a song entitled “Approximate.”

    Zappa then quickly noted that he used the term “we” loosely, because he intended to stand still while the rest of the band danced—and he did.

    With the rest of such an obscure video aside, there is a parallel that comes to mind when examining the Browns’ vertical receiving threats. “Hype” is in quotations at the top for a reason.

    I use the term loosely, because yes, there is a lot of potential between rookie wideouts Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin, not to mention freakishly athletic tight end Jordan Cameron.

    That’s just it, though: potential. Cleveland has invested heavily in the future again, but immediate help is badly needed and expected.

    It’s more hope than hype that Benjamin, Gordon and Cameron will stretch the field and correspond well with QB Brandon Weeden’s lively arm strength. It certainly seems to make for a compatible combination, but will it actually play out?

    There are complex, clashing expectations going on here. Despite the inexperience, the trio of Gordon, Benjamin, and Cameron are expected to contribute prominently for a respectable passing attack.

    If the Browns even want to fathom being competitive in the AFC North, these particular skill players must morph into big-time playmakers very quickly.

Special Teams Become Special Again

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    Reggie Hodges was a fantastic punter for the Browns in 2010, but tore his Achilles in camp last year. That kicked off a strange year on a typically stellar Browns special teams.

    Longtime long-snapper Ryan Pontbriand suddenly lost the touch, and got cut in the middle of the season after a miscue cost Cleveland a victory against the St. Louis Rams.

    Akron Beacon Journal reporter Stephanie Storm documented the struggles last season, which included many uncharacteristic breakdowns on kickoff coverage.

    That is one of the few areas the Browns typically dominate the opposition, thanks to Josh Cribbs. Outlawing the wedge and pushing the kickoff to the 35 yard-line has definitely hampered him, though.

    Bob Seeley presided over the consistent unit for years, but left for the San Francisco 49ers in 2011.

    Last year's coordinator, Chris Tabor, had to have felt the heat for the unit's decline, since the Browns averaged the fewest yards allowed per kickoff return in each of the previous two seasons.

    When the real games start on Sunday, it'll be clearer if this is a one-year blip or an emerging trend under Tabor.

Diverse Play Calling

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    The arrival of offensive coordinator Brad Chidlress and cannon-armed QB Brandon Weeden should open up the offense a little bit for head coach and playcaller Pat Shurmur.

    NFL.com's Michael Lombardi mentioned how predictable the Browns' offense was in the middle of 2011. His revealing account of an exchange with his friend and former coach showed that the coach could predict the exact play 95 percent of the time based on personnel and formation given.

    There is a difference between trying to install an offensive system on the fly and being an effective offense.

    Injuries, inadequate protection and a glaring lack of playmakers didn't make Shurmur's job easy. Colt McCoy never looked comfortable quarterbacking the offense, but it's probably because he had no running game, no dependable receivers and was frequently running for his life.

    Having a full camp and the influence of Childress, who himself is known as more of a conservative playcaller, will hopefully yield more encouraging results.

    The versatility of Trent Richardson will go a long way for Shurmur's West Coast scheme. Having a fantastic back can open up more man-to-man matchups on the outside, which is a must for the Browns to have a balanced attack.

Split Divisional Matchups with AFC North Powerhouses

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    For three years in a row, the Browns won only one game in the AFC North each season.

    Under the first-year leadership of Pat Shurmur and his staff, the Browns went winless.

    A glass half-full outsider may point to the fact that none of those games was lost by more than 11 points, and the last two against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens were one-possession losses.

    The counter to that is, of course, that the results in the win-loss columns are all that matter, and Cleveland simply failed to get it done once again.

    Although I tend to lean toward the latter, it's hard to overlook how competitive the Browns were in those 2011 divisional games despite such ineptitude on offense.

    The Steelers, Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals all have their coaching staffs intact. There will be a greater level of familiarity in those games this season despite the fact that it's a totally new season.

    Cleveland can take solace in the fact that everyone's divisional record is 0-0, and the only way to go from last year's showing is up.

    While the AFC North may be the toughest division in football, the Browns must go at least 3-3 to have any realistic chance at the division crown.

    The schedule outside the division isn't as favorable as 2011, and another 1-5 or 0-6 showing will be essentially impossible to overcome.

Lead the League in Turnover Ratio

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    There was speculation before last season that hinted toward the San Francisco 49ers sloshing through a "Suck for Luck" season so that former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh could be reunited with his Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck in the pros.

    That seems hilarious now, and it was even dispelled in that first draft when the team selected Colin Kaepernick as the heir apparent to the starting QB job in San Fran.

    The way the 49ers became a 13-win team seemingly overnight was largely due to one factor: turnovers.

    The Niners only turned the ball over 10 times, and took it away 38 times on defense, which easy math reveals as a +28 turnover margin.

    That's incredible. Who was the second on the list?

    With a margin of +24, the Green Bay Packers, who went 15-1 in the regular season.

    A ton of inexperience may saddle the defensive front seven, but the Browns do have some players who can break on the ball in the secondary.

    Strong safety T.J. Ward can lay the hammer down on opposing receivers, and Joe Haden is a threat to take it to the house any time he has the ball in his hands. Sheldon Brown starts opposite Haden and is a smart, experienced player.

    Rookie corner Trevin Wade has impressed in camp and in the preseason, and his play will be crucial as the No. 1 nickel corner.

    Considering the inexperience and talent disparity, and how generally overmatched the Browns appear to be on paper, they must take care of the football.

    Brandon Weeden's risk-taking style at quarterback must be reined in, and Trent Richardson must continue his phenomenal fumble-free record as the featured back.

    Winning the turnover battle can cure a lot of other shortcomings, but if the Browns continue to lose it, yet another long season looms in Cleveland.