The Cleveland Browns are no stranger to the Philadelphia Eagles—the two met very recently, in the third preseason game of the year. That game is generally considered a "dress rehearsal" for the regular season, but with the two set to take each other on in the season opener, neither side showed too much of what they plan to do when the games count.
As such, we didn't get many hints as to what the Eagles and Browns will look like when they meet this Sunday. We do know that the Browns are a younger team than Philadelphia, with more questions swirling them than nearly any other team in the league.
Generally, I'd break down what it would take for Cleveland to defeat Philadelphia, but this week I'm trying something different, looking at the ways the Eagles could best take advantage of the Browns' weaknesses. If the Eagles can execute these three things, they'll walk away with a win on Sunday.
Target Brandon Weeden—Carefully
The first inclination for any defense, especially one as carefully curated as the Eagles', with their big names and their wide-nine formation, is to really take it to the opposing quarterback, and that counts double when the opposition is a rookie.
But the Eagles need to be careful when coming at Brandon Weeden on Sunday. Clearly, they'll be dishing out their fair share of pressure, because a rookie quarterback has a bolder target on his back than any veteran, but too much of that also leaves Philadelphia vulnerable.
That's because the Browns have a top-level running back who can alleviate the pressure on his quarterback—Trent Richardson, who hasn't had any setbacks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery in August and is expected to fully contribute this week.
Richardson may split time with other backs, simply as a precautionary measure, and those are the times when the Eagles can really attack. But when Richardson is on the field, they need to time their strikes on Weeden carefully. One handoff to the powerful Richardson could spell doom.
If the Eagles can balance this out, they're practically in control of the Browns' offensive plans. They can dictate when Cleveland needs to run and when they need to pass, which will allow them to stop the Browns down after down.
Force Cleveland to Defend the Run
In 2011, the Eagles were one of the best rushing teams in the league, averaging 5.1 yards per carry, 142.3 rush yards per game and 1.2 rushing touchdowns per game, all while having the 10th-most rush attempts in the league.
They'll be facing a Browns run defense that was 30th in the league last season, giving up an average of 147.4 rush yards per game in 2011. They allowed an average of 7.8 rushing first downs per game and 4.4 yards per rush attempt. So it stands to reason that the Eagles will rely heavily on the run to test the Browns' front seven.
That front seven was a major focus of offseason attention in Cleveland, and the team did a lot of work to improve it. However, injuries to defensive tackle Phil Taylor and linebacker Chris Gocong are now forcing a lot of young players and rookies into starting roles. This will be their first big test against the run.
LeSean McCoy is one of the best backs in the league right now, and Eagles quarterback Michael Vick is also explosive on the ground. Though the Browns seemed a bit better at defending the run in the preseason, the regular season is an entirely different animal. If the Browns haven't truly improved this part of the game, the Eagles are sure to exploit it.
Strong Coverage on Greg Little
Last year, wide receiver Greg Little struggled to hold onto passes, notching 14 drops on the season. He didn't entirely shake that trend during the preseason, though, which seems to show that he's yet to be fully comfortable as a starting NFL receiver.
This makes sense, of course—before being drafted in 2011, Little did not play college football for a year and he was thrust into being a Browns starter without the benefit of a full offseason program, thanks to the lockout.
As such, he wasn't as prepared as he could have been last year, and the result was a lot of dropped passes, especially in relation to how many times he was targeted. Switching between two quarterbacks didn't help him, either.
His stumbles this year clearly reflect on the fact that he's still building a rapport with rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, but it also illustrates that he's still simply learning his position. The best way, therefore, for the Eagles to neutralize him is to not give Little a wide enough berth to catch passes with confidence.
Rattling Little's chains a bit, making him nervous of big hits in space and keeping tight coverage on him at all times will help ensure that he doesn't pull down everything thrown his way. Making Little a non-factor means that Weeden will have to look to other receivers to make plays, and Philadelphia's defense can adjust with that in mind.
Taking away the effectiveness of a receiving target is a great way for the Eagles to limit the Browns offense and, again, allows them to control their decision-making to an extent.