As ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi points out, the Browns have been a tricky opponent for defending champions over the past few seasons.
Cleveland defeated the Giants in 2008, the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009 and the New Orleans Saints in 2010. All were Super Bowl victors the previous year. It seems as though the Browns have found ways to use their opponents' underestimation of their talents to their advantage, and that's but one way they can best the Giants this Sunday.
It's not the only way, however. Here's a two-step game plan for how the Browns should approach the Giants in their quest for their first win of the season.
Stopping the Offense
It sounds simplistic, as all game plans do at first, but clearly the Cleveland Browns need to hold the Giants passing game in check while also not exposing themselves to the run.
The Giants head into this week with the second-highest average passing yards per game in the league at 321.5, and have the eighth-most passing touchdowns per game at 1.8. However, their aerial assault will be somewhat neutralized this week before ever taking the field against the Browns.
Starting receiver Hakeem Nicks is likely to miss the game as he deals with a knee injury, and breakout receiver Ramses Barden has just been diagnosed with a concussion, which will have him out on Sunday as well. That leaves Victor Cruz, Domenik Hixon and Rueben Randle, along with tight ends Martellus Bennett and Bear Pascoe, as Eli Manning's main targets this week.
Clearly, the Browns will be focusing much of their attention on shutting down Cruz and getting pressure on Manning in order to keep the Giants from moving down the field. They'll have to do this without cornerback Joe Haden, who is serving his final week of a four-game suspension, and with a banged-up secondary.
Safety T.J. Ward underwent thumb surgery after breaking it in last Thursday's game against the Baltimore Ravens and could be out this week as a result, and fellow safeties Tashuan Gipson and Usama Young are dealing with knee injuries.
The Browns' group of cornerbacks—Dimitri Patterson, Buster Skrine and Sheldon Brown—are all presently healthy but have been inconsistent against the pass during Haden's absence. The Browns are currently allowing 286 passing yards per game, a far cry from them being the No. 2 passing defense they were last season.
The key will be not to just blanket the Giants' receivers—it will also be to bring pressure on Manning. And the Browns would be better served to do so via a traditional pass rush rather than via the blitz.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), of Manning's 44 drop-backs while under pressure of the pass rush, he threw 39 times for 21 completions, no touchdowns, two interceptions and four sacks.
He fared better against the blitz, with 47 drop-backs, 44 passes thrown, 27 completions, three touchdowns, an interception and three sacks. When the Giants offense picks up the blitz, the result is often a big completion—Manning averages 10.1 yards per blitz pass thrown—so the better bet is to simply bring the pressure via the front seven in order to get him off his game.
If Cleveland can in fact hold the Giants' passing offense in check, they aren't out of the woods. Though New York hasn't had the most productive running game in the league, with an average of just 89.5 rushing yards per game and only 23 carries, it's an area they can employ effectively against Cleveland if passing isn't working out.
As the weeks pass, Cleveland's rush defense continues to improve, now giving up an average of 117.2 rush yards and 0.2 rushing touchdowns per game. However, the Giants may have found lightning in a bottle in the form of running back Andre Brown, especially if the pass stalls out.
Last week, Brown played just nine snaps while the Giants were forced to pass the ball against the Philadelphia Eagles. Fellow back Ahmad Bradshaw is better at pass protection, which is why Brown's numbers were so low. Regardless of how the Browns defense plays the pass, the Giants are likely going to run the ball more, which means more Brown, who is currently averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
Bradshaw is a more north-south runner, the type Cleveland should have a fairly easy time controlling. Brown, however, is shifty and can bounce outside and take off at a moment's notice. At least, Cleveland's defense will have a heads up when Brown is likely to get the ball, considering, again, his trouble at pass protection. That's a useful "tell" Cleveland can use to help prevent getting burned by the Giants running the ball.
Let Trent Richardson Shine
Through four games, Richardson has rushed just 64 times, amassing 222 yards and three touchdowns. In fact, four of the Browns' total six touchdowns belong to Richardson, so clearly if they want to score points this and every week, they need to be looking Richardson's way significantly more often.
Though the Browns offensive line has done Richardson few favors thus far, he's managed to make yards out of what would have been losses for many other backs in this league. His toughness and strength is as advertised, and if the Browns want to limit their reliance on their inconsistent receivers, Richardson deserves a heavier workload.
Further, the Giants aren't terribly strong when it comes to defending the run, giving up an average of 118.2 yards and 5.8 first downs to the rush each week. This game presents a great opportunity for Richardson to truly showcase his talents carrying the ball and allows for Cleveland to put up significant yardage without worrying so much about whether their receivers (namely, Greg Little) will reliably catch Brandon Weeden's passes.
In the short-passing game, Richardson is also invaluable. His toughness when running is well-suited to him being used as a receiver, and now that he's had four games to his name, he should be ready for more third-down work (which heretofore was going to Chris Ogbonnaya).
He's already caught 15 passes this season (on 21 targets) for 122 yards and a touchdown, and if the Browns use him as heavily as they should this week, he could easily have another 40 receiving yards and a score against this Giants defense on top of his rushing contributions.
The Giants will be bringing pressure up the middle almost constantly on Weeden, so he's often going to find himself without the time and protection to stand in the pocket and hit his receivers downfield. It is imperative that Richardson be regularly available as a receiving target. If Weeden can get him the ball regularly and quickly, that's the best chance they have to put together a successful passing game this week.
Why pick up one of the best offensive weapons in this year's draft if you aren't going to lean heavily on him? The Browns have been too careful, too precious about Richardson thus far this year—this week is a perfect time to really get him going. The Browns need him, and this week he could actually help them win.