If the Cleveland Browns want to improve upon their 4-12 2011 record this season, they'll need to start racking up the wins soon. At 0-5, the Browns have the worst record in the NFL, but they aren't without hope.
Cleveland has a lot of talented players, it's just about those players executing well at the same time. If they can do this on a regular basis, there's more than a good chance that the Browns can turn their season around.
However, this needs to happen sooner rather than later. Cleveland can absolutely do so on Sunday when they host the Cincinnati Bengals in the two teams' second and final meeting of the season. Here's a two-step game plan for how they can earn their first win of the season.
Trent Richardson. Seriously.
Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson has just 303 yards on 81 carries—a 3.7 yards-per-carry average—and 20 receptions for 169 yards, but he also has five of the team's total nine touchdowns on the year. Those 30 points have been invaluable for Cleveland this season, as they've kept the Browns in games and saved them from being blown out in all five of their losses.
He's proven himself a playmaker over the first five weeks, but he's still being inexplicably under-utilized. Richardson is averaging just 16.2 carries per game, while quarterback Brandon Weeden is throwing the ball an average of 40 times each week. Granted, playing from behind necessitates more passing, but when Richardson's the leading scorer, the Browns need to be making extra effort to get the ball into his hands.
This week, the Browns receiving corps is decimated by injuries. Mohamed Massaquoi and Travis Benjamin have been sidelined with hamstring injuries, and though Benjamin practiced on Friday, he still may be limited on Sunday. Jordan Norwood is also likely out, as he's been dealing with a foot injury.
That means the Browns only have Josh Gordon, Greg Little and Josh Cribbs as their healthy receivers, and they may just have to activate Josh Cooper from the practice squad in order to have enough players dressed for game day. With a random group of receivers and the history of drops from Little, there's a very good chance that Weeden could have a down day.
A heavier reliance on Richardson in both the run and passing games could be the solution to this problem. Currently, the Bengals defense is not so stout against either the run or the pass, giving up 120.4 yards per game on the ground and 227.8 passing yards per game on average. They're also allowing 25.8 points per game, ranking them 21st overall.
Cincinnati has a strong front seven, but they've given up huge gains to opposing running backs already this season. Last week, the Browns didn't utilize Richardson's talents nearly enough (he had just 17 carries), but this week provides even more compelling reasons as to why he should take center stage in their offense.
The Browns need to give the ball to Richardson; he's their biggest scoring threat and a way to minimize not having a full complement of receivers at their disposal this week.
Study the Miami Game
Last week, the Bengals were upset by the Miami Dolphins, falling 17-13 to the then-one-win team. This wasn't a fluke—the Dolphins executed the perfect game plan to halt the Bengals, especially their offense.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is a much-improved quarterback from his rookie season, but there are still areas in which he is a novice. Passing under pressure is one of them—all 15 sacks he's taken have come while under duress, either by a traditional pass rush or a blitz, and three of his six interceptions came directly from the blitz.
And even when pressure doesn't result in Dalton being sacked or picked, he's still prone to making mistakes, as we saw last week against Miami. The constant barrage of pressure from the defense—four sacks, six hits and nine hurries—threw Dalton off his game.
He struggled to connect with his receivers, even when he ultimately had time. His rhythm was off, his receivers were often well-covered, and the result was Dalton's second-worst game of the season (the first being the 44-13 drubbing by the Ravens in Week 1).
Yes, the Browns may be without defensive tackle Ahytba Rubin and linebacker Scott Fujita this week, but that doesn't mean they should or will ease up on getting in Dalton's face. Throwing him off, and then properly covering his receivers—which should receive a boost with the return of cornerback Joe Haden after serving a four-game suspension—is clearly the best way to keep the Bengals from mounting successful drives.
Cleveland hopefully spent lots of time this week studying the ways the Dolphins kept Dalton in check last Sunday. If they can emulate their efforts, it will do a lot in their battle to get their first win.