Cleveland Browns Progress Report: Where Do They Stand Headed into Week 7?
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What a difference one week makes. Seven days ago, the Cleveland Browns were winless, team president Mike Holmgren still had some semblance of job security and the Browns weren't officially owned by Jimmy Haslam.
Today, the Browns have a 1-5 record, Holmgren is on his way out, and he's being replaced by former Philadelphia Eagles team president Joe Banner—a result of Haslam taking ownership of the team via unanimous vote at the NFL owners' meeting in Chicago on Tuesday.
Change is clearly in the Browns' future, but more immediately are the Indianapolis Colts, whom Cleveland faces on Sunday. Let's see where the Browns stand at present and take a look at where they could be headed in Week 7.
The Good: Brandon Weeden; Josh Gordon; Sheldon Brown and Joe Haden
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Over the course of this young season we've seen everything come together for the Browns, just not all at once, and not enough to earn them a win. But in Week 6, all phases of the game fell into place, leading them to a decisive, 34-24 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
On offense, that charge was led by rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, who completed 17 of his 29 pass attempts for 231 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He targeted 10 different players and had a long, 71-yard scoring pass to first-year receiver Josh Gordon (more on him in a bit).
Weeden has had a season thus far worthy of his first-round billing (aside from his terrible Week 1 performance). With 1,519 yards to his name and a 253.2 per-game average, the Browns have the 16th-ranked passing offense in the league—last year, they were 24th.
Like any good rookie quarterback, Weeden has learned from his mistakes. He's spreading the ball around and not staring down his receivers as he did earlier in the season. He knows to throw the ball away under pressure rather than making a poor throw that results in an interception. His pocket presence is constantly improving and his delivery is getting faster. And the quality of his receivers is better, as well, which has helped him considerably.
Though Weeden has spent the past two weeks without receivers Travis Benjamin and Mohamed Massaquoi, he isn't wanting for passing targets. The aforementioned Gordon has come through for the Browns in a big way, with 12 receptions on the year and three touchdowns and all his points coming in his last two games.
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Josh Cooper was activated from the practice squad last week and had two catches for 39 yards against Cincinnati. Greg Little hasn't been the liability he was earlier in the year—Weeden is targeting him less in game-changing situations and with Benjamin and Massaquoi back on the practice field, Little should have even less chances to hurt the offense and more opportunities as a blocker, an area in which he excels.
Gordon gives the Browns something they sorely needed—a deep scoring threat. His speed and good hands make him an ideal target to make big plays, and chances are he will build a reputation for himself as the team's biggest receiving playmaker.
On defense, the return of cornerback Joe Haden spurred an overall strong effort out of the Browns secondary. Aside from a 57-yard touchdown reception by Bengals receiver A.J. Green, Haden gave up just six more catches and 41 yards and also picked off Andy Dalton once.
Also strong was fellow cornerback Sheldon Brown. Thrown to six times, Brown allowed just three completions for a total of 22 yards, had an interception on one of the passes and broke up the other two.
With both Brown and Haden on the field, the Browns seem once again poised to field one of the best passing defenses in the league, even though they presently rank 30th in passing yards allowed per game, at 294.2.
The Bad: Where's the Pass Rush?
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The Browns defense did manage to keep Dalton on his toes last week and it resulted in more erroneous passing out of the second-year quarterback, but they did so without much of a pass-rush effort out of their defensive line.
Defensive ends Emmanuel Stephens and Juqua Parker each had one sack apiece, but aside from their contributions no other defensive lineman notched positive grades in the pass rush last week. The Browns have been generally effective in getting pressure this season, with 15 sacks on the year, 19 hits and 57 hurries but only Stephens and Ahtyba Rubin grade out positively in the pass rush this season.
With the Browns working harder this offseason to shore up their run defense, the viciousness of their front seven has fallen by the wayside. They'll need to bring the pressure this week against rookie quarterback Andrew Luck when they face the Colts.
Like any young quarterback, Luck struggles when facing pressure, especially when blitzed. There needs to be a greater emphasis on getting to him this week in order to hold him from making plays.
What's Next: The Indianapolis Colts
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The key to beating the Colts this week is to keep them from passing and for the Browns to run the ball effectively. The Colts offense ranks ninth in average passing yards per game but just 26th in rushing yards. On defense, they rank third in passing yards allowed per game, at 200, and 29th against the run, giving up an average of 159 yards on the ground per week.
Browns running back Trent Richardson is dealing with sore ribs but won't miss this game; Weeden will likely need to hand the ball off a lot to Richardson, as well as to Montario Hardesty, and hopefully set up some deep play-action passes to Gordon and his other receivers as long as the run is successful.
Keeping Andrew Luck from throwing needs to be their biggest defensive priority. If they can keep him off balance up front and Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown keep the Colts receivers well-covered, they'll be forced to rely more heavily on their faltering run game.
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This does present some complications for the Browns, however. Part of the reason why the Colts' run game isn't impressing is because they aren't running the ball very often—just 24.2 times per game. Though those attempts are netting a mere 3.6 yards per rush on average, Cleveland's 25th-ranked run defense could make those numbers rise.
Overall, however, the Colts are a less challenging opponent than the Bengals were last week. There are areas that will cause the Browns complications—like Indianapolis' pass rush, for example—but if the Browns can effectively build on the momentum that notching their first win last week has undoubtedly provided, then they shouldn't have trouble effectively executing this Sunday.
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