At 3-3, the Chargers are clearly not the dominant squad they once were, and the last time we saw them—in Week 6, before the team's bye—they were collapsing before our very eyes against the Denver Broncos.
Clearly, the Chargers want redemption, but they'll have to do it on the road against a Browns team that, despite their record, has many reasons to get the home-field victory. Here's a three-step game plan for how the Browns should approach the Chargers this Sunday.
Stopping Antonio Gates
Though Chargers tight end Antonio Gates isn't the team's most productive receiver this year—that honor goes to Malcom Floyd—the matchup problems he presents for opposing defenses make him the team's most dangerous offensive player.
With 19 catches for 224 yards and two scores, Gates appears harmless on paper. However, Gates is a major reason why the Chargers rank 11th in passing first downs per game. Keeping him under control will go a long way to keep San Diego from moving the ball down the field.
According to Football Outsiders, Cleveland's defense ranks fourth when it comes to stopping tight ends, which is a good place to start from when taking on one of the best to presently play the position.
Gates will be matched up both with defensive backs and linebackers on Sunday, all of whom will need to do their part to keep him contained. The biggest scrutiny will be paid to linebackers Craig Robertson and James-Michael Johnson, who have been asked to step up now that Scott Fujita's season is over with a neck injury.
As we saw in Week 6, the Chargers and especially their quarterback, Philip Rivers, haven't been having the best season. He's thrown nine interceptions to 10 touchdowns and has been sacked 18 times. The offense ranks 25th in the league in terms of yardage, but 11th in points per game.
The Chargers offense, therefore, is able to get touchdowns regardless of how many yards they're putting up. They're a big-play team that capitalizes on defensive mistakes—and there's no single player on that offense that can force those mistakes than Gates. The Browns must stay with him, prevent him from making plays all while not losing sight of Rivers' other receiving targets.
It's a lot to control at once, and the Chargers do have the level of experience to execute well regardless of how we've seen them stumble this season. Though Gates isn't the only member of the Chargers offense the Browns need to concern themselves with—their top two running backs, Ryan Mathews and Jackie Battle, are averaging 4.5 and 4.6 yards per carry, for example—he's the one who will likely continue drive after drive for San Diego if he's not shut down.
A Run Game Surprise
The San Diego Chargers have the second-best run defense in the league, giving up an average of 71.2 rushing yards per game. As such, offenses have chosen not to run on them—they've called runs on average just 20.2 times per game.
At 3.5 yards per rush attempt allowed, it seems as though the Browns won't be able to turn around their struggling run game against the Chargers this week. Further complicating matters is that rookie running back Trent Richardson is still feeling the effects of the bruised rib cartilage he suffered in Week 6, and though he has every intention of playing on Sunday, head coach Pat Shurmur may choose to sit him. And while Richardson could play, he may not make it through the entire game, like we saw last week against the Colts.
The Browns were disappointing when running against Indianapolis, who has one of the worst rushing defenses in the league. Richardson had just eight yards on eight carries before being swapped out for Montario Hardesty, and Cleveland as a whole had only 55 rushing yards in the entire game.
While the Browns may not get more than the 71 yards the Chargers have been allowing so far this season, when they get them and what they do with them can go a long way to helping them along to a win.
Passing is coming a lot easier to offenses facing San Diego's defense. It ranks only 25th against the pass, allowing 286.2 yards per game in the air. Clearly, the Chargers will expect more passes than runs out of the Browns and will prepare for the game with that in mind.
The Browns would obviously be smart to focus their offensive attack to the passing game, but the Chargers' ability in stopping the run is something that can be used against them. A perfect way to do this is to employ more draw plays and to do so in longer-yardage first and second downs.
Clearly, the Chargers will be expecting the run on a 3rd-and-short rather than on 1st-and-10; and for once, head coach Pat Shumur would be smart to call pass plays in those short-yardage situations and catch the Chargers by surprise in the run game on what would traditionally be a passing down.
Keeping the Chargers off-balance will allow the Browns to be more unpredictable even while needing to rely more heavily on their passing game. Regardless of the rushing yardage the Chargers are presently allowing, teams cannot simply pass, pass, pass—they become one-dimensional and easy to stop, even an offense like Cleveland's that is quickly amassing quite the group of talented receiving targets.
The Browns have to be calculating when running the ball, however, and use the element of surprise to their advantage. It's the only way they'll have success in that facet of their offense, even if that success is relative to the strength of the Chargers defense.
Spread the Ball Around
Though the Browns cannot afford to entirely abandon the run game, despite what the Chargers may be showing them on Sunday, it's obvious that the key to Cleveland's offensive production this week is the passing game.
Depending on which Philip Rivers shows up this week, this game could indeed become a shootout. Even if it doesn't, however, the Browns need to find ways to pull away in points as early as possible, and the passing game is the quickest and most effective way for them to do so this week.
The Browns receiving corps has been improving every week. By featuring Josh Gordon more as their big-play scoring threat and promoting Josh Cooper from the practice squad, Brandon Weeden now has more options for his passes.
Though the two got additional playing time because of hamstring injuries to Travis Benjamin and Mohamed Massaquoi, Benjamin returned last week and the two other rookies didn't see their roles decrease. Expect them to continue to be featured on Sunday even if Massaquoi finally returns to action.
If everyone is healthy and active, these receivers—plus tight ends Ben Watson and Jordan Cameron, and of course, the running backs—give Weeden an opportunity to spread the ball around and further take advantage of San Diego's weaknesses in coverage.
Weeden will have at least 10 different players he can target this week, from Gordon—who has scored at least one touchdown in the last three weeks—to Greg Little, who, in a reduced role, has seen his catch rate drastically increase. With only safety Eric Weddle grading out positively in coverage for the Chargers so far this season, all of those potential receivers could have solid showings.
Weeden is putting everything together as much as can be expected for a rookie quarterback—that is, everything but wins. This game against San Diego not only presents a great chance for the Browns to win, but for Weeden to lead them there. If he can, it will do a lot to secure his place as Cleveland's starting quarterback regardless of what changes may come their way this offseason.