Can Pat Shurmur and Brandon Weeden combine talents and put together a winning effort on the road this week?
The Cleveland Browns are a two-win team that has yet to get a road victory—in fact, they haven't won outside of Cleveland since Week 2 of the 2011 season when they defeated the Indianapolis Colts. This week, the Browns have an opportunity to turn that inauspicious streak around when they take on the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys are a volatile 4-5 team that has yet to string together consecutive wins this season. They've faltered both at home and on the road, but they've also had a terribly difficult schedule to this point.
That doesn't mean the Browns are doomed to fall yet again. Here's a game plan for how Cleveland can get the better of the Cowboys and, in turn, its first road win in well over a year.
Shaking Tony Romo's Tree
Though the Dallas Cowboys have the fourth-best passing-yards average per game, as well as the second-most pass attempts (indicating that they are relying heavily on the arm of Tony Romo) it's not an all-around success story.
Romo has thrown the most interceptions (13) of any NFL quarterback and has twice fumbled the ball away. He's thrown more picks than scores and the Dallas offense, in general, isn't producing many touchdowns in the red zone—despite the number of passing yards that Romo has put up.
Clearly, the Browns must get to and shut down Romo and the Dallas passing game in order to win, and it's not difficult to see how to do it. It's a two-fold process: applying pressure on Romo and making his receivers disappear.
Forcing interceptions hasn't been a particular strength for the Browns this year—they have just 10 on the season thus far—but it could come easier against an error-prone quarterback and a cast of unreliable receivers.
However, the Browns defense may have to do it without cornerback Joe Haden.
Haden reportedly injured his oblique in practice earlier this week and did not practice Thursday (h/t The Chronicle-Telegram). He has already missed four games this year, having served a suspension for banned substances, and the Browns didn't win a game until he returned. Haden has two of Cleveland's 10 interceptions and has five defensed passes, as well. He is clearly the top member of the Browns secondary.
Should Haden miss this game, that means Buster Skrine would get the start in his place. Sheldon Brown is also set to start, with Dimitri Patterson not ready to return from his ankle injury. Skrine and Brown have just one interception between them, which—especially against a quarterback like Romo who can spread the ball around—places even more pressure on the Cleveland defense.
However, Dallas receivers aren't the best at separating from cornerbacks and don't respond well to physical, man coverage. That's why the Cowboys' top receiver, Dez Bryant, often gets shut down after a productive first quarter and his counterparts Miles Austin and Kevin Ogletree haven't been all that impressive either—Austin has the 14th-most receiving yards in the NFL; Bryant is 22nd and Ogletree is 72nd. Tight end Jason Witten ranks 23rd.
Bryant also has seven drops to his name, tying him for third in the league.
Under pressure, Romo is a bit unpredictable. Overall, he's faced pressure on 111 dropbacks, passing the ball 91 times. He's completed 56 percent of these throws, which puts him in the top 10, but he's also been sacked 17 times and has thrown six interceptions and four touchdowns.
Romo's good at scrambling, and he can react quickly to opposing defenses. The Browns cannot assume that repeatedly bringing the house against Romo will result in sacks. Romo has completed 70 percent of his passes in games the Cowboys have lost.
The best chance to keep him under control is not via pressure but by systematically shutting down his receiving options—especially Witten, his longstanding safety net—and being on the lookout for the deep ball. Doing so might force the Cowboys to see what they can do on the ground, which hasn't been producing many results in 2012.
Cleveland cannot be drawn into a shootout and hope for Romo to make his own mistakes; that scenario heavily favors the Cowboys.
Control the Clock
One way to keep Romo from having a good day is to keep him off the field, which means the Browns offense needs to extend drives and control the clock. That's a fairly tall order, yes—the Browns rank 29th in average time of possession and 31st in first downs per game—but Cleveland is coming off its bye week, and hopefully the time off has given head coach Pat Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress an opportunity to tweak their approach and improve these two crucial areas.
A conservative game plan is key against Dallas. Right now, Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden has attempted the sixth-most deep passes in the league (42), but he has completed on nine of those throws. He may have a big arm, but he has just one consistent deep-passing target, receiver Josh Gordon; when Gordon—a rookie who didn't play college football in 2011—is dealing with good coverage, it's hard for him to pull down the passes thrown his way.
Shorter, higher-percentage passes will get more Browns receivers involved in the game and stretch thin the Cowboys coverage. This passing approach, augmented with hand-offs to running back Trent Richardson—who has played his best football the past two weeks as his workload has increased—can extend drives and chew up clock.
There there are times when Cleveland needs to put up points quickly, especially when the Browns are forced to play from behind. This is a major reason why Weeden's been asked to make so many deep throws. But it's a formula that isn't working. A switch to a ball-control offense, especially in a road game like this one, may be the only way Cleveland can score.
Shurmur needs to be less stubborn about how he'd like his offense to look and gear it more towards the particular strengths of his players. If he did this, the Browns offense would hold onto the ball longer and have more opportunities to score—they are presently 31st in the league in scoring opportunities per game, and it's the play-calling (not the players) that is to blame.