The Cleveland Browns got their third win of the season in Week 12, defeating the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, 20-14. It was an important win considering the fact that it's been years since the Browns bested the Steelers, and they did it in dramatic fashion, forcing eight Steelers turnovers.
It wasn't a pretty win, however. The Browns had just 20 points off of those eight turnovers (though the final one came in the waning seconds of the game) when they could have had 40 or more, and their offense failed to match the efforts of their defense.
Still, it was a close game that came out in Cleveland's favor, as compared to the many others this season that didn't, and it provides a good base to build upon. With the three-win Oakland Raiders up next, the Browns absolutely have a chance to put together a two-game win streak.
To do it, though, they'll need to focus on a few key areas.
Outscoring the Opponent
Of the Raiders' eight losses, five were blowouts, including their last three in a row in which they fell to the Baltimore Ravens, 55-20, the New Orleans Saints, 38-17 and the Cincinnati Bengals, 34-10. Though there are many ways to defeat the Raiders, the most surefire strategy is to get out to a significant lead early because Oakland simply isn't capable of digging itself out of a deficit.
We have seen the Browns put up early leads—they were up 13-0 at halftime against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 11 (before losing in overtime) and 14-0 in the first quarter over the New York Giants in Week 5 before going on to lose 41-27. If you're sensing a pattern here, you aren't alone—while the Browns have proven themselves able to get off to hot starts, they haven't managed to hold those leads for long.
Though history indicates that the Browns should be able to pull away from the Raiders quickly in this week's game, the key will be to not allow them to catch up. Though Oakland isn't particularly well-known for putting up points, averaging 19.8 per game (the Browns, for reference, average 19), it isn't so bad at yardage. If the Browns let their guards down against Oakland, they could find themselves in the situation of needing to catch up, and that's not where they want to necessarily be.
In Cleveland's favor, the Raiders defense is presently giving up the most points to its opponents of any team in the league, and it is near the bottom of the league in both passing and rushing yards allowed. A big day from running back Trent Richardson (as well as his backup Montario Hardesty) seems likely, but it's more difficult to predict what kind of performance we can expect out of Cleveland's quarterback position.
Wednesday is the earliest we'll know whether or not Brandon Weeden will be able to start for the Browns on Sunday or if Colt McCoy will have to take over for him. Weeden suffered a late concussion in the win over the Steelers, and while it wasn't severe, his playing status rests on how well he responds to the baseline tests and other protocol the Browns have to follow with the injury.
If Weeden does get the start, he may have a bounce-back week after four consecutive games with under 250 passing yards (with three of them sub-200). Though Weeden hasn't had the best season when it comes to turnovers and touchdowns, he spent a significant span of the year putting up impressive yardage totals and moving the ball effectively. That's fallen off in the past few weeks, though he's not throwing fewer passes. It's just that he's completing less of his throws.
The reason for this is two-fold. One, with more experience under center, he's learning how to avoid sacks and bad decisions, because he's throwing the ball away. In fact, with 20 thrown-away passes, he's tied with Drew Brees with the second-most in the league. Two is that his receivers aren't catching his passes. The Browns have 33 dropped passes this year, tied for the third-most in the NFL.
Weeden is not the least accurate quarterback in the league, though there is room for improvement. The issue here is with the entire Browns passing offense, from play-calling on down. The deep ball isn't working well for him and should be a reduced part of Cleveland's offensive arsenal until Weeden can be more comfortable with downfield throwing and his receivers are more capable of catching them.
His completion percentage under pressure is dangerously low, which accounts for why he's been throwing the ball away with increasing frequency—he needs more time and his receivers must use that time to separate from their defenders. And Weeden's play-action passing is abysmal despite the Browns attempting it more than most of the league.
None of these areas should show marked improvement if McCoy has to step in as starter this week. The play-calling won't change much—in fact, it should only be dumbed-down, which isn't necessarily a good thing—and neither will the offensive line protecting him nor the receivers tasked with catching his passes. Weeden has backslid over the past few weeks, but the reasons for that aren't entirely because of what he has or has not done.
Regardless of who is under center on Sunday, the Browns need yards and points out of their passing game to defeat the Raiders. The run game will provide a lot of help to be certain, but the passing is under the most scrutiny. It's not just wins that will save Weeden's job as starter or Pat Shurmur's job as head coach—it's how they get those wins. There needs to be more productivity in the aerial game if the Browns are going to be a complete team and avoid another offseason revamp.
Don't Get Complacent
It's hard to imagine a three-win team becoming complacent, but it's a very real concern for the Browns as they head into Week 13.
They're coming off of a highly significant win over a rival team they haven't beaten very often since reforming as a franchise in 1999 and head into a contest against a slumping Raiders team that may have the same record as Cleveland, but their losses have been far worse, in terms of point margins, than the Browns, which means their minds may not be entirely in this game.
The Browns may be the "better" three-win team, but they're still a three-win team and no opponent is beneath them, no matter how blown out the Raiders have been over the course of the season. The Steelers themselves fell to the Raiders earlier this year thanks to a stubborn unwillingness to consider them viable opponents, and an inconsistent team like the Browns could easily suffer the same fate without approaching them with the same ferocity they did with the Steelers in Week 12.
Cleveland needs wins, but more than that, it needs a win streak. It hasn't strung together wins yet this season, and it's been since Weeks 2 and 3 of the 2011 season that it's had back-to-back wins. The Browns need to build on what they did right last Sunday against the Steelers and work to fix what didn't work rather than simply assuming that the Raiders are terrible and destined for another loss.
It's nice to get a win over a hated rival whose had your number, season after season, but that win is now in the past. The Raiders are ahead for the Browns, and they must be ready to beat them rather than just glance at the box scores of Oakland's recent games and presume a win will be easy and guaranteed.
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