The Cleveland Browns haven't put together a two-game win streak since early last season, but it hasn't been for lack of trying. Though they have just three wins to their name so far this year, that number could be considerably higher if they could have pulled out victories in their many close games.
That's why it's a little bit frightening to assume the Browns should have their way with the Oakland Raiders this Sunday—the Raiders aren't as good a team as the Browns despite having the same win-loss record, but Cleveland's track record against teams it should have and could have beaten makes it seem like it will yet again find a way to lose.
However, the Browns got a bit of a morale boost last week in their 20-14 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it may be enough to carry over into a win in Oakland this week. Here are two things to watch for in Cleveland's attempt to pick up its first road victory this season.
The point cannot be stressed enough: To beat the Oakland Raiders, all teams need to do is get out to an early lead. The Raiders aren't built to play from behind this season, and it's the No. 1 reason why they've won but three games thus far. If the Browns want to nearly guarantee themselves a win, all they need to do is put up two touchdowns in the first 30 minutes of regulation while keeping the Raiders out of the end zone as well.
That's easier said than done, of course, and even more than that, it seems far too simplistic to work. But the proof is out there. So far this season, the Raiders are giving up an average of 7.2 points in the first quarter and 6.7 in the second, and the 13.9 first-half points allowed are the third-highest in the league.
At the same time, the Raiders are averaging only 8.6 points of their own in the first half, 5.7 over their last three games and zero points last week in their loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, so it's pretty simple math, really—the Browns score, they score again, the Raiders don't, all of this happens before halftime and the Browns get the elusive road win, end of story.
The issue here, of course, is that the Browns aren't all that great at putting up 14 or 17 points before halftime. They are only slightly better than the Raiders at it, in fact, averaging nine points in the first half. However, they did have 13 points at halftime last week, their three-game average now stands at 11.7 and this season, they're averaging 10.6 first-half points on the road (as compared to 7.7 at home), so it's not as though this is an impossible feat to accomplish.
Complicating things somewhat are the times we've seen the Browns take early leads this season—like in Week 5 against the New York Giants and in Week 11 against the Dallas Cowboys—they ended up ultimately losing the game. Cleveland came out to a 14-0 lead against the Giants only to fall 41-27, and though it put up 13 points against the Cowboys while holding them scoreless in the first half of that game, the Browns lost, 23-20, in overtime.
This relates to another problem the Browns have had all season long: finishing games. The Raiders are only dangerous when allowed to hang around, but the Browns have let team after team do just that this year, only for it to result in yet another notch in the losing column. It's one thing to build an early lead—difficult for the Browns, but not out of the question—but another altogether to maintain it, something they've proved over and over this season they aren't very good at.
It's not too late for the Browns to turn a corner. There are five games left, providing the Browns with five opportunities to provide the most tangible proof that they're a better team than they were last season—i.e., win more than four games. The only way Cleveland can win more games is to start strong and finish stronger.
Each quarter is a test in its own right. If the Browns can win the first two this Sunday, they'll be in a better position to win the final two, but they cannot let the Raiders slide. The Raiders have tipped their hand when it comes to a way they can be beaten, and the Browns need to use this to their full advantage rather than squander it.
Pressure on Carson Palmer
Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer isn't the most-sacked quarterback in the league—he's been taken down 24 times this season, ranking him 16th overall, but that doesn't mean he's not susceptible to pressure or that the Browns defense won't have any luck in rattling him.
In fact, the best way to ensure the Raiders don't put up enough points to counter Cleveland's first-half attack (presuming they can pull it off) is to keep the heat on Palmer. The Raiders don't have much of a run game to speak of—they rank 29th in yards per game and couldn't get anything going even when Darren McFadden was healthy. It appears that McFadden will be back this week, but it shouldn't matter much to the outcome of the game, if the Raiders' previous outings are any indicator.
Playing from behind generally necessitates more passing, and with the Raiders finding themselves in significant deficits early in games, it makes sense that they have the third-most passing attempts in the league. Palmer's biggest passing numbers have thus far come in the second and fourth quarters for that very reason.
He has 896 yards, six touchdowns, four interceptions and five sacks in quarter two and 943 yards, six scores, four interceptions and 10 sacks in quarter four. Though clearly the scoring is of note (he's thrown only one first-quarter touchdown and five in the third this year), what should stand out the most are his sack and interception numbers.
With more passing—and more desperate, playing-from-behind passing, at that—the more chances for mistakes that result in interceptions and sacks. The Browns need to seize this opportunity on Sunday and shut down Palmer to prevent any chance for the Raiders to put up points.
Presently, Cleveland's defense has 28 total sacks, with D'Qwell Jackson, Juqua Parker and Jabaal Sheard and Frostee Rucker leading the way with three apiece. Its defense as a whole has also combined for 29 additional quarterback hits and 89 hurries, which seems to translate that it won't have too tough of a time getting in Palmer's face.
Palmer throws under pressure more times than most other quarterbacks in the league—his 160 dropbacks under pressure are fewer than only Andrew Luck and Michael Vick, though he is also completing vastly more of them than those two quarterbacks (51.1 percent, compared to 40.7 for Vick and 44.1 for Luck). However, he's not willing to throw the ball away while facing pressure—he's done so only five times—which is a likely reason for him taking as many sacks as he has this year.
Thus, pressure on Palmer will only be successful if the Browns defense takes a two-pronged approach. First, it has to bring that pressure with its front four on a consistent basis (he's seeing a pass rush of some sort on 33.5 of his dropbacks), and second, its cornerbacks and safeties needs to keep his cadre of quick receivers well-covered.
Twenty of Palmer's 24 sacks have come when he's held the ball for more than 2.6 seconds, which is also coincidentally the amount of time he's averaging from snap to throw. This appears to indicate that his sacks are most often of the coverage variety and that his receivers are fairly easy to take out of plays.
If Cleveland's defense can get into a rhythm when it comes to combining good pressure with good coverage, it should result in Palmer failing to make plays and, as such, the Raiders offense spending little time on the field.