The Cleveland Browns are not a very good football team, but neither are the Oakland Raiders. Even if the weather was perfect we might expect a sloppy game, but with rain and wind forecast things could get ugly fast.
O.co Coliseums’ field is 22 feet below sea level, and heavy rains often turn the playing surface into a muddy mess. The weather will likely impact the offensive and defensive game plans for both teams.
The teams might run inside more to prevent a running back slipping trying to make a cut, or they might run quick pass plays that force defensive players to plant and come forward. Defensively, the teams might be more aggressive to avoid having to plant and come forward.
You might see more Cover 2 to allow the cornerbacks to be physical at the line and still have help in the back end.
The Raiders have had a November to forget, and the team isn’t playing poorly because they are getting physically dominated as much as they just aren’t even showing up. The owner has expressed his disappointment, the general manager has expressed his disappointment, the coaches have expressed their disappointment and nothing has changed.
There are five weeks left, and if some of these players and coaches don’t show some improvement, then heads are going to roll. So what can these players and coaches do to ensure they get a win against Cleveland?
The Browns have an offense that features rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, running back Trent Richardson and wide receiver Josh Gordon. Sophomore wide receiver Greg Little is opposite Gordon and veteran tight end Ben Watson rounds out the group.
Richardson is the only guy that really scares a defense; he’s averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, but he’s also a very good receiver and leads the team in receptions. Richardson has also been much better over the last four games, as he’s averaged over 131.5 yards from scrimmage compared to just 77.9 his first seven games.
Richardson is a short, stout running back with good burst, and in many ways he’s different than any of the other running backs the Raiders have faced. The closest comparable would be Ray Rice or Doug Martin, who both weigh about 20 pounds less than Richardson. The Raiders held Rice in check, but Martin ran wild.
Trent Richardson has been most effective running up the middle between the tackles, putting the pressure on Tommy Kelly and Desmond Bryant to help the linebackers bottle up him up. Omar Gaither draws the start at middle linebacker for the suspended Rolando McClain.
Matt Shaughnessy and Lamarr Houston are consistently good at setting the edge and turning the run back inside. It’s much easier to contain a running back and prevent the big plays that have killed the Raiders if the running back can’t get outside and turn the corner.
When McClain is maintaining gap integrity and hustling to the point of attack, he’s a decent two-down thumper. The good news is that Gaither actually performed well as a middle linebacker in Philadelphia in 2009 and 2010 and has been a solid run defender as a reserve linebacker for his entire career.
Stopping Richardson is the first key and intercepting Weeden is the second. Weeden has thrown at least one interception in seven games this season and multiple interceptions in four games. The Raiders have to be careful because Weeden actually plays better on the road than at home.
Weeden is averaging 281.4 yards per game on the road compared to 174.8 on the road, but it’s not just the case of him mopping up yards in garbage time. Weeden also had an 8-to-3 touchdown to interception ratio on the road compared to a 2-to-5 ratio at home.
Some of that production might have to do with pressure; Weeden has been sacked 2.5 times per game on average in home games and just one time per game on the road. Weeden has been surprisingly good at avoiding sacks when blitzed, so the Raiders need to put pressure on him using only the front four.
It should be no surprise that the last time the Raiders played a decent game was when Houston and Shaughnessy contributed as pass-rushers. Even the slightest pass rush can really help a secondary. If the Raiders can get some pass rush from their ends and continue to get pass rush help from Bryant, they should be able to force the rookie quarterback to make a mistake or two in the rain.
The Raiders' best chance to get pressure on Weeden is by attacking their two guards Shawn Lauvao and John Greco. Both Lauvao and Greco are 315-plus pounds and could have trouble with the speed of Bryant and Kelly. The Raiders will just have to be careful not to sellout to rush the passer, which would expose them to the run.
When Weeden is pressured, he likes to dump it short middle, as 29.7 percent of his completions have come in the center of the field, zero to nine yards on about a quarter of his attempts, according to ProFootballFocus (pay wall). Bryant and Kelly should also try to get their hands up to disrupt the center passing lanes, and the Raiders may consider dropping a defensive end in a short zone on occasion to confuse the rookie. Houston has dropped into coverage on occasion this season and hasn’t looked totally out of place.
The Raiders' problems on offense stem from a bad running game and inability to convert on third downs. With Marcel Reece running better each week and the potential return of Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson, the Raiders rushing attack might finally be getting on track.
Reece has executed the zone scheme well, and the Raiders can still use more man blocking plays with McFadden in the backfield. Reece is averaging 4.7 yards per carry since taking over at running back and should remain heavily involved.
The only reason Reece’s production hasn’t translated to better offense and better team results is because the Raiders have gotten down early and had to abandon the run. If the Raiders can keep the Browns from jumping out to a lead, they should be able to get the run game working to set up the play-action pass.
Of course, getting positive rushing yards on first and second down are only part of the issue. The Raiders have been terrible on third down mostly due to an abandoned or ineffective running game. If the Raiders can establish themselves on the run, they should be able to put themselves in better position to convert on third down.
Will the Raiders beat the Browns?
Passing all game will put the Raiders in a tough situation. The Browns have a pass defense that ranks in the top 10 in many categories with 13 interceptions (8) and is allowing just 6.7 yards per attempt (7) and 10.8 yards per completion (10). Cleveland’s pass defense is a big reason it's been able to hold opponents to just a 35.3 conversion percentage on third down, which is eighth in the NFL.
The Browns defense is good at forcing turnovers, and the Raiders need to use the run so they can use the passing game more conservatively. Ball security could be a big issue in the sloppy conditions, but Reece went to college in Washington where rainy weather is common.
Oakland’s defense is not good enough to overcome multiple turnovers by the offense, and the play-calling will have to reflect that. Expect Knapp to keep things on the ground early, and don’t expect him to test the defense deep in what is forecast to be rain and 20 mph winds.