If Cleveland defeats the Redskins on Sunday, it will be their fourth straight victory and actually keeps them in (though on the edge of) the AFC playoff picture.
The Cleveland Browns have gotten pretty hot in the waning weeks of the season, winning five of their last eight games, with four straight victories at home. They're currently sitting on a three-game win streak and, at 5-8, are still statistically alive when it comes to the playoffs. That's a major departure from the Browns we saw to start the season, who opened the year with five straight losses and couldn't seem to win close games in the fourth quarter.
The Browns haven't had a four-game win streak since the end of the 2009 season, but to get there this Sunday, it won't be easy. The Browns host the Washington Redskins, a 7-6 team that is on the playoff bubble.
Though Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III has a mild LCL sprain of his knee, it's looking like he's going to play on Sunday—and the Browns are certainly preparing for him. And even with Griffin at less than 100 percent, the Redskins still pose a significant threat to Cleveland's defense.
They are, after all, the top rushing offense in the league, and that's not solely because of Griffin; another rookie, running back Alfred Morris, is in many ways responsible for that fact. Let's take a look at what the Browns will have to do to neutralize Washington's offense and put up enough points to win their fourth straight game.
The key to the Browns keeping the Redskins' offensive attack under control is to contain their two biggest rushing threats, Griffin and Morris. Though Griffin's knee injury may assist Cleveland's defense in its efforts—chances are, he won't be entirely as mobile as always—it still cannot approach him as being less than the dangerous out-of-pocket rusher he's been all season, lest it get caught unprepared. The best thing to do is to anticipate a fully healthy Griffin and go from there.
Presently, the Redskins are averaging 167.8 rushing yards per game and 177.3 rushing yards over their past three games. That the number dips to 160.8 away doesn't help much—that's still better than any other team in the league.
Morris is their top rusher, with 1,232 yards on 253 attempts and seven rushing touchdowns. He's averaging 94.8 yards per game and has 62 rushing first downs on the year. Griffin trails him, but has still made a major impact. He had 748 rushing yards on 112 runs and six rushing touchdowns.
The key to limiting Washington's offense will be to cut off its run game. That means stacking the box, keeping a spy on Griffin and making him stand in the pocket with nowhere to go. This requires a concerted effort from every member of Cleveland's defense—this isn't your typical quarterback, after all, and it's not your typical run game, either, with lots of pistol formations and triple-option reads. It's Tebow Time on steroids because Griffin is also a very talented passer.
Out of 81 ranked 4-3 outside linebackers, Cleveland's main contributors, Kaluka Maiava, Craig Robertson and James-Michael Johnson, all rate in the 60s in run-stopping, according to Pro Football Focus. Of Johnson's 152 run-defense snaps, he's recorded a stop (a loss for the offense) 6.6 percent of the time; Maiava has played 237 run snaps, recording stops 6.3 percent of the time; Robertson has 110 rushing snaps, with a 6.4 percent stop rate. Inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson has only proved himself slightly better against the run, ranking 53rd out of 79 with 328 run snaps and a 7.9 percent stop rate.
Cleveland's front four is a stronger run-stopping unit than their linebackers. They are led by defensive end Juqua Parker, who has nine stops in 68 run snaps for a stop rate of 10.5 percent; Jabaal Sheard ranks 32nd, with a stop rate of 6.8 percent on his 295 snaps and Frostee Rucker ranks 34th, with a 6.7 stop percentage on his 240 run snaps. Among defensive tackles, Ahtyba Rubin ranks 32nd against the run, with a stop rate of 7.5 percent, and Phil Taylor, who missed most of the season with injury, ranks 43rd with five stops in his 72 run defense snaps.
The Browns' front seven is nowhere near the bottom of the league when it comes to their individual run-stopping performances—in fact, they are pretty middling, which is where Cleveland's defense as a whole ranks when it comes to playing the run. It's 18th overall in rushing yards allowed per game, at 120.5, and it's averaged 104.7 rushing yards allowed over its last three games and 121 allowed at home.
Things are more varied for Cleveland when it comes to rushing first downs allowed per game. Though it ranks 22nd overall, allowing an average of 6.5 per game, that number dips to four over their past three games. It also ranks 18th in rushing touchdowns allowed per game, with .8 (and .7 over the last three weeks).
Middle-of-the-road run defense simply isn't going to cut it on Sunday against the Griffin-Morris tandem. This will need to be their sharpest performance against the run yet if they are going to hold Washington's yardage total down and keep them out of scoring range. Though Griffin is a dangerous passer, the biggest threat from the Redskins this year is their run game. If Cleveland cannot shut it down, its odds of winning dip considerably.
Brandon Weeden, Unleashed
The Redskins defense is one of the weakest in the league against the pass, ranking 31st overall and allowing an average of 298.3 passing yards per game. Though they held the Baltimore Ravens to just 173 total passing yards last week, the Browns are, in many ways, a far stronger passing offense than their divisional counterparts. It's just about getting every player on the same page, play after play.
The key to breaking down Washington's coverage will be to stretch the field both vertically and horizontally, testing every linebacker and member of the secondary tasked with stopping the pass.
The Browns certainly have the weapons to do this, with Josh Gordon their deep threat, Greg Little in a possession receiver capacity, Travis Benjamin taking care of high-speed duties in the slot and tight ends Ben Watson and Jordan Cameron providing options for quarterback Brandon Weeden. Running backs Trent Richardson and Montario Hardesty are also receiving threats in their own right.
However, this pass-heavy approach requires the complicity of all offensive parties involved, which means Weeden needs to be on his game. Though Weeden ranks next-to-last in passer rating based on Pro Football Focus' metrics, his overall accuracy hasn't been all that bad. He's currently 19th in the league when it comes to his accuracy percentage, ranking him higher than the likes of Jay Cutler and Eli Manning.
Despite this rather impressive accuracy statistic, there are reasons to be wary of Weeden's ability to exploit Washington's pass defense this week. He has more interceptions that touchdowns (15 picks to 13 scores), has completed only 32.7 percent of his passes of 20 or more yards (52 attempts, 13 completions, four drops) and his passing under pressure ranks him 25th in the league (though I will note, that does have him higher than Tom Brady).
The Browns must exploit this Redskins weakness, which means that Weeden cannot struggle or be inconsistent (his passing numbers have fluctuated wildly over the past six weeks, even though the Browns have put up most of their wins over that span) and his receivers cannot drop passes when they've gotten separation in man coverage.
Though more passing may mean less time on the field, giving the Redskins ample opportunity to run the ball on the Browns and put up points of their own, the Browns cannot ignore the fact that Washington is susceptible to the pass. Running the ball has its place—and they'll certainly do their fair share of it, considering that the Browns could very well have a lot of play-action success this week—but teams have had proven success against the Redskins by passing the ball. If Weeden can get into a rhythm early and maintain it through all four quarters, this is Cleveland's game to lose.