Redskins vs. Browns: 10 Keys to the Game for Cleveland
It's a game that, frankly, no one expected to be as good as it is. Coming in with a frustrated fanbase and stubborn need to prove themselves in a tough division, these two teams could be the ones to watch for years to come. Superbowl 2015 foreshadowing? For the first time in years, that's not a laughable prediction.
This is the game to see this week for several reasons. Robert Griffin will be tested in a very real way; arguably, the Redskins' playoff hopes hang in the balance. And the Browns have a compelling chance to show their fans that real change is on the horizon. Perhaps most dramatically, there just might be jobs in the balance.
Cleveland could silence the critics who say that a depleted Pittsburgh squad, Oakland and Kansas City are nothing to write Mom about. They could do it decisively. It's a bigger game for both fanbases than the rest of the country realizes, and it could be a major difference-maker beyond the final whistle.
Last Halloween, I dressed up as Graham Gano and ran around missing "field goals" in order to torture a friend and diehard Redskins fan. Tomorrow, he has the chance to get back at me. Here are 10 ways we can prevent that.
Stop Alfred Morris
We learned this from Avatar: the more dimensions, the better.
Whether RG3 plays or not, the Browns would be well served to stunt Alfred Morris's efforts early on. This once virtually unknown back has become one of the most talked about players in the league. In a loyalty-free Shanahan system, Morris has managed to create a duel threat that has, on occasion, completely devastated defenses.
But he also loses the football every now and then. He's got four fumbles this season, with three of those going for a loss. When facing such an explosive offense, the Browns have to do more than just contain Morris. They have to neutralize him, and forcing a fumble early on would go a long way.
If the Browns can limit Morris to 80 yards rushing or under, perhaps with a turnover thrown in for good measure, then the defense has a much better shot whether Griffin plays or not.
Flex Some Secondary Muscle
Between Baylor and D.C., RG3 has forced me to go, "Ooh!" more times than an above average kitten circus.
The man can make plays, and he very rarely gives up the ball. With 18 touchdowns to four interceptions, he's competitive with the likes of veterans Tom Brady (29-4) and Ben Roethlisberger (19-4). The Browns should treat him with similar respect.
When you're facing a quarterback like that, the secondary unit must stay tough in order to create any semblance of competition. Joe Haden has to be at the top of his game, with support from Sheldon Brown and the rest. If and when Buster Skrine takes over, we can only hope to get the version the Chargers saw a couple weeks ago.
They need to play hard, and they need to play smart. Griffin loves the long ball, and if the secondary is forced to commit a penalty to prevent a 40-yard touchdown, I won't lose any sleep over it.
Perhaps that's because I spent all night watching "Breaking Bad" on Netflix. Sometimes it's necessary to get your hands dirty, right Walt?
Weeden: Keep Calm and Carry On
The Redskins defensive line is no joke.
It may not be the sexiest line in the league, but it can get to the quarterback. Led by Ryan Kerrigan (6.5 sacks), this defense can be a nightmare to volatile QBs like Brandon Weeden, and it shouldn't be taken lightly.
However, in a game that may just turn into a shootout, Weeden has a golden opportunity to showcase his acquired composure. He's made some bad decisions under pressure this year, but, by most accounts, continues to learn from his mistakes. If he can stay calm and refrain from forcing passes, Weeden could show that he's truly evolving.
The other key: protecting the ball and taking the sack when necessary. And yes, I realize that's an enormous "that's what she said" opportunity, but let's be adults here. It's better than a turnover.
Richardson: Shatter That Record
Sunday's the day, Trent; get that name in the record books.
Trent Richardson has already tied Jim Brown's rookie record of nine rushing touchdowns in a season. Additionally, he's poised to break Brown's record for total yards (942 in 1957), needing just 74 to pass it. Sunday's the day to do it.
Richardson is a crucial part of keeping this Browns offense dynamic. And according to the awesome nerds of Football Outsiders, the Redskins defense is vulnerable to the run in a few compelling ways.
It's allowing an average of 4.37 yards per carry this season, slightly below the NFL average of 4.25. It's certainly not a revelation, but it shows the defense is beatable; Richardson's the man for the job.
If he can break both records on Sunday, it's a good indication that we can take home the W.
Watson: New Threat in Town
Ben Watson has proven to be a integral part of this newly exciting offensive unit.
Over the past few weeks, he's shown a beautiful ability to connect with Brandon Weeden when it matters most. Josh Gordon's heating up and Greg Little is showing up, and nothing causes defenses more consternation than adding another threat to the mix.
Weeden should incorporate Watson early and often. If nothing else, it will be like luring me away from my work station with a donut—extremely effective. The Redskins secondary will be spread thin, and our newly velcro-like receivers will have a chance to pick up some serious yards.
The Washington Redskins are the most penalized team in the league.
That is awesome. It means free yards, and a lot of them. It's cost them dearly in the past, including two crucial touchdowns called back in a loss to Carolina back in Week 9. Better yet (for the Browns), these penalties seem to accelerate in the fourth quarter.
Perhaps, when it comes to closing out the game, what doesn't happen is just as important as what does. If the Browns can hold their penalties to a minimum, there's a chance the Redskins will beat themselves.
This is also accomplished by constant pressure on the part of the defense. Give it a reason to hold, and it will. Use the clock wisely, and you might just get an illegal formation call as a reward.
Those scary little yellow flags could make all the difference.
Then Capitalize on Penalties
Creating penalties is useless unless the Browns can use them. It's like making a delicious frozen pizza and then watching your stupid roommates eat the whole thing.
The Browns must take every opportunity to regain possession and put points on the board. Phil Dawson can win games; he's proven that in the past. Ten yards here and there can turn into three points here and there. A win doesn't need to be flashy; when all's said and done, it's just one team having more points than the other.
Every opportunity matters, and every penalty could be a game-changer. Use those little setbacks to force some 3-and-outs, and the Browns could potentially control the game from the outset.
Go for the Close Ones
...because, why not?
At this point in the season, the Browns have become less of a playoff threat and more of a Shyamalan, throwing twists into the playoff hopes of others. And I'm okay with that, because I'm kind of a jerk.
Regardless of their record, make no mistake, the Browns are feared. Take a moment to enjoy that, Cleveland; it's something we haven't felt for awhile. The Browns have an opportunity here to play like a team with a lot of talent and nothing to lose. That's a scary reality for a Redskins squad looking to keep their postseason hopes alive.
Plus, they're vulnerable to it. According to the guys at Football Outsiders, the Redskins are 31st in the league for first downs allowed on third or fourth down with a couple yards to go. Those opportunities for short yardage can be a headache for the Browns, but this is a fantastic opportunity to turn that trend right around.
Get aggressive, Shurmur. Make those tough calls on fourth down, and watch the sparks fly.
Avoid Prevent Defense
It's simply not going to work in this situation.
The Redskins have one of the most volatile, explosive, frankly fun-to-watch offenses in the league. Give it an inch, it'll give you an 80-yard drive.
If this game is close in the fourth quarter, prevent defense is not the way to go. Griffin's red-zone numbers are ridiculous (14 touchdowns, 60.5 percent completion, no turnovers), and Kirk Cousins is one-for-one. Unless I see a weakness firsthand, as far as I'm concerned, it's not there.
This team is awesome in the red zone, so keep it out. Let RG3 make those beautiful throws, and then unceremoniously slap them down like a hot dog out of my brother's hand at the fair. The only way to keep this team below 30 points is to stay tough and stop those smaller gains.
Be Prepared for Anything
Will he, or won't he?
RG3's status is on everyone's lips, and the Browns are preparing for anything. "Be prepared" is more than a boyscout motto or Lion King musical number; it's a strategy that could mean the difference between a win and a loss. It sounds obvious, but that doesn't make it any less important.
Right now, Colt McCoy is reportedly stepping in to play the part of the opposing quarterback. The actual part has yet to be cast, but this shows that the team is ready for either scenario. What the defense cannot do, however, is heave a sigh of relief if RG3 is ruled out. Kirk Cousins is a solid quarterback, and preparation goes both ways.
The Browns are poised right on the edge of NFL credibility. I, for one, am hungry to see them take the plunge. This week is the perfect opportunity to do that.