It seems like every week there is a new storyline with the Cleveland Browns.
This week, local product Brian Hoyer will get the start at quarterback, replacing the injured Brandon Weeden, per the Browns’ Twitter feed. They will also have a new starting running back after trading 2012 first-round pick Trent Richardson to the Colts for a 2014 first-round pick, per Adam Schefter. As we all know, when the personnel changes, so does the game plan.
As surprising as the trade was to most, it signifies the Browns are looking to 2014 and beyond instead of this season. Before they get to the future, however, the Minnesota Vikings await.
The opponent this week is one the Browns do not see very often. The Vikings lead the all-time series against the Browns 10-3. Last time these two teams faced off was opening week of 2009 when the Vikings came into town and defeated the Browns 34-20.
Perhaps the unfamiliarity of the opponent is a good thing. At this point, winless and struggling to produce offensively, the Browns need to focus on themselves more than their opponent.
Head coach Rob Chudzinski and the front office are hoping a change at quarterback and the return of wide receiver Josh Gordon will create a spark for their squad.
The Competitive Edge
There won’t be many weeks this year where Christian Ponder will be decidedly the better quarterback entering the game, but this is one. He wins this category based on the fact he has more starting experience. Hoyer has started just one game in his NFL career.
Adrian Peterson is as good as it gets in the NFL. He was the 2012 MVP after rushing for nearly 2,100 yards. He has rushed for more than 1,200 yards in five of his six years in the league. The Browns currently do not have a starting running back but will give Willis McGahee a physical, per NFL insider Ian Rapoport.
With Josh Gordon back from suspension, this category should go to the Browns. Josh Gordon will be the most talented receiver on the field. If Gordon can shake the rust off quickly and gain some chemistry with Brian Hoyer, he should have a big day. Greg Little has been bumped from his starting spot, and Davone Bess will replace him as the second receiver.
Jordan Cameron backed up his Week 1 performance with another strong showing against the Ravens. He is looking like one of the best young playmakers at the tight end position in the league. Kyle Rudolph is a threat in the red zone but cannot break a touchdown from anywhere on the field like Cameron can.
While the Vikings are near the bottom of the league in pass protection, the Browns are dead last, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The Vikings also have one of the better run-blocking lines in the league and open holes for Peterson at will. The Browns are still struggling to get Oniel Cousins up to speed at right guard.
This category is actually going to go the Browns’ way. While the Vikings are a slightly better pass-rushing team with guys like Jared Allen and Kevin Williams, they do not stop the run well. The Browns have been a brick wall when it comes to rush defense. Desmond Bryant and Phil Taylor have also been a load for opponents in the passing game.
This is where the Browns have a huge advantage. D’Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson have been among the league’s best at inside linebacker, while Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard have done the same on the outside. Even though Quentin Groves has already been ruled out for Sunday, Barkevious Mingo picked up his slack nicely last week and should do so again.
While Joe Haden is by far the best cornerback on the field, the rest of this category is a tossup. Xavier Rhodes is very solid at corner, and Harrison Smith is a much better free safety than Tashaun Gipson. T.J. Ward still being a little banged up factors into this as well. Overall, the Vikings have a slight edge in this department, but neither team has a great defensive secondary.
Cordarrelle Patterson is one of the best young kick returners in the NFL. Travis Benjamin is one of the best young punt returners in the NFL. While those two even each other out, the glaring difference is Vikings kicker Blair Wash, who is as solid as they get in the league. Advantage: Vikings.
Browns Offense vs. Vikings Defense
The Browns' choice to start Brian Hoyer this week makes sense from a mobility standpoint. The offensive line has not been able to block the pass rush, and the quarterback will need to move outside the pocket to create more time. If there is not that much of a difference between Hoyer and Jason Campbell, then I totally understand why they went with the more mobile Hoyer.
The Vikings’ defensive line has had trouble getting to the quarterback and has logged just one sack through two weeks. The Vikings defense as a whole has struggled mightily, allowing 120 yards on the ground and 320 yards through the air per game.
Something has to give. Either the Vikings will find their pass rush and continue the Browns' offensive woes, or the Vikings’ fluttering defense is exactly what the doctor ordered for the Orange and Brown.
The biggest concern should be Brian Hoyer, who has only one start in his career. He lacks the arm strength to make the downfield throws needed in offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s system. Can the system be adjusted in just one week? Can Hoyer make the appropriate reads fast enough to deliver the ball into tight windows without the arm strength?
The offense does not currently have a starting running back after trading Trent Richardson. The Browns need to get McGahee or anyone else in the building as soon as possible so they can take some pressure off of Hoyer.
Browns Defense vs. Vikings Offense
Can the Browns stop Adrian Peterson? If they can, this could be their first victory. If they can’t, it will be a long afternoon.
The Browns’ run defense has been one of the best in the NFL so far. It is currently ranked fourth in yards against. Neither running back it has faced is anywhere near the caliber of Peterson on the ground, however.
If the Browns stifle the run game, then Christian Ponder will be forced to throw, and that isn’t good for the Vikings. Ponder is a game manager who already has four interceptions this season. When the game rests on his shoulders, he tends to throw into bad situations like any young quarterback.
The Vikings’ offensive line is also vulnerable to the pass rush. It has already allowed four sacks.
Minnesota took a very good Bears team to the wire on the road last week and has scored 27.5 points per game. The Browns will need to reduce that by half to have a chance at victory.
Cordarrelle Patterson already has a kick return for a touchdown and is quickly becoming one of the most dangerous return men in the game. While the Browns return defense has been pretty good, it better be perfect on Sunday, or he will make it pay.
The real advantage in this category is Vikings kicker Blair Walsh. He has a big leg and is one of the most accurate kickers in the league. With the game being played indoors, that should help Billy Cundiff as well, but Walsh is a decidedly better kicker.
What They’re Saying
Browns’ head coach Rob Chudzinski on whether Weeden will be the starter upon returning from injury, per ClevelandBrowns.com:
I’m going to leave all of the options open. It’s a matter of where he’s at from a health standpoint -- all of that plays into it -- where we’re at and how guys are playing, as well.
“Trent’s a great player and we expect him to have success in this league.” ... “Right now, based on how we’re building this team for sustainable success, we’re going to be aggressive and do what it takes to assemble a team that consistently wins.”
Browns’ Wednesday Injury Report
Did not participate: Quarterback Brandon Weeden (thumb) and outside linebacker Quentin Groves (ankle)
Both Weeden and Groves are already ruled out for Sunday’s game against the Vikings. Hoyer will replace Weeden, and Barkevious Mingo will pick up the extra reps that Groves would normally take.