5 Areas the Cleveland Browns Must Improve in Week 6 vs. Detroit Lions
Stuck in a three-way tie atop the AFC North, the Browns have a real opportunity to keep pace in a division that appears to be up for grabs.
Riding a three-game winning streak, the club adjusts to life after hometown quarterback Brian Hoyer and hopes that Brandon Weeden can keep the good times rolling.
Ndamukong Suh and the Lions present a formidable challenge, so let's look at what the orange helmets need to work on most for a chance to improve their record to 4-2.
5. Kickoff Return
Well the Greg Little experiment as a kick returner seems to have failed.
Two terrible decisions to run out balls deep in his end zone and then being stopped before the 10-yard line during the Buffalo game got Little replaced.
It seemed like an odd choice to begin with considering that he is one of the Browns' slower receivers and can't get consistent separation from defenders. Why would anyone be surprised when No. 18 couldn't produce in a KR capacity?
The other option this season has primarily been Bobby Rainey, and he hasn't exactly set the world on fire. On six carries Rainey has amassed 47 total yards with a long of 33. That's an average of 24.5 yards per attempt.
Not terrible numbers, but certainly this team should be able to do better.
An often asked fan question is why not Travis Benjamin? We all saw how dynamic a punt returner he is so putting him back as a kick returner would look like common sense.
It's a smart move to keep the slender, 175-pound Benjamin away from the bull rushes that are kickoffs.
The collisions are fiercer and someone who can levy out a bit of punishment is more ideal. The speedy wideout is better suited for the quick footwork and agility that lends itself to hustling back punts.
The recently signed Fozzy Whittaker, formerly of the San Diego Chargers, could be the dark horse to make an impact if he dresses this week.
He is a thick 5'10", 202-pounder that had success fielding kickoffs in three contests with the Chargers in 2013 and doesn't shy away from contact. Whittaker delivered a long of 42 and averaged 26 yards on six carries.
Better overall decision making by whoever is returning may be the most needed area of improvement on special teams. Reading the situation and taking the touchback can often be the best outcome for the incoming offense.
4. Right Side of the Offensive Line
The much maligned right side of the offensive line remains one of the most needed areas of improvement for Cleveland.
Shawn Lauvao returned this past Thursday to relieve the generally overwhelmed Oniel Cousins from his right guard duties.
That didn't seem to matter much once Brandon Weeden got back under center as the quarterback was sacked five times.
Yes, a large part of that has to do with Weeden holding onto the ball too long, but plenty of blame can be dealt out to right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and Cousins/Lauvao at guard.
Lauvao is certainly an upgrade from Cousins, however, he is by no means a Pro Bowler. On many occasions during 2012 the Hawaii native was penalized or straight up beat by a defender.
Following a promising rookie campaign, Schwartz continues to struggle in pass protection and that is especially true against talented front-seven blitzes.
Coming into FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday, you can bet that Detroit's Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and rookie Ziggy Ansah will be testing the right side early and often.
Weeden delivering passes faster is going to be vital so that Schwartz and Lauvao are not exposed.
3. Third-Quarter Collapse
Cleveland has led going into halftime during all five games of the 2013 season so far. It is the second half, and specifically the third quarter, that is a reoccurring problem.
Outside of the win over Cincinnati, the Browns have given up their lead and been tied or trailing heading into the final frame.
For one reason or another the offense comes out flat following the intermission and allows the opposition to take control. That was the case with either Brandon Weeden or Brian Hoyer at the helm.
Maybe the other clubs make better halftime adjustments. Whatever it is the Browns need to start fast out of the gate in the third.
Detroit's pass rush will surely be flying so the best passing strategy would be to go with short, accurate throws to get into groove and shake off that locker room rust.
Getting back to the running game immediately is also important as it has been most effective in the second half over the past three weeks.
The defense must shoulder some of the responsibility as well for giving up third-quarter leads. They need to bend, but not break, when opponents surge back onto the field.
Overall Cleveland should to be more focused, confident and prepared to hold as well as build onto the lead they built after two quarters.
2. First Half Running Game
Week 6 is going to be Willis McGahee's fourth start in the backfield for the Cleveland Browns.
Steadily improving in each of his three outings in carries and total yards accumulated (8/9, 15/46, 26/72), it appears that McGahee has shaken off the cobwebs caused by his 2012 knee surgery.
However, in the last two contests No. 26 didn't get rolling until the second half.
The running game being non-existent in the first two quarters is definitely an area that needs to be improved upon versus Detroit on Sunday.
If the rushing attack stalls out of the gate then that gives the Lions' nasty front-seven even more reason to consistently blitz quarterback Brandon Weeden.
Good news for Browns fans is that Detroit is ranked 26th against the run so there is an opportunity to effectively rush the football.
Neither McGahee, Chris Ogbonnaya or Bobby Rainey are overly explosive on the ground, but it's more about being just efficient enough to force some respect of the Lions' defense.
Detroit allows an average of 124.6 rushing yards per game and the majority of that has come around the outside, away from the lane-clogging tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.
Early utilization of pitch-outs and patterns focused towards Cleveland's stronger left side of the offensive line is vital. Commitment to hitting those edges from the first drive onwards can help set the tone for a balanced offense.
This means a lot of the onus also falls on play-caller Norv Turner to stick with a healthy dose of running attempts and get things clicking quickly.
1. Quicker Release and Faster Decisions by Brandon Weeden
It's terminology that, while accurate, is becoming overused when describing Brandon Weeden in this 2013 season. He needs to release the ball quicker and make faster decisions.
When the now-injured Brian Hoyer delivered on those requirements during his two full starts, all of a sudden the offensive line deficiencies and lackluster running game didn't seem like that big of a deal.
Weeden has been sacked 16 times this year and was brought down on five occasions during last Thursday's game versus Buffalo.
With 10 days off before this Sunday's home matchup against Detroit, the question is whether offensive coordinator Norv Turner could dramatically improve his reads at scrimmage and urgency to find check-down options.
That is nice to say, but this coaching staff has been trying to do that all through training camp and achieved little to no success.
What might make Weeden finally execute more rapidly is that he was forced to view Hoyer do it while he sat injured on the sideline.
Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com reported:
"Weeden reiterated that the No. 1 thing he learned on the sidelines was to get the ball out quickly...According to ESPN's Stats and Info, Weeden held the ball for 4.3 seconds prior to that game, and Hoyer, 2.8 seconds. According to profootballfocus.com, Weeden is currently sixth-slowest in the NFL with a release time of 3.12 seconds."
Advice given during last weeks's Bills encounter from wide receiver Josh Gordon seemed to resonate with No. 3.
The soon to be 30-year-old commented to Cleveland.com:
"(Gordon) said, ‘Man, just let it rip and just trust that we’re going to make a play. Throw it up.’ Anytime you here that from a guy like him, it’s like, ‘All right, let’s see what you got, buddy. Go get it done.’ But, yeah, he called it.''
The result was clicking for a key 37-yard touchdown to the sophomore receiver.
Simplifying the playbook, at least initially, is probably the best way that Turner can help Weeden. Outline a primary and secondary source per play and if those options are not available than throw it away or scramble for a positive gain.
As outlined in the previous slide, efficiently running the football in the first quarter forces the defense to respect the play action and ultimately that buys the Oklahoma City native some more time in the pocket.
It's highly unlikely that Weeden will be as crisp a decision maker as Hoyer was, but he doesn't need to be.
If the offensive line's protection improves and Weeden carefully manages the game through a faster decision making process, then the Browns are going to be in a great position to win.
Andy McNamara is an international sports broadcaster and journalist.
Follow Andy on Twitter @AndyMc81