The Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions will do battle at FirstEnergy Stadium Sunday afternoon in what could be a pivot point for both teams this season. The Browns, who no one expected to be relevant, could propel themselves to 4-2 and legitimately start thinking about winning the AFC North with a victory.
The Lions, who many had pegged as one of the better teams in the NFC, could be looking for answers after falling to a disappointing 3-3 with a loss.
While these teams meet every year in the preseason, the Browns and Lions have not met in the regular season since 2005 when Detroit won 13-10 in Cleveland. The Lions lead the all-time series 14-4 and have won 5-of-8 games played in Cleveland.
Both teams enter the game with question marks at the quarterback position. While the Lions have their franchise guy, Matthew Stafford struggled with wide receiver Calvin Johnson on the sidelines Sunday. Megatron did not practice on Wednesday and it remains to be seen how Stafford can adjust if he cannot play against the Browns.
The Browns do not have their franchise guy as of yet. Quarterback Brandon Weeden regained the starting job after Brian Hoyer was diagnosed with a torn ACL and ruled out for the season.
Whichever quarterback takes better care of the ball could be the deciding factor in the football game.
The Competitive Edge
Matthew Stafford is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He has averaged 5,000 passing yards the last two seasons and thrown 61 touchdown passes. While Calvin Johnson certainly helps his cause, he finds ways to get his playmakers the football in space so they can be successful.
Reggie Bush is one of the most explosive playmakers in the NFL and has already racked up 502 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. He is not the prototypical “between the tackles” running back, but he is a threat to break a big play any time he touches the ball. Joique Bell is no slouch himself, adding 389 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns.
Calvin Johnson is probably the best there is at the receiver position in the NFL. Unfortunately for Detroit, he is not 100 percent healthy. Browns receiver Josh Gordon is healthy and has a stronger cast of supporting characters around him. If Greg Little can continue to grow in the second receiver spot the Browns will be OK. Out of respect for Megatron, this category is a push.
Browns tight end Jordan Cameron finally saw some adversity last week catching just three passes for 36 yards. Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski admitted Wednesday that Cameron is seeing increased attention from defenses and that has allowed Josh Gordon to be more wide open. An example of this trend is shown in play three of my Wednesday film breakdown.
Cleveland’s offensive line is certainly improved after the return of right guard Shawn Lauvao from his ankle injury but it will take some time to fully gel. Detroit, on the other hand, is tied for third best in the NFL having only allowed eight sacks on the season. Whats even more astonishing is that five of them came last week in their loss to Green Bay. Without Calvin Johnson, Stafford held the ball for a season-high 3.27 seconds before throwing a pass, according to Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com.
Some will say this is sacrilegious, but the Browns’ defensive line matches up toe-to-toe with the Lions. I know that Ndamukong Suh is having an MVP-type season so far with 14 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. I also know that the Lions have one of the nastiest front lines in the NFL. What you may not know is that the Browns are tied for the second stingiest run defense in the league while the Lions are ranked 31st. Chew on that.
The Browns boast one of the strongest linebacker corps in the entire NFL. While no one has made a Pro Bowl just yet, they are very good across the board. Jabaal Sheard and Quentin Groves both returned to practice for the Browns on Wednesday which should help their depth at the outside linebacker position, as well.
Joe Haden and Buster Skrine have been one of the best cornerback duos in the entire NFL over the past three weeks. Skrine is finally finishing plays and Haden has been on a mission to lock down anyone standing across from him. At the safety position, TJ Ward and Tashaun Gipson are playing better than any duo since the team’s return in 1999.
Reigning AFC Special Teams Player of the Week Travis Benjamin is the key difference maker in this category. He is one of the most talented returners in the league and I would not be surprised if you started seeing him on kickoffs soon, as well.
Browns Offense vs. Lions Defense
The Browns offense this week is a huge mystery. Will we see the offense from the first two weeks where Weeden struggled to move the football and had too many turnovers or the offense from Week 5 where he made big plays and took care of the football?
Running back Willis McGahee could go a long way towards helping the cause if he runs like he did last week against the Buffalo Bills. The Lions are allowing 5.3 yards per carry, which is second-worst in the NFL right now.
If the Browns can be around 30 rushing attempts it will take the pressure off of Brandon Weeden and allow him to settle into the pocket.
The other question mark for the Browns is how Josh Gordon will be affected by the continuing trade rumors. Last time a trade rumor surfaced he had 10 receptions for 146 yards and a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings.
Head coach Rob Chudzinksi said on Wednesday that Gordon is not being shopped and will not be traded, but maybe it will still add some fuel to his fire.
Browns Defense vs. Lions Offense
This is truly a strength vs. strength matchup. The Lions can put up points in bunches and rank 10th in the NFL at 26.2 points per game. While the Browns have limited every running back they have seen, this week presents a very different task.
Running back Reggie Bush is such a threat out of the backfield that he is almost an extra receiver who lines up in an unguardable area. You cannot bump Bush because he has a running start on every play and they use him effectively on screens as well.
Obviously if wide receiver Calvin Johnson cannot play it changes the look and feel of this football game. If he is on the field, it is a matchup of two potential Pro Bowl players between him and Haden. If he doesn’t play, they Browns can do a lot more defensively and move Haden around the formation.
I would not expect the Lions to punt to Travis Benjamin after his performance last week. He is too much of a threat and no team can afford to allow the field position to change or points to go up on the board so quickly.
Both the Browns and Lions are near the bottom of the league in field goal percentage. David Akers and Billy Cundiff are always a question mark when lining up for kicks.
What They’re Saying
“I’m not going to get into any specifics about rumors and all those type of things. I will say we are not shopping Josh and we have no plans of trading Josh.”
—Browns head coach Rob Chudzinksi on the Josh Gordon trade rumors resurfacing
“I think people may have their opinions and have their agendas and that’s what they plan on doing… I really don’t like to waste my energy to worry about how other people think of me.”
—Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh on his reputation as a dirty player
Browns’ Wednesday Injury Report
Did not participate: Quarterback Brian Hoyer (knee) and defensive lineman Billy Winn (quad).
Hoyer’s season is over as he will undergo knee surgery to repair a torn ACL. Winn has not practiced and it does not seem promising he will play on Sunday. The good news, however, is that the defensive line has enough depth to maintain its dominance even without Winn.
Limited: Outside linebacker Quentin Groves (ankle), outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard (knee) and running back Chris Ogbonnaya (concussion).
If the Browns can get back one of the two outside linebackers it will help tremendously with depth. The last two weeks Barkevious Mingo has had to play every snap and was obviously gassed during some running plays.
Ogbonnaya should be able to play this Sunday as he participated in practices last week, as well. His return would be welcomed in the running game.
Full Participation: Defensive lineman Desmond Bryant (illness), defensive end John Hughes (knee) and offensive lineman Joe Thomas (elbow).
All these players should play Sunday with no issue. Joe Thomas has played in 101 straight games and there is zero chance he will break that streak. Desmond Bryant was removed from the game last Thursday for shortness of breath but the doctors found nothing serious.
This Week’s Game Stats and Facts
With a 3-2 mark, the Browns have a winning record after five games for the first time since 2001, when the team opened 3-2 before also winning game six.
During the Browns’ victory over Buffalo, the team scored 37 points, its most since a 41-34 victory at Kansas City on Dec. 20, 2009. The 37 points are tied for the eighth-most the team has scored in a game since the club’s return in 1999.
Travis Benjamin set a Browns record with 179 punt-return yards vs. Buffalo. His 179 punt-return yards were the most by an NFL player since 2004 (Detroit’s Eddie Drummond, 199 in Week 10).
Lions head coach Jim Schwartz’s first job in the NFL was the with the Browns. He worked in the player personnel department and served as both a college and pro scout from 1993-1995.
All quotes and observations obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Game stats and facts are courtesy of the Browns’ communications department.