Following the listless loss to the hated Ravens, the Browns dealt 2012 first-round pick Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts. Starting quarterback Brandon Weeden was injured in that game, and the Browns opted to turn to greenhorn Brian Hoyer instead of veteran backup Jason Campbell.
Many perceived the trade of the starting running back as a white flag for the season by the Browns. Talk of "Tanking for Teddy" permeated the national media.
A funny thing happened on the way to securing a top draft pick. Hoyer invigorated the offense, as did the return of wideout Josh Gordon from suspension.
Since those first two losses, the Browns have now won three in a row. During that span they are averaging 28.3 points per game, including a 37-point outburst in their Week 5 win over Buffalo.
Now the Cleveland Browns are tied for first place in the AFC North with both Cincinnati and Baltimore, all of whom are 3-2. The Browns rank in the top 10 in both rushing and passing defense. Now that the offense is cooking, it has made them a formidable, balanced opponent.
However, a nasty knee injury has ended Hoyer's season. Now the offense is back in Weeden's hands, and that changes the dynamics of this weekend's contest.
In order to get a different perspective on Sunday's game in Cleveland, I asked Browns writer Brendan Leister a few questions. Brendan is the lead editor at DraftBrowns.com and has contributed to The Football Educator as well as regularly providing Browns analysis on podcasts, per his Twitter profile.
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How does the move back to Brandon Weeden impact the Browns offense?
Overall, I expect the move back to Brandon Weeden to have a negative impact on the Browns offense.
In his time on the field, Brian Hoyer showed that he is very good at managing football games and consistently giving his playmakers chances to make plays. He does a great job in the pre-snap phase, and he typically has a good idea of which routes will be open against specific coverages by the time he reaches the top of his drop.
Hoyer gets the ball out at a much more efficient rate than Weeden, and that is a big reason why the offensive line has given up many more pressures, hits and sacks with Weeden on the field.
Overall, Weeden needs to do everything quicker. He is often late on many of his throws, and he has a bad habit of staring down receivers.
If Weeden does not improve upon his many issues, I believe that the Browns will be lucky to win more than six games this season.
I was downright shocked at Hoyer's productivity. After all, this was a player who was cut by three teams (New England, Pittsburgh and Arizona) in 2012. Weeden was a 2012 first-round pick, albeit a controversial one. Still, it was crazy to think that a young journeyman reserve could so dramatically outplay a recent first-rounder.
Weeden's indecisiveness is his biggest downfall. Hoyer did indeed do a much better job of making quicker decisions and getting rid of the ball.
Has the improvement on offense been more about Brian Hoyer or the return of Josh Gordon?
Although Josh Gordon has made a huge impact on the Browns offense since he returned to the field in Week 3, I believe that Hoyer's play had more to do with the three-game winning streak than Gordon did.
Gordon is an immense talent, and he is the type of game-changer that defenses have to give attention to on every play, but the way that Hoyer managed those games and regularly kept the offense on schedule gives him the nod in my book.
Gordon is a serious downfield threat with a lot of talent. Weeden did hook up with Gordon on a long touchdown last week after replacing the injured Hoyer.
While I agree Hoyer made a big impact, I strongly believe that Josh Gordon makes Brandon Weeden a lot better.
What is the Browns' biggest matchup advantage against Detroit?
The Browns' pass rush against the Lions offensive line is the Browns' biggest matchup advantage.
With the return of outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard, the Browns will have their entire starting front seven together for only the second time this season.
Before going down with a knee injury in Week 3, Sheard produced two sacks, one quarterback hit and 10 pressures while playing extremely stout run defense from his right outside linebacker position. I expect Sheard to consistently give Lions left tackle Riley Reiff problems on Sunday.
Defensive lineman Desmond Bryant is one of the rising stars in the league, and he has been used in multiple positions on the Browns defensive line.
Bryant has four sacks, five hits on the quarterback and nine pressures thus far this season and I expect him make Sunday a long day for Lions left guard Rob Sims and center Dominic Raiola. With John Hughes, Ishmaa'ily Kitchen and Armonty Bryant backing up Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor and Desmond Bryant, the Browns have six healthy defensive linemen that they can get production from at any time.
With the return of Jabaal Sheard and Quentin Groves, the Browns have a very strong four-man rotation at outside linebacker with Paul Kruger, Sheard, Groves and rookie Barkevious Mingo.
Expect Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton to use lots of exotic fronts, blitz packages and coverages to confuse the Lions offensive line and quarterback Matthew Stafford.
If you haven't seen Desmond Bryant and the Browns' defensive front play yet, this probably catches you by surprise. It's a very talented, deep unit, which does an excellent job against both the run and the pass.
Ray Horton is one of the most aggressive, creative defensive coordinators in the league. He thrives on scheming exotic blitzes and relentless pressure. It can really stress an offense and does a fine job of dictating the action on the field.
Detroit's offensive line is coming off a lousy performance. Riley Reiff and the line will have to step it up against Cleveland. They fared much better against a similarly aggressive Washington defense, and I think the offensive line rebounds some from the bad day in Green Bay.
Still, center Dominic Raiola consistently struggles when facing three-man fronts, as does left guard Rob Sims. Consider me cautiously optimistic on this battle front.
What is the biggest worry for the Browns in facing the Lions?
The biggest worry for the Browns should be in Brandon Weeden's ability to get rid of the ball quickly combined with the offensive line's ability to pass protect against the Lions' very talented, deep defensive line.
Lions left defensive end Willie Young has one sack, six quarterback hits and 17 pressures in 2013, and I expect him to give Browns right tackle Mitchell Schwartz trouble in one-on-one situations on Sunday.
Between defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley, the Lions have four sacks, six hits on the quarterback and 32 hurries on the season.
It will be extremely important that the Browns' interior offensive line contains those players (especially Suh). I expect the Browns to use a lot of six- and seven-man protections, and tight end Gary Barnidge and running back Chris Ogbonnaya could be two of the keys to the game.
With all of this being said, I think that it is likely that it all comes back to the quarterback. If Brandon Weeden is decisive and gets the ball out quickly, the pass protection will probably look solid. If he holds the ball and does not throw on time, players like Suh, Fairley, Young, Ezekiel Ansah and Mosley will have a good chance to wreak havoc.
Suh and Fairley had their worst games of the year in Green Bay. While Young and Ziggy Ansah had solid games at end, the tackles must play better in Cleveland. I expect Suh's pride to get him back on track for an All-Pro season.
Cleveland's guards and right tackle have been problematic, and I believe the Lions' defensive front four can make a huge imprint upon this game. Between their skill and Weeden's slow decision-making, this is definitely Detroit's biggest advantage in the game.
Who wins the game, and why?
I think both defenses will play very well and the game could come down to which defense can create a big turnover late in the game.
As for the offenses, I have much more faith in Matthew Stafford's ability to manage the game, take care of the ball and keep his offense on schedule than I do in Brandon Weeden.
Although Calvin Johnson may not play, I expect the Lions to get some offensive production out of running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell as receivers out of the backfield and win in a low-scoring affair.
I see this game being dominated by the defensive fronts. That makes it incumbent upon the quarterbacks to make tough, accurate throws under pressure and avoid mistakes.
I agree with Brendan here. Matt Stafford is a much better bet to beat the Browns defense than Weeden is to exploit the Lions—with one big caveat: Stafford must have Calvin Johnson.
I loathe being wishy-washy, but I truly believe that this game will be decided by whether Calvin Johnson plays. If he goes, I believe the Lions win the game. No Megatron means the Lions return to Detroit 3-3.
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