Browns Are Good Enough to Upset Packers, but It All Comes Down to Brandon Weeden
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But these aren't the perennial postseason favorite Packers—no, this is a 3-2 team that has suffered a number of injuries to key starters. The Browns have an opportunity to strike when the iron is hot and take down a formidable opponent on the road.
Cleveland is playing well—better than it has in years—while the Packers are trying to claw their way out of third place in the NFC North. With receiver Randall Cobb on injured reserve with a fractured fibula, fellow wideout James Jones questionable at best to play on Sunday, linebackers Nick Perry and Clay Matthews both sidelined with injuries and multiple others nursing ailments big and small, this is the most vulnerable the Packers have been all year.
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The Browns defense presently ranks seventh in the league, allowing an average of 312.5 yards per game. It is seventh in rushing yardage allowed, at 98.2, and eighth in passing yardage allowed, at 214.3.
While the Packers are still an offensive juggernaut, ranking in the top five in both rushing and passing yards per game, the Browns possess a defense more than capable of slowing them down, especially with two key Packers receivers off the field.
And, much as in years past, the Packers have had to rely on their offense and quarterback Aaron Rodgers to carry the team. Green Bay's defense ranks 18th presently, giving up an average of 371.8 yards per game mainly because of its weakness against the pass. The Packers are 28th in passing yards allowed, compared to third against the run. Yet again, offenses can successfully pass against the Packers defense with little resistance.
This becomes a problem for the Packers when they have to face a top-10 defense. Both of their losses this season have come against defenses that rank among the best in the league—the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals. Even with their offensive starters completely healthy, the Packers haven't been able to put up enough points against quality defenses to win. This considerably tips the scales in the Browns' favor this week.
The defense has the talent necessary to hold the Packers offense down on Sunday. The only question mark for the Browns is their offense, namely quarterback Brandon Weeden.
Nothing seemed to suck the air out of the Browns' strong start to the season more than the ACL tear suffered by then-starter Brian Hoyer in the team's Week 5 win over the Buffalo Bills. Though Weeden came in and was able to shake off his relative rust and help the Browns reach their third straight victory, the difference in the offense since his return has been noticeable.
Though Weeden's completion percentage isn't much below Hoyer's, at 56.2 compared to 59.4, and though he has a higher average yards per game, at 218.8 compared to 189 for Hoyer, Weeden is not an upgrade. Weeden still holds onto the football too long—2.86 seconds, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the sixth-longest time to throw in the league—stares down his primary reads and doesn't make it through his progressions quickly enough.
Hoyer was remarkably adept at getting the ball out of his hands quickly, averaging 2.43 seconds, and would spread the ball around, reading coverages in a manner evocative of Tom Brady, the quarterback he sat behind in New England for three years. Comparatively, Weeden looks plodding, heavy and slow to react.
However, Weeden has a good supporting cast around him that can help neutralize his weaknesses. His receiving corps, led by Josh Gordon, Davone Bess and tight end Jordan Cameron, have developed well under offensive coordinator Norv Turner's new system. Running back Willis McGahee is continuing to learn his protections and the play calls and has been a good complement to Chris Ogbonnaya, Cleveland's third-down back.
The key will be for Weeden to get the ball out of his hands faster, especially when facing the Packers' blitz. And, should the Browns build up a halftime lead, something they've done in every game so far this year, Weeden needs to be able to maintain and extend that lead in the second half.
At any time, Rodgers and the Packers offense can pull out a big play that puts them ahead, and Weeden needs to be able to answer. Last week, the Browns led the Detroit Lions at halftime, 17-7. They didn't score another point, while the Lions put up 24 of their own to win 31-17.
Though the defense is to blame for this—it had no answer for Lions tight end Joseph Fauria, and three Cleveland penalties led to first downs for Detroit—Weeden's inability to generate even one second-half scoring drive was troubling. That cannot repeat for Cleveland's offense this week if the Browns are to get out of Green Bay with an upset win.
If Cleveland's defense performs as well as we've seen it for most of the year, Weeden's offense will be in a good position to capitalize. But the question is whether Weeden can. He has taken 18 sacks so far this season, not because of his offensive line, but rather due to his habit of holding onto the ball too long. He's thrown only four touchdowns to five interceptions, including two picks last week.
Weeden is capable of good quarterback play. He's had games in which he hasn't turned the ball over and games in which he's completed more than 60 percent of his passes. What Weeden hasn't had, however, is a game with more than two touchdown passes. If his arm can bring the Browns 21 points for the first time on Sunday, they should be in good shape to defeat the Packers—after that, it's up to the defense.
The Browns have been presented with an excellent opportunity this week. The Packers are banged-up and struggling. The Browns defense is performing at a high level and can take advantage of the weakened Green Bay offense. The only thing between the Browns and a victory this Sunday is Weeden.
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