The first win of the Browns' 2010 season is in the books after Cleveland defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, 23-20, in Week 4.
The Browns have been competitive in every game this season, but have only one win to show for it. While the Browns appear to be greatly improved over last season, a 1-3 record is not good enough for the team or its fans. The Browns are looking to add to their win total, starting this week when Cleveland hosts the Atlanta Falcons.
The Browns and Falcons are two teams at the opposite end of the NFL spectrum this season. While the Browns have had trouble closing out games, the Falcons have been pulling out last-second wins and keeping pace with the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints at the top of the NFC South with a 3-1 record.
The Atlanta Falcons should prove to be a stern test for the rebuilding Browns and pulling off the huge upset will be difficult for Cleveland. With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the stories, questions, and matchups heading into Sunday's game.
Through four games, Peyton Hillis has been the physical spark needed to jump-start the Browns offense. There is no questioning his ability as Hillis has ran around, over, and through defenders on his way to a team-high 322 rushing yards with an impressive 4.9 yards-per-carry average.
The question Sunday will be if Hillis can continue to perform at such a high level against a Falcons defense that ranks 11th against the run. Hillis' power running style, along with the Browns' big-bodied offensive line, match up well with an Atlanta defense that is built on speed and quick reaction.
Hillis was listed on Thursday's injury report with a thigh injury, but all reports out of Cleveland seem to indicate that he will be ready to go on Sunday. If Hillis is indeed injured, it will be interesting to see if he has the same burst and downhill prowess that he has shown during the first four weeks.
If the thigh injury keeps Hillis from being effective, it could be up to Jerome Harrison, James Davis, and Joshua Cribbs to pick up the slack.
In the past couple of weeks, the Browns have acquired free-agent wide receiver Sam Aiken and traded for Vikings defensive end Jayme Mitchell.
Aiken was on the field last week and finished the game with one reception for seven yards. He is a big, physical receiver who can make a difference once he becomes more adjusted to Brian Daboll's offensive system. With starting wideouts Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie struggling to make plays this season, Aiken could easily push for a bigger role in the offense if he can make some plays on Sunday.
At 6'6" and 285 pounds, Mitchell is a beast of a defensive end who was likely brought to Cleveland for his pass-rushing ability. Coming from a 4-3 defense to the Browns' 3-4, Mitchell could also see time at outside linebacker, and the adjustment could take some time. It is possible that Mitchell could get on the field as early as Sunday in a pass-rushing role, which would be a boon to Cleveland's quest for win No. 2.
The Browns are tied for 12th in the league with eight sacks, and improving that total against the Falcons would go a long way toward trying to stop Matt Ryan and a high-powered aerial attack.
If Cleveland has any shot of pulling off the upset, the Browns are going to have to find a way to slow down the league's 10th-best passing offense that is led by cannon-armed quarterback Matt Ryan.
In order to accomplish that, the pass rush is going to have to put some pressure on Ryan and the secondary is going to have to play better than it has in the past two weeks.
The Cleveland secondary has given up 633 passing yards and five passing touchdowns to the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals. Starting cornerback Eric Wright was victimized by the Ravens' Anquan Boldin to the tune of three touchdowns in Week 3 and by the Bengals' Terrell Owens ran wild for 222 receiving yards last week.
The Browns secondary will have to tighten things up this week because the Falcons have plenty of weapons. Receiver Michael Jenkins is likely to return to a lineup that also has playmaker Roddy White and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Ryan is on the verge of becoming one of the NFL's elite. He has a strong arm, pinpoint accuracy, and is cool under pressure. Slowing him and the rest of the Atlanta passing attack will be no easy task.
Quarterback Jake Delhomme suffered an ankle injury in Week 1 and backup Seneca Wallace has started in his place the last three weeks. Wallace has played well in Delhomme's stead, but Delhomme has made progress with his injury and could possibly make his return for Week 5.
Each quarterback brings different skills to the table for the Browns offense, and Sunday's game plan could differ depending on who starts the game under center.
Wallace is quick, mobile, and often able to extend the play once the pocket collapses and buy time for the receivers to get open. He has a strong arm, but puts the ball out of play too often to be effective when throwing far downfield.
Delhomme is a pure pocket passer who has years of experience and knows the Falcons well as a divisional foe from his time with the Carolina Panthers. While he often takes chances that he shouldn't, Delhomme is accurate and usually on target. The coaching staff seems comfortable letting Delhomme throw the ball around and, if he returns Sunday, the offense could open things up through the air.
One interesting note is that if Delhomme does return as the starter, Daboll may be more apt to put Wallace on the field with Joshua Cribbs in the Cyclone package that was promised but have seen very little of.
The Browns have been reluctant to run the Cyclone with Delhomme out because an injury to Wallace would force rookie Colt McCoy into action—a situation that the powers in Cleveland wish to avoid.
The Atlanta Falcons have few glaring holes on defense. If there is a weakness, it is against the pass, where the Falcons are giving up an average of 224 yards per game.
If the Browns are going to take advantage, the play of Cleveland's wide receivers must improve dramatically. Through four games, Browns wideouts have combined for only 349 receiving yards. To put that into perspective, seven individual players have more receiving yards this year.
While the play of Cleveland's receivers has been terrible, the play of the tight ends and running backs in the passing game has compensated well. This trend must continue for Cleveland to move the ball against the Falcons.
Even if the tight ends and backs have a successful day, one or more of the wide receivers must step up in order for Cleveland to keep pace with the Falcons' dynamic passing attack.
Chansi Stuckey had a solid game against the Bengals and another big day could propel him into the starting lineup moving forward.
Mohamed Massaquoi has been hit-and-miss in his short NFL career, often having a great game then disappearing for weeks at a time. Sunday would be the perfect time for him to have another breakout performance.
Brian Robiskie has been inactive the past two weeks and if he is on the field Sunday, he needs to take full advantage of the opportunity or else he may have a hard time finding future playing time.
New addition Sam Aiken has had another week to grow into the system and could be a factor out of the slot, and it probably wouldn't hurt to give rookie Carlton Mitchell a shot at some playing time.
If all else fails, the quarterback should try to get the ball to Joshua Cribbs, who leads all Browns players with 12 receptions for 167 yards. Putting the ball in Cribbs' hands usually results in positive plays.
The Browns defense is showing improvement, but is still an average unit. The Falcons have a dynamic offense that can quickly strike at any given moment.
Cleveland's best chance in this game is to utilize power running and possession passing to grind out time, slowing the game down, and keeping Atlanta's offense off of the field as much as possible.
Peyton Hillis is almost a sure thing on third-and-short yardage situations, going a perfect five for five so far this season from two yards or less. Therefore getting yards on first and second downs will go a long way toward helping the Browns move the chains. Third-and-long has been a problem for the Browns offense and is a situation that needs to be avoided.
This is an area in which tight ends Ben Watson and Evan Moore will likely play an important role. The dynamic tight end duo is a big mismatch against linebackers on underneath routes and should be looked to for quick five- and six-yard gains that would allow the running game to take over and move the chains.
The Browns would do well to focus on getting small chunks of yards instead of going for the home run shot. Short passes, Hillis runs, and a little bit of "Flash" package magic should be the perfect mix to get those small chunks and eat up the clock in the process.
To say that the Cleveland Browns have had trouble in the fourth quarter this season would be an understatement.
Cleveland has blown three fourth-quarter leads and nearly did it again last week against the Bengals, but managed to get a key first down and kneel on the ball to seal the win.
Moving the ball in the fourth quarter has been futile for the Browns, and scoring has been pretty much nonexistent. In the fourth quarter this season the Browns have been outscored 27-7. Considering that the four games played this season have been decided by a total of 15 points, it is safe to say that the fourth quarter has been a problem area for Cleveland.
The Atlanta Falcons could be the toughest test to date for the Browns, and Cleveland will have to put together a complete game to have any chance of pulling off the upset at home. That means moving the ball, playing inspired defense, and—for a change—putting some points on the board in the fourth quarter.
If the Browns can put a complete game together, they have a chance against the Falcons. If that is the case, the deciding factor in this game could be special teams play.
The play of special teams has been one of the few bright spots for the Browns over the past couple of seasons, but so far this year the biggest special teams play was a blocked field goal attempt last week against the Bengals. Of course, that play resulted in a six-point swing before halftime in a game won by three points.
Atlanta has struggled on special teams as of late, having a blocked punt result in a 49ers touchdown last week and giving up a kickoff return for six to the Saints the week before.
Browns Pro Bowl return man Joshua Cribbs ranks fifth all-time with 10 total return touchdowns, including an all-time best eight on kickoff returns. Cribbs has yet to score on a return this season, and it is safe to say that he is due. It would give Browns fans no greater pleasure than to watch Cribbs take one back for six en route to a second consecutive Browns win.
Much like Cleveland, Atlanta has had some close games this season. The last two games for the Falcons have been decided by a total of five points. Another blocked field goal, blocked punt, or return touchdown could be the play that gives the Browns the edge on Sunday.