This weekend, the Cleveland Browns travel to Jacksonville to take on the red-hot Jaguars, winners of two straight and four of their last six games.
Both the Browns and Jaguars have been playing solid football as of late, but Jacksonville comes into this game with the momentum. The Jaguars ended last week's game with possibly the most exciting play of the 2010 football season, while the Browns ended their game with, at least for Cleveland fans, the most disappointing.
If the Cleveland Browns are going to stop Jacksonville's momentum and come away with a win Sunday, the defense is going to have to find a way to put pressure on Jaguars quarterback David Garrard.
Defenses around the league are ready to game plan against Maurice Jones-Drew and the Jaguars' sixth-ranked rushing attack, but Jacksonville has won the past two games by putting the ball in Garrard's hands. In the two wins against Dallas and Houston, Garrard has passed for a total of 602 yards and six passing touchdowns as well as a rushing score. In 2010, only Michael Vick has a higher passer rating than Gerrard's 104.9 rating.
Perhaps the biggest reason that Cleveland was not able to come away with an overtime win last week, was the inability of the defense to bring down Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. Sanchez was repeatedly able to escape pressure, extend plays and make throws downfield. Because of this, the Jets offense was able to stay on the field, control the time of possession, and ultimately win the game.
Garrard is a big, physical, and mobile quarterback with a powerful arm, and he may prove even harder to bring down than Sanchez. If Garrard is afforded time to make throws downfield, the Browns' 24th ranked pass defense could be in for a very long day.
Working against the Browns is the fact that starting linebacker and defensive leader Scott Fujita will miss Sunday's game with a knee injury. Fujita is currently second on the team with 3.5 sacks. Linebacker Matt Roth, who is third on the team with two sacks, is also listed as questionable with an illness.
Agressive game-planning by Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will likely play an important role on Sunday. Ryan already runs a blitz-heavy defensive system, but he will have to be even more creative with Fujita and, possibly Roth, out of the lineup.
Ryan likes his defense to bring pressure from multiple positions, but needs to do a better job of disguising where the blitz is coming from. The Browns seem to blitz on almost every play, but are only 23rd in the NFL with a paltry 16 sacks. Far too often, we have seen pressure come from the secondary, only to fall short of actually reaching the quarterback.
Perhaps it is time for Ryan to return to more traditional blitz packages and rely on pressure from the front seven, allowing the secondary to play coverage. Unfortunately, this is a strategy that relies more on individual talent than defensive schemes, and the Browns lack premier pass-rushing talent.
Browns sack-leader Marcus Benard should see additional playing time due to the injury to Fujita, but other players are going to have to contribute in order for the pass-rush to be successful.
This would seem like the perfect game for Shaun Rogers to start seeing extensive time at the defensive end position. Not only can Rogers create pressure on his own, but he usually occupies multiple blockers, which would allow rushing linebackers to attack the edge of the offensive line.
Also expect to see reserve linebacker Jason Trusnik getting more playing time on Sunday. Trusnik has played well in limited time with the Browns, finishing 2009 with 56 total tackles and 2.5 sacks, despite being brought in to primarily be a special teams player.
With Fujita ailing, it is also time for David Bowens to return to the role of defensive leader. After D'Qwell Jackson was lost to injury in 2009, Bowens stepped in and became the driving force behind the Cleveland defense. Bowens also has the ability to get to the quarterback, something he managed to do 5.5 times in 2009.
Let's not forget that Bowens has already made his mark once this season by returning two interceptions for scores in the upset win over New Orleans, and the 12th year player could once again make his presence felt against Jacksonville.
It is time for the Browns to prove that their dominant performances over the Saints and Patriots were no fluke. Finding a way to pressure Garrard and the Jaguars' passing game will go a long way toward a victory, and a win over a tough Jacksonville team will go a long way toward proving that the Cleveland Browns are for real.