Cleveland Browns Predictions: 10 Keys to the 2011 Season

jim beamContributor IIIAugust 30, 2011

Cleveland Browns Predictions: 10 Keys to the 2011 Season

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    With the NFL season about to begin, most people think the Cleveland Browns will finish the year in their familiar place near the bottom of the AFC North division standings.

    They have a new head coach, new offensive and defensive systems, and play in one of the toughest divisions in football. What's more, the players have had little time to adjust to their new staff, thanks to the lockout.

    The odds are stacked against the Browns from climbing the AFC North ladder. But they will be able to do that if they follow these 10 steps.

Take Advantage of the Early Part of the Schedule

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    During the first 11 games of the season, the Browns have only two games against playoff teams from 2010. One is against the Indianapolis Colts and the other is against the Seattle Seahawks, who went 7-9 in 2010.

    The schedule does not get difficult until the last five weeks of the season, when four of the five games are against the Steelers and Ravens.

    The Browns will have a hard time winning those four games, so it is important for them to win as much as they can during the early stages of the season.

Rush the Quarterback

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    The Browns' front office used the early rounds of the NFL Draft to address the defensive line, selecting defensive tackle Phil Taylor in the first round and defensive end Jabaal Sheard in the second round.

    Taylor showed promising signs during the third preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles, and Sheard has earned a starting spot in the team's new 4-3 defensive alignment.

    The two rookies, along with Ahtyba Rubin and Jayme Mitchell, will have to put the kind of pressure on opposing quarterbacks that was absent from the team last season. The Browns were ranked 25th in sacks in 2010.

Help Peyton Hillis in the Running Game

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    Peyton Hillis has cemented himself as the team's primary running back. But without a good No. 2 back, their running game will falter like it did last year.

    Montario Hardesty, who missed all of last season, will make his regular season debut as the team's second running back. Former Green Bay Packer Brandon Jackson is third on the running back depth chart.

    Hardesty and Jackson will have to shoulder the load for Hillis, who hit a wall during the second half of 2010 as his amount of carries piled up.

Wide Receivers Must Break Out

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    Wide receivers Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi are entering their third year in the NFL, and the Browns are waiting for them to have a meaningful impact. They showed flashes of their potential in 2010, but could not perform on a consistent level.

    Rookie receiver Greg Little has been having a nice preseason and looks to be adapting to the NFL faster than expected. Josh Cribbs has also had a good preseason at receiver.

    The receivers are going to be crucial to the success of quarterback Colt McCoy. If they cannot help McCoy, opposing defenses will zero in on the tight ends and running backs, effectively shutting down the entire Browns offense.

Protect Colt McCoy

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    As is the case with any quarterback, the Browns offensive line must protect McCoy. But it is even more imperative that they do so because of McCoy's small stature.

    At 6'1" and 215 pounds, he does not have the type of frame that can withstand tremendous pressure. If he goes down, it will be even harder for the team to win with Seneca Wallace at quarterback.

Stop the Run

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    The Browns were the sixth-worst team at stopping the run in 2010. They must drastically improve those numbers if they are to have any chance of winning this season.

    New defensive coordinator Dick Jauron has brought his 4-3 defense to Cleveland, and linebackers Scott Fujita and D'Qwell Jackson look to benefit from the change.

    It is hard to win in the NFL if you cannot stop the run, and the Browns know that first hand.

Use the Tight Ends

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    The most dependable receiving options McCoy have are tight ends Ben Watson and Evan Moore.

    There are questions surrounding the wide receivers on the team, so McCoy, who is accurate with short and intermediate passes, would be smart to trust his proven tight ends to help carry the offense.

Play Well Against the Division

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    This is key for any team hoping to win in the NFL.

    The Browns' first two division games are both winnable contests against the Cincinnati Bengals. But four of their final five games are against the Steelers and Ravens.

    Cleveland will need to defeat the Steelers and Ravens not just for the needed wins, but to prove themselves to their division rivals.

Adjust to Special Teams Changes

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    The special teams game has changed not only for the entire NFL, but especially for the Browns.

    Kickoff returns won't be the type of weapon they once were for Josh Cribbs and the Browns now that the kickoff spot was moved up the field.

    The other special teams adjustment for the Browns will have to come in the punting game. Reggie Hodges, who performed well in 2010, is done for the season with an Achilles injury. Richmond McGee comes on as his replacement as punter and placekicking holder.

    The Browns hope they do not have to punt as much as they did in 2010. But when they do, they will need good showings from McGee.

Establish an Offensive Identity

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    One of the worst problems for the Browns in 2010 was their lack of an offensive identity.

    The offense as a whole looked erratic and confused under the command of former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.

    New head coach Pat Shurmur in installing his version of the West Coast offense in Cleveland. And while the players have voiced their approval for the new philosophy, they will have to prove that it can be an effective system.

    They will not win on trick plays mixed with an anemic offense, as they attempted to do in 2010. Everyone on the offense must know their role and find out how they can best attack opposing defenses if they hope to win.