It's been a rough couple of weeks in Cleveland for the Browns and their fans.
After enduring a 31-13 drubbing by the Tennessee Titans in Week 4 and having their star running back Peyton Hillis embroiled in a media-generated controversy, the Browns are coming off a bye week and looking to bounce back against a tougher than it appears 3-2 Oakland Raiders team.
The Browns are looking to right the ship and prove the criticisms heaped on the team and on coach Pat Shurmur were addressed during the bye week, while the Raiders are hoping to stay on the right side of .500 and continue to ride the motivational wave that has precipitated from the passing of iconic owner Al Davis.
Oakland, frequently ridiculed for its off-field controversies and owner's box antics, is as always a tougher team than it appears to be. However, while the Raiders are harder to beat than they look, this is a winnable game for the Browns if they're on top of their game Sunday afternoon.
Following are six keys to victory for the Browns as they travel to the Bay Area in Week 6 and look to move to 3-2 on the season.
The entire Browns offense has been under fire of late, and much of the criticism has been very much on point.
QB Colt McCoy, the receivers, the once rock-solid running game and most notably the offensive line have all been called into question in recent weeks.
The line has been correctly labeled as the biggest problem among position groups, but the other major problem for the Browns on offense has been on the sidelines.
The play calling for the Browns in their game against Tennessee was downright horrendous, and while the Browns were successful enough before that game to escape as much scrutiny of this issue until then, the problem has existed at least to some degree all season long.
Shurmur was lambasted for his play calling against Tennessee and needs to prove that he, like his players, made adjustments over the bye week to his game plan, and this game provides an excellent opportunity for him to do so.
Oakland's defense has been an awful 31st in the league, allowing 438.6 yards per game. That makes the Raiders an excellent opponent for the Browns to be facing when they are in desperate need of a shot in the arm for their struggling offense.
Obviously, much of this will depend on the offensive players' ability to execute, but it is equally (if not more) dependent on better, smarter play calling by the coaching staff.
If he makes better decisions on play calling, particularly in third- and fourth-down situations and on the execution of running plays, Shurmur can give his team an excellent opportunity to exploit the league's second-worst defense on Sunday and position themselves to come away with a win.
Madden curse, media scandal and departure of Lawrence Vickers be damned, RB Peyton Hillis is still the Browns' most formidable offensive weapon.
That is, if only they used him as though he were.
Expanding upon the previously discussed play calling issue, one thing that was particularly problematic in Shurmur's game plan in the Browns' loss to the Titans was the gross underuse and ill-timed use of Hillis.
Shurmur appears to have heard his critics loud and clear, as he has vowed to get Hillis the ball more often this Sunday against Oakland.
As simple as it seems, this may have been the smartest thing Shurmur has said all season. Given that Hillis has been the team's most productive offensive player from 2010-2011, this seems like an obvious move, but after Hillis sat out with strep throat against Miami and saw limited action against Tennessee, it was important for Shurmur to directly state this and follow through on the promise on Sunday.
There's no denying Hillis' numbers are being hurt by the lack of solid blocking he's receiving with Vickers no longer a Brown and the offensive line in shambles. However, Hillis is still the kind of player who can make things happen on his own, and given the opportunity to do so on Sunday, he should be a game-changer for the Browns offense against Oakland's troubled defense.
Let's not forget also the passing game is improved with Hillis involved there, too. While Montario Hardesty did a nice job filling in for Hillis when he was sick and spelling him at other times this season, he is not only a far less productive rusher but also doesn't have much ball-catching ability.
The Browns would do well to adopt a "stick with what works" approach to their offense this week and give Hillis the opportunity to get back to being the star producer.
The Raiders, long maligned for their poor drafting but revered for their ability to make use of players left for dead by the rest of the league, have truly found a hidden gem in RB Darren McFadden.
McFadden, who was largely ignored by the league due to a collarbone injury before the Raiders got a hold of him, has proven to be a worthy acquisition, running over opposing defenses and fast becoming one of the NFL's most feared rushers.
This is bad news for the Browns, who have struggled mightily against the run this season. They rank 25th in this area and desperately need to improve.
On the whole, the Browns defense has been better than expected and young players have progressed faster than anticipated, but their rush defense is still in bad shape. It gave up more than 100 yards to Chris Johnson in Week 4 and struggled against the run even in previous games that they managed to win.
McFadden will thus be a huge challenge for the Browns D, which has had a tough time not only in terms of allowing opposing rushers to rack up big totals over the course of an entire game, but also in terms of letting rushers bust through their defenders for big, costly plays.
The front seven has to do a better job than it has against other rushers of containing McFadden off the line, and the secondary needs to be more aggressive in pursuing opposing rushers rather than waiting for the ball carrier to come to them.
No one expects the Browns to completely take McFadden out of the equation, but they need to curtail the huge rushing totals that he has accrued against other teams and that they've given up to other RBs if they want to keep Oakland out of the red zone and hold the score down.
Much like other now-successful Raiders players, QB Jason Campbell was essentially a cast-off from another team (in this case, the Redskins), who Oakland took on as a reclamation project and turned into a useful commodity.
While no one will be confusing Campbell with Aaron Rodgers any time soon—or ever—he has done a very respectable job of leading the Oakland offense to a winning record so far this season.
Campbell's numbers, while better than expected, are not such that the Browns defense can't expect to be able to knock him down a peg or two. With a 60.3 completion percentage, 1,118 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions, his numbers are just a few ticks better than McCoy's are.
Essentially, while Campbell has done a respectable job, he also is far from infallible.
We know the Browns have had trouble defending the run, but they've actually been pretty good against the pass, a handful of big plays ceded notwithstanding. While they've yet to shut down a top-notch quarterback, they have successfully contained the passing game of other QBs who are in the same ballpark talent-wise as Campbell.
The only problem is that Campbell is on a hot streak right now, stringing together a series of good passing performances thus far in 2011, making him harder to stop.
The trick to bringing him back down to earth will be two-fold. First, the Browns need to execute their pass rush more effectively. D'Qwell Jackson has been excellent, and the Browns are among the league leaders in sacks this season, but they need to be more consistent in their efforts to menace the opposing quarterback on every play. Second, they need to be more aggressive about breaking up passes. We haven't seen as many tipped or batted down passes by the Browns' front seven thus far this season given the caliber of quarterbacks they've faced.
At the start of the season, many of us anticipated great things from the Browns secondary. While depth has always been a concern there, upon entering the season it appeared that the starters were a pretty solid group.
Unfortunately, that's not quite how things have played out. The Browns' starting DBs have struggled noticeably this season, an issue only made worse by the lack of depth.
Joe Haden has been fantastic, but he's only one man, and an injury to his left knee has left it questionable whether he'll even play this Sunday. If he doesn't that will be a huge blow to the Browns, who are in trouble with this area of their game even when Haden is on the field and healthy.
Haden's counterpart at CB, Sheldon Brown, has had a horrible time keeping up this season. While he still holds value in terms of intangibles like leadership and locker room presence, he holds little to no value on the field at all.
At safety things are a bit less uncertain, with Mike Adams and Usama Young playing respectably well, but you have to wonder what's going on with T.J. Ward, who obviously hasn't played poorly but hasn't been anywhere near the impact player he was expected to be this season.
The Browns secondary has to step it up this week against Oakland if they want to compete for a win. Oakland's receiving corps isn't awful, but it's one-dimensional enough the Browns should be able to keep them in check if their secondary plays up to potential. And, as we discussed previously, they absolutely have to be more aggressive about proactively taking down opposing rushers.
The final key to a Browns victory in Oakland this Sunday: Cleveland needs to show it's making progress in the problem areas that have dogged it all season.
First, there's the offensive line, which absolutely has to hunker down and do a better job blocking and especially protecting the quarterback. If this line plays the way it has so far, D-line beast Richard Seymour will mow them down and eat Colt McCoy alive.
Second, the Browns have to avoid giving up the big play. McFadden is a rusher capable of busting out for long runs against weak defenses, something the Browns absolutely have to prevent if they want to win. They also need to keep an eye on WR Darrius Heyward-Bey who, while not among the upper echelon of NFL receivers at the moment, has shown he is more than capable of breaking out for big-gain pass plays at times.
Finally, there's that pesky penalty issue that has plagued the Browns off and on this season. This game is an excellent opportunity for the Browns to kick that habit. They've had the bye week to work on eliminated the most preventable sorts of penalties like false starts, offsides flags and holding.
And given that Oakland is a team that struggles with penalties, too, if the Browns can cut down on theirs, they will actually be able to take advantage of any penalty yardage they gain from Oakland rather than having it just even out the penalty yards they themselves ceded to the opponent.