Cleveland Browns vs Houston Texans: Browns' Keys to the Game
On Sunday, the Browns kick off the second half of their season in Houston against the Texans, the first of many ugly matchups thrust upon the Browns in the back half of 2011 by seemingly diabolical schedulemakers.
The Browns are now 3-4 and heading into the more difficult half of their 2011 schedule, and they'll be thrown right into the fire this Sunday against the AFC South-leading Texans.
Cleveland has struggled to score points in the last few weeks and has leaned heavily on their defense to keep them in games. That wound up being enough against Seattle, but not against San Francisco, and it probably won't be enough against the Texans either.
A win looks doubtful in this one, but if the Browns want to at least stay in the game, they're going to have to step it up this week.
Following are five keys to the game for the Browns as they look for redemption for their recent woes in the Lone Star State.
1. Earth to the Browns Running Game...
The depth chart at running back for the Browns reads more like a Missing Persons report than a roster of rushers.
Peyton Hillis has been conspicuously absent for weeks, and now the Browns are without backup Montario Hardesty, who tore a calf muscle last week and isn't expected to play for the next few games.
The good news is that Hillis has been practicing this week, and for the first time in what feels like ages, it looks like he might actually play this Sunday. The question is, how much will he play, and how much impact will he have?
The extent of Hillis' hamstring injury remains a mystery, and while there's a good chance he's back on the field this week, we don't know how limited he'll be.
For the Browns to do well this week, Hillis will need to be close to 100 percent. The Browns do have Chris Ogbonnaya, who has impressed me in what little action he's seen thus far, and Thomas Clayton, signed this week as insurance, but the running game still lives and dies (and tweaks its hammy) with Hillis.
Sadly but truly, if Hillis isn't capable of going at least close to full tilt, the Texans defense will crush the Browns running game.
The Browns will also see their former teammate, FB Lawrence Vickers, playing for the other side. It will be a bitter reunion for Cleveland, whose ground performance in 2011 has proven that they never should have let Vickers walk away.
2. The Tight End Factor
Tight ends look like they'll be a big factor in this game, both for the Browns offense and their defense.
On offense, the Browns have had more success going to the tight ends than the receivers in 2011, much as they did in 2010. Many from the Browns camp, myself included, feel that the Browns are under-utilizing their TEs and wasting valuable opportunities.
The Browns can increase their scoring opportunities this week if they run two-TE sets, or even line Evan Moore up in the slot.
The passing game has struggled terribly this season and needs a confidence boost. When your back is up against a wall like that, it's generally best to go with what you know works; for the Browns, that's been throwing to the TEs.
On the other side of the ball, the Browns defense will need to keep a sharp eye on Houston TE Owen Daniels, arguably one of the league's most underrated players, and a potential problem for Cleveland, which has had trouble keeping opposing TEs in check this season.
In their efforts to double-cover strong threats at WR, the Browns have more than once forgotten about an opponent's tight end and have been burned on it all too often. The Browns can't afford to do that with Daniels, who will undoubtedly make them pay for ignoring him. The Browns will have to keep an eye on Joel Dreessen as well, who could also give the Browns D fits.
3. Another Tough Test for the Browns Run Defense
As pleasant a surprise as the Browns defense has been, they've had trouble stopping opposing rushers, particularly teams who lean heavily on one big-ticket feature back.
The Browns will need to do a better job anticipating action with Foster than they have with other go-to backs they've faced. And they can't simply stack the box to stop him, because Matt Schaub has enough good targets to simply throw over them and make them pay for bringing all their defenders forward.
The Browns defense, though they've improved tremendously over the course of the season thus far, needs to learn to multitask more effectively. When facing an offense which is a threat both in the air and on the ground like Houston, they can't afford to ignore one to shut down the other.
It's a lot to juggle for a young defense, but not an impossible feat if the Browns play their cards right. They can't completely stop Foster, but they need to limit the yards per carry they yield to him, or Houston will eat up both the field and the clock, running up the score and limiting the Cleveland offense's opportunities at the same time.
4. Let the Passing Game Use the Whole Field
Let's put it this way: If I see the Browns offense run one more drive that features multiple three-yard slant passes that get stuffed at the line, I might cry.
Obviously, short passes are the bread and butter of a West Coast Offense, but a good West Coast Offense also isn't afraid to go downfield when it needs to.
The Browns appear to have missed the boat on that one and stubbornly refuse to call plays that allow McCoy to use more than five yards of space.
McCoy is clearly not a gunslinger who is going to put up 80 yard bombs, but that's not what the Browns need. Last week, their greatest offensive success came on 10-20 yard passes, not the dink and dunk slants that they keep wasting their time on.
Of course, I'm not suggesting that they shy away from using short pass plays at all. But they need to mix it up. Right now, every defense they face looks for a short slant from the Browns, and they almost always get it. Predictability is one of the worst sins an offense can commit, and the Browns are violating that left and right (mostly left, due to the horrendous right side of their line).
The Browns need to mix in some longer throws with their shorter, more conservative ones. I'm still seeing way too many checkdowns, and receivers are dropping short passes just as frequently as they're dropping longer ones.
With a very shaky line and a less-than-stellar receiving corps, the Browns best approach is to keep the opponent's offense on its toes. They can't do that if they don't start using more of the field.
5. Give Josh Cribbs a Chance to Be More Involved
Last week, we saw Josh Cribbs get more opportunities on offense than he usually does, and he made the most of them. Prior to last week, we didn't see nearly enough of that.
Cribbs, like any receiver worth their salt, has stated that he wants the ball more. No receiver will ever get as many throws coming his way as he'd like, but the Browns have every reason to grant Cribbs his request.
He wants the ball more. Give it to him. In the last few years, Cribbs has been more of a name than a contributor, but that's really not his fault.
After all this time, it still seems like the Browns aren't quite sure how to use him, and it's a waste of valuable talent. I wouldn't even mind seeing Cribbs lined up at running back on a few plays if Hillis can't hang in there for the whole game.
However he's used, though, it needs to happen more often. When Cribbs does get opportunities, he generally takes advantage of them. With Greg Little steadily improving, the Browns have the chance to better their passing game by making defenders account for both he and Cribbs on every play.
The Texans defense is pretty good overall, but they've struggled far more with the pass than they have with the run. That means the Browns need to have all hands on deck for the passing game, and Cribbs needs to be a big part of the game plan this Sunday.