Why the Minnesota Vikings Now Have No Excuses vs. Cleveland Browns

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst ISeptember 20, 2013

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 15: Head coach Leslie Frazier smiles after his team scored a touchdown against the Chicago Bears during the first quarter of the Minnesota Vikings on September 15, 2013 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
David Banks/Getty Images

Two decisions made by the Cleveland Browns this week ensured that the Minnesota Vikings will now have no excuse for failing to secure their first win of 2013 during Sunday's home opener.

In selecting Brian Hoyer to start at quarterback and dealing away running back Trent Richardson, the Browns have mostly depleted their ability to attack at positions that have hurt the Vikings during a 0-2 start. 

Hoyer, a 27-year-old journeyman with one career NFL start, was picked over the veteran Jason Campbell to replace Brandon Weeden (thumb) early Wednesday. Only hours later, Adam Schefter of ESPN reported that Richardson had been traded to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick.  

The winless Vikings were favorites in Week 3 before Wednesday. Cleveland's two decisions should now seal the deal. 

At the very least, a Herculean effort will now be necessary to see the 0-2 Browns upset the Vikings—a 2012 playoff team—in Minnesota's home opener. 

While a number of reasons exist for why the Vikings are without a win this season, the defense's inability to handle quarterbacks and running backs has certainly contributed. 

A 10-point loss to the Detroit Lions in Week 1 saw Minnesota commit four turnovers and finish 2-for-10 on third downs. But the defense also gave up 357 yards and two touchdowns to quarterback Matthew Stafford, and running back Reggie Bush racked up 191 total yards, including 101 receiving. 

Overall, the Vikings allowed the Lions to run 77 plays for 469 yards, pick up 28 first downs and score 34 points. Stafford and Bush led the offensive assault. 

A strikingly similar storyline played out in Chicago last Sunday. 

Christian Ponder threw a first-half pick-six, and the offense went 0-for-3 in the red zone late in the game. But on defense, the Vikings allowed 161 total yards to Bears running back Matt Forte, and quarterback Jay Cutler threw one of his three touchdowns passes to beat Minnesota in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter. 

In just two games, the Vikings have allowed 649 yards and five touchdown passes to opposing quarterbacks, and a ridiculous 444 total yards (241 receiving) to opposing running backs. The result has been a defense that is now giving up 32.5 points (30th in NFL) and 440 yards (29th) a game. 

The Browns offense should provide a much-needed break from each position. 

Even with Weeden healthy and Richardson still on the roster, Cleveland averaged just 275 total yards of offense (28th) and 8.0 points (31st) over games against Miami and in Baltimore. Only the futile Jacksonville Jaguars were worse at putting points on the board during the season's first two weeks. 

With Weeden nursing a bad thumb, the Browns will now turn to Hoyer in hopes of engineering an offensive turnaround. 

The Cleveland native has played for four teams (Browns, Arizona Cardinals, Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots) over five under-the-radar seasons in the NFL. His 96 career passes have resulted in 616 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of just 72.2. 

Hoyer will make the start in Minnesota Sunday.
Hoyer will make the start in Minnesota Sunday.Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

Hoyer's lone NFL start came in 2012 with the Cardinals. Facing the San Francisco 49ers, who needed a win in Week 17 to clinch the NFC West and the No. 2 seed in the postseason, Hoyer completed 19 of 34 passes for 225 yards, one touchdown and one interception (73.8). 

While the Cardinals received much better quarterback play from Hoyer than anyone could have reasonably expected, Arizona still trailed for the final 37 minutes of the game. And at one point in the fourth quarter, the 49ers were up by three touchdowns, 27-6. 

Hoyer shouldn't be expected to play considerably worse than Weeden, who has completed less than 55 percent of his passes with three interceptions to start this season. Weeden's passer rating of 62.0 is better than only Geno Smith (55.2) and Blaine Gabbert (30.8) among starting quarterbacks in 2013. 

But Hoyer also can't be expected to be on par with either Stafford or Cutler, two quarterbacks who sliced and diced the Minnesota secondary at times over Weeks 1 and 2. If Hoyer goes off, the Vikings will have much bigger problems. 

Complicating Hoyer's start Sunday is the loss of Richardson, who previously represented one of the Browns' few offensive weapons. In 15 games as a rookie, the former No. 3 overall pick rushed for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns, and also caught 51 passes.

Overall, Richardson accounted for roughly 25 percent of the offense's yards and over 33 percent of its touchdowns in 2012. 

He has since been woefully underutilized under new Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner. In 2013, Richardson has received just 31 carries, or just over 15 a contest, for 105 yards and zero touchdowns. His seven catches have netted 51 yards. 

Instead of spinning their wheels with a running back that wasn't fitting into a new scheme, and a quarterback situation that appears primed for an overhaul, the Browns flipped their most valuable trading piece for a chance to restart at key positions in next year's draft.

But in the process, Cleveland also waved the white flag on 2013. The remaining roster—including a defense that added veteran help this offseason—will now have to deal with the reality that the Browns have already punted on a season that is just two weeks old. 

Depth at running back is a more immediate concern, as trading Richardson away initially left the Browns with Chris Ogbonnaya and Bobby Rainey as the team's only two players at the position.

Ogbonnaya has just 95 career carries and is now considered a blocking fullback instead of a go-to runner. Rainey, the only true running back on the roster, spent most of last season on the Baltimore Ravens' practice squad. He has zero career carries. 

This shallow combination of depth and talent required Cleveland to make a corresponding roster move. The pick from the scrap heap was veteran Willis McGahee, who was cut by the Denver Broncos this past offseason but still rushed for over 700 yards in 10 games in 2012.

According to Jeff Darlington of NFL.com, McGahee passed his physical Thursday and signed with the Browns: 

While McGahee is a nice stop-gap option for 2013. The 31-year-old back will only have a day or so to get acclimated to the Browns playbook and back into playing shape. He would seem unlikely to have a large role in his first week. 

Even if McGahee is immediately ready, the Browns would head to Minnesota with a trio of backs that lack a rushing attempt in 2013. Add in a starting quarterback who has just 96 career attempts, and Cleveland could really struggle moving the football Sunday.

No team in the NFL can chalk up a certain win during a given week (save for maybe the Seahawks this week—Jacksonville is set up for slaughter in Seattle), but the Vikings will likely walk onto Mall of America Field with about as much confidence as a 0-2 team can possess. The neutered offense of the Browns now lacks the firepower necessary to inflict the damage that Detroit and Chicago accomplished in Weeks 1 and 2, respectively. 

In fact, Minnesota should be able to weather some degree of offensive ineptitude—be it turnovers from Ponder or inefficiency on third down or in the red zone—and still beat the offensively challenged Browns at home. 

The Vikings really have no plausible excuses for entering Week 4 with a 0-3 record. The Browns all but handed Minnesota its first win of the season Sunday with two drastic moves made on Wednesday.


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