Over the last few weeks I have been paying more and more attention to the Cleveland Browns, not only because they are set to square off with the New England Patriots this weekend, but because they are an interesting team.
The Browns are currently riding a three game losing streak, which has pretty much dropped them out of contention for the AFC North crown. In this streak, the Browns have allowed an average of 33.3 points per game. Sounds like terrible defense right? However in these same three games, opposing offenses have averaged a mere 280 yards a game. In my mind this bizarre pattern is due to two things. The first is Cleveland has one of the worst offenses in the NFL. They are 21st in total offense, 28th in scoring offense, 28th in rushing offense, and they have turned the ball over a whopping 23 times thus far in 2013. This offensive unit doesn’t give what is a terrific defense a chance to keep the Browns in football games, because they simply can’t produce (outside of Josh Gordon). The second reason is, the Browns defense lacks that “it” factor, which most elite defenses have. I will dive into this shortly.
Joe Haden anchors the talented Cleveland defense, as he is quickly emerging as one of the top cornerbacks in the game. He has the ability to lock down outside receivers in man coverage, allowing the rest of the defense to be aggressive, and make some positive plays. The front seven is led by veteran linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, who is one of the best inside linebackers in the league. He has already racked up 101 tackles this year, sparking the fifth best run defense in the NFL. The Browns aren’t an elite pass rushing team, but they get the job done, currently sitting at 13th in the NFL in sacks. Barkevious Mingo, the sixth round draft choice out of LSU, leads the team in this department, checking in at four sacks for the year.
Overall, this is a group that doesn’t give up much yardage, but at the same time they don’t seem to make those “explosive” plays when the team needs some help. They rank 12th in the AFC in takeaways, having only 14 on the season. Top notch defenses not only slow down high flying offenses, but they take the football away. The Browns have not shown that they can do that, which is a big reason why they are 4-8. Cleveland is also 28th in the league in third down defense, and rank 29th in red zone defense (per Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com). When you see that the Browns defense ranks fourth in the league in total yards given up, you immediately think that they are good in nearly every area. But you have to look at these “other” stats to really judge a defense. This group allows offenses to convert 41.6 percent of their third downs, which makes you have to take a step back, and realize that even the best defenses struggle in certain areas.
When it is all said and done, I think that the recently electric Patriots offense will move the ball against the Browns, but not to the extent of a 450 yard outing. Cleveland has the talent to slow New England down, particularly when it comes to Joe Haden versus one of the Pats outside receivers. But I believe the combination of Gronkowski, Edelman, and Amendola will be too much for the Browns to handle, which will result in a solid day for the Pats offense. Tom Brady should begin warming his arm up now, because I have a feeling that he will be airing the ball out yet again, this Sunday afternoon.
Where I really think this game will be won for the Patriots, is on the defensive side of the ball. As I said earlier, Cleveland’s offense is one of the worst units in the NFL, and while the Pats have struggled stopping the run, they have excelled in other areas (plus the Browns running attack is awful). I expect Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich to get to the quarterback early and often, which will result in multiple Cleveland turnovers. Aqib Talib, Devin McCourty, and Logan Ryan should have a feast in the back end, where a three interception day is not be out of the question. This will set up Brady and company in excellent field position all day, making the Browns trend of “giving up points, but not yards” continue.