Let’s be honest for a second. It’s put up or shut up time for the Cleveland Browns this week versus the Peyton Manningless Indianapolis Colts.
Coming off an absolutely terrible week 1 loss against the Cincinnati Bengals in which the Browns looked sloppy and unprepared, they need to rebound. Under no circumstance can this team afford to fall into another 0 and 2 hole to start a season, not when the schedule shaped up so perfectly for them to get off to a good start. A week 1 home game versus an awful Bengals team starting a rookie QB and the Colts without Peyton Manning for the first time since 1998 should have been a 2 and 0 start.
The blame has to lie squarely on the shoulders of the coaching staff, specifically head coach Pat Shurmur. All offseason the Browns emphasized a new system, a new identity, and a new offensive philosophy. That’s odd because against the Bengals it looked like more of the same. Three and out after three and out along with a crap load of penalties is not progress. If anything, the Browns regressed. Say what you will about Eric Mangini, but his team was disciplined and focused. Shurmur’s Browns were anything but while accumulating 11 penalties for 72 yards. That needs to change.
In terms of offensive production the Browns didn’t do anything outstanding against the Bengals. They racked up 285 total yards of offense, 202 of which came via the passing game. That’s not Cleveland Browns football. While I understand the Browns are implementing a pass happy west coast style offense, the Browns wide receiving core does not boast the kind of talent that makes throwing 40 passes a smart play. If the Browns want success this week against Indianapolis and moving forward they will need to seek a better balance with their primary focus centered on the running game.
Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty appeared to be effective against the defensive front 7 of the Bengals, but 17 carries for Hillis and 5 for Hardesty is nowhere near enough. The Browns need to use Hillis’ bruising style to their advantage and wear down the undersized defense of the Colts. If they are able to do that, it should help open up holes for Hardesty later on. In addition, utilizing Hillis and Hardesty should help open up the field for the passing game. These receivers lack the speed and skills to create space. Play action fakes and forcing the defensive backs to cheat on the run would help.
The running game should be a strength for the Browns against Indianapolis. The Colts have never been good at stopping the run. They are a defensive that plays better from ahead. When teams are playing catch up and forced into passing situations, it allows Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to run wild after the quarterback. Hillis needs to beat up on the Colts if for no other reason than to keep Colt McCoy from running for his life.
Speaking of McCoy, he needs to be better this week. As a quarterback who relies heavily on accuracy, 19 of 40 is not good enough. For the passing game of the Browns to be effective, McCoy needs to be completing 60%-65% of his passes. McCoy also needs to make better reads and throws in general. Last week against the Bengals, McCoy looked as if he had regressed from the player we saw in the preseason. Of course some of the blame could be placed on the wide outs, but really its a chicken or the egg type of argument. Either the QB didn’t make good throws or the wide receivers didn’t get open… or maybe it was both.
The last issue with the offense from last week that needs to improve versus the Colts is the play calling as a whole. The Browns offensive game plan way to conservative and came across as a “play not to lose” strategy. When the Browns got up and knocked Andy Dalton out of the game, they needed to put their foot on their throat. They didn’t do that. They looked to simply manage the game and never took chances down the field.
Defensively, the Browns catch a huge break this week. Without Peyton Manning, the Browns go from facing one of the best and most explosive offenses in the NFL to one of the worst. Kerry Collins’ skill set is not the same as Manning’s. Honestly, no one is, but Collins relies heavily on play action fakes and a solid run game to take pressure off the passing game. Look at the times he’s been successful in his career, especially of late. It’s all come on teams with solid running games. The Colts don’t have that as we’ve seen over the years.
The Colts offensive line is shaky at best. Their success in recent years is due largely in part to the audibles and defensive reads of Peyton Manning. He continually put them in position to look good. Again, they don’t have that with Collins. The Browns defensive front seven should be able to get penetration and put pressure on Collins. Last week, Collins had no time to throw the ball and was hit repeatedly. If the Browns can get to him, that means mistakes that Joe Haden and T.J. Ward can capitalize on down the field. If I’m the Browns, I’m looking at how Houston reeked havoc on the Colts last week and replicating that same game plan.
From a special teams stand point, the Browns have the advantage. We saw last week what a healthy Josh Cribbs can do when he gets an opportunity to return a kick. On his 51 yard kickoff return, Cribbs ignited a team that looked complacent and dead in the water. He’s the spark plug for this team and against the Colts on a fast track, Cribbs should be able to make an impact in the return game.
Keys to the Game:
- Run the ball with Hillis and Hardesty and wear down the Colts front seven
- Rush Collins into submission and beat him up to create mistakes
- Balance out the offensive attack. 50/50 or 60/40 run/pass
- Solid kick returns from Josh Cribbs resulting in good starting field position
- Minimize mistakes, aka fewer penalties and fewer mental lapses on the defensive side of the ball
Prediction: The Browns bounce back, not because they outplay the Colts, but more because of Manning’s absence. This will be an ugly, low scoring game especially if the Browns rely on Hillis in the ground game. The Browns pass rush will look amazing and make Kerry Collins rethink why he came out of retirement. The score… Browns 17 – Colts 13