Week 6: Browns vs. Raiders

I’ll be in Virgina/D.C. for a wedding starting tomorrow, so here is my preview for Browns vs. Raiders.

This week’s game against the Raiders should be quite interesting.  First off, the Browns are coming off of the bye week.  A bye week that was badly needed given the way the team had played the previous two weeks and the gradually degrading locker room atmosphere.  Second, this will be the first home game for the Raiders following the death of iconic and long-time owner, Al Davis.

Davis’ legacy as the leader of the Raiders since way back in the pre-merger days will serve as an emotional back drop to a game that just a few weeks ago held Kameron Wimbley versus his old team as the lone provocative headline.  I would say that’s a pretty decent upgrade for those who enjoy the pageantry of sports.

The Raiders are coming off of an emotional win last week in Houston.  About 24 hours after the passing of Davis, Head Coach Hue Jackson had his team focused and ready to go.  They were ready to win one for all.  It took a heroic effort and a last second interception on the goal line to do it, but the Raiders found a way.  Now the mission for Jackson is to get his team refocused and ready for what is sure to be another emotionally draining day for Raider Nation.  Can he do it?  If last week is any indication I would say yes.  That could be a huge problem for the Browns.

After two weeks of shoddy offensive performances against the Dolphins and Titans, the Browns have been using the past two weeks refocusing and retooling the offense in hopes of finding a spark.  The most significant decision thus far has been the insertion of rookie wide receiver Greg Little into the starting lineup.  We knew that eventually Little would make his way into this spot, but the fact that the Browns have done it so soon shows that they have grown just as tiresome as the rest of us at seeing Brian Robiskie and Mo Mass run routes without getting open.  Little has shown an ability to make plays in wat little time he’s been on the field so this should be an instant upgrade.

Meanwhile, the defense is suffering a major downgrade this week.  I realize it’s only Thursday, but it appears likely that the Browns will be without Joe Haden who suffered a mild knee sprain two weeks ago against Tennessee.  That’s a problem because seemingly out of nowhere, the Raiders have developed a pretty potent passing attack.  In the past two weeks, former #1 pick Darius Heyward-Bay has put up huge numbers.  Without Haden, it’s likely it could happen a third week in a row.

For those of us watching the game though, the primary focus will be on the offensive side of the ball.  We’ll be looking to answer questions about whether or not Colt McCoy is the guy.  Can he make plays down the field instead of dinking and dunking his way 5 yards at a time?  Will Peyton Hillis be involved in the offensive game plan and will he make an impact?  Which Montario Hardesty will show up, the one who was a key cog against Miami or the one who dropped 4 passes versus Tennessee?  How will Greg Little perform in his newly expanded role?

That’s a lot to take in, but all are valid questions.  Mike Holmgren brought in Pat Shurmur for the sole purpose of revamping the offense.  His west coast system was supposed to spread the ball out and put points on the board.  It’s done anything but so far.  Now the Browns are facing an above average Raider defense that will be looking to win another one for Al.  One can’t help but think this isn’t a good combination for the Browns.

5 Keys to Victory…

1.  Stop Darren McFadden:  Run DMC has been a beast so far this season and finally looks like the running back he was supposed to be when he came out of Arkansas.  After a superb 2010, his 2011 is looking even better and he looks to continue that trend against a Browns defense that has been fairly stout against the run thus far.  Much like Chris Johnson, if the Browns can keep McFadden’s impact to a minimum, they should be able to keep the game close.  If not, it could be a long day.

2.  Get the crowd out of the game early:  This is going to be a more hostile and emotionally charged environment than normal thanks to the passing of Al Davis.  If the Browns want to have any chance of winning this game, they’ll have to eliminate the Raider crowd, aka The Black Hole.  That means the Browns need to hit some big plays early and get on the score board.  So… that means Colt McCoy will have to throw a pass further than five yards.  If the Browns get down early, or turn the ball over and feed the crowd, they stand no chance of winning.  This game could turn into a blow out quickly.  If I’m Shurmur, I send Greg Little on a go route to start the game.

3.  Balance the offensive attack:  This has been the running trend for the season thus far.  Keep the offensive attack balanced.  We saw against Tennessee how bad things can get when Colt throws the ball 60+ times.  That should never happen.  The Browns have two solid backs in Hardesty and Hillis and they should use them to their advantage.  So, while they do need to take chances down field early, they also need to find a way to settle into a game plan that involves pounding the ball up the middle, wearing down the Raiders defense, and setting up the passing game.

4.  Keep the bone headed penalties to a minimum:  The one thing you could say about the Eric Mangini era was that the Browns were extremely focused and disciplined on game day.  As a result, they were one of the least penalized teams in football.  This year, not so much.  The Browns have transformed into a sloppy, unfocused group that has reverted back to shooting themselves in the foot at the worst times with penalties.  That needs to stop.

5.  Maximize the usage of Greg Little:  You’re putting him in the starting lineup, he’s going to be in on the majority of the snaps… get him the ball.  We need to see what Little is capable of doing, which quite frankly, could be a lot.  He hasn’t gotten into the end zone yet, and the Browns haven’t really figured out how to use him.  With two weeks to figure that out, I’m expected a huge game from Little.

My prediction:  I don’t think this is the Browns week.  Yes, they’re coming off of the bye and that should be an advantage, but this is a different situation in one of the most unique environments in football.  I don’t think the Browns stand a chance.  This will be one of those cames where the Browns lose by 10 or 14, but somehow it’ll feel so much worse than that.  I say the final score will be Oakland 27-Cleveland 14.

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