Anyone who is truly watching the Cleveland Browns play football this year instead of merely scanning over the box score or taking a sideways glance at the win-loss column knows that, each week, the team is competing and seems to be steadily improving. It's easy to point to their winless record and assume they are one of the worst teams in the league, but a closer look shows that the players are fighting hard and earning every inch they get. Unfortunately, the Browns are not at the point where all 11 guys on the field are playing consistently as a well-oiled machine. And that's what it takes.
Football is the ultimate team sport because it takes everyone doing their job in concert to be successful on any given play. And it takes a string of those given plays to win a football game. This young team has shown evidence that they can achieve success in small doses, such as the 94-yard scoring drive late in the second quarter in Baltimore, which cut the Ravens lead to two points heading into halftime. However, for every drive like that, there have been many others which have stalled due to missed assignments, dropped passes, or momentum-killing penalties. Those things lose football games.
Things just haven't come together at this point in the season consistently enough to reward the Browns' efforts with a victory. With so many young players starting for the first time in their careers at the NFL level, growing pains are to be expected. However, I think it's safe to say that no one expected it to be this difficult. Meanwhile, the tests don't seem to be getting any easier as the team travels to the Meadowlands to take on the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants (2-2) on Sunday.
The Browns have proven that they can be a tough out for any team in the league. They have shown toughness, resilience, and a workmanlike approach to each game by playing technically sound on defense and having the ability to make big plays on offense. But those big plays are too few and far between. While the offense is clearly still a work in progress, the defense, which has yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season, is keeping them in games. The Giants are nine-point favorites heading into Sunday but the Browns are capable of pulling off the upset if the G-Men aren't careful.
Keys to the Game:
Force the Giants to Run. It was announced on Thursday that the Giants No. 1 receiver Hakeem Nicks will not play on Sunday due to injuries to his foot and knee. Also, WR Ramses Barden, who filled in admirably for Nicks with a nine-catch, 138-yard performance against the Carolina Panthers two weeks ago, is listed on the Giants injury report with concussion symptoms. With both receivers ailing, the Browns secondary, which has been picked apart in recent weeks in the absence of star cornerback Joe Haden, will get some much needed relief. It should be noted, however, that the Giants are fairly deep at the receiver position. With Nicks out, 2011 phenom Victor Cruz and newly acquired tight end Martellus Bennett will likely be the main targets of reigning Super Bowl MVP quarterback Eli Manning. Complimentary receivers Domenik Hixon and rookie Rueben Randle will handle the supporting roles to add more viable options in the passing game. So it appears, even with Nicks and Barden presumably out, the Browns secondary will still have its hands full stopping the Giants passing attack.
Complicating matters for the Browns is the fact that strong safety T.J. Ward is fighting his way back from thumb surgery. Ward practiced for the first time on Thursday and should be able to go Sunday, but there's no telling how his thumb will affect his play. Also, free safety Usama Young was limited in practice this week and is questionable to play on Sunday. Between injuries to Ward and Young and the absence of Haden, the Browns secondary will have to rely on better than average play from cornerbacks Sheldon Brown, Dimitri Patterson and Buster Skrine.
If they can successfully shut down Cruz on the outside by means of a double team, and not allow Bennett to run free down the seams, they will have a fighter's chance. The key will be to shut down the passing game early and force the Giants to hand the ball off to their stable of unreliable running backs Ahmad Bradshaw, Andre Brown and rookie David Wilson. Unlike last year, the Browns are built to stop the run as long as they don't let anyone get to the edge and turn up field on them. But in order to do that, they will first have to prove to the New York Giants' coaching staff, led by Tom Coughlin, that they are more than capable of shutting down the pass.
Run, Trent, Run. Conversely, the Browns must try to establish a running game on the Giants 25th-ranked run defense. Head coach Pat Shurmur has come under fire in recent weeks due to his propensity to pass the ball instead of establishing a running attack with the more than capable talents of third overall draft pick Trent Richardson. Part of this may be due to the fact that the Browns are always playing catch-up after trailing early in games or that opposing defenses are shutting down the run in order to make rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden beat them through the air. But there's no mystery that Shurmur likes to throw the ball. This week may be especially enticing for him as the Giants secondary is also fairly banged up. They have already ruled out safety Kenny Phillips due to a sprained MCL while fellow starters, CB Corey Webster (hand) and safety Antrel Rolle (knee), both missed practice on Wednesday and are questionable to play.
The Browns have issues of their own at wide receiver with Mohamed Massaquoi and Travis Benjamin both missing practice this week due to hamstring injuries. It is not yet known whether either of them will play. If they cannot go, the Browns will have no choice but lean heavily on the rushing attack. Throwing the ball to second-year receiver Greg Little has been a challenge due to his inability to make the type of difference-making catches NFL receivers need to make. The Browns may also rely heavily on second-year receiver Jordan Norwood, rookie Josh Gordon, and tight end Jordan Cameron to assist in the passing attack. But it would behoove Shurmur to trust in his offensive line and try to beat the Giants on the ground with a heavy dose of Richardson. This would not only take the pressure off of Weeden and Little in the passing game, but it would also eliminate the threat of the Giants' killer pass rushers Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck.
This won't be an easy game to win for an 0-4 team struggling to find something positive to hold onto before it all just unravels. They will be tested in all facets of the game, on the road, against the Super Bowl Champs. Quite simply, they have to do more than continue to show improvement and hang around within a score in the fourth quarter. They have to work as a cohesive unit on offense, defense and special teams for all four quarters of the game. They cannot start out slow in the first and third quarters and play catch-up against the Giants. They are not built to do that. Coach Shurmur has to figure out a way to put his players in the best position to win. Whatever that is. If it's giving Trent Richardson 30 carries, so be it. If it's spreading the Giants out with four receivers and a lone tailback and allowing Brandon Weeden to go "no huddle" from the shotgun, so be it. This team needs a spark and they need it now.
These young Browns have proven they belong on the same field as the big boys of the National Football League. They just don't have the wins to show for it. Now they have to take the next step. Improvement and moral victories and signs of progress are not enough anymore. They need to start winning football games. With all that surrounds the team, from a promising new owner, to players returning from injury or suspension, and a heavy-hearted fan base being forced to relive the darkest hours of their existence, the time is ripe for change. Because time is running out.