Typically, when big brother and little brother go head to head in battle, the outcome tends to favor the more experienced, the faster, the stronger, and the more mentally sound. The Cleveland Browns are hoping to buck that trend on Sunday when the Philadelphia Eagles descend upon the shores of Lake Erie to kickoff the 2012 NFL Regular Season.
A battle between brothers is what this game might feel like to a large number of players, coaches and front office executives who have ties to both organizations. The Philadelphia Eagles, led by Head Coach Andy Reid are what the Cleveland Browns, led by former Reid assistant, Head Coach Pat Shurmur, strive to someday be. Until that day, however, the Eagles get the bigger room.
There are as many parallels between the two clubs as there are gaps between them in terms of talent, depth and continuity but the one thing the Browns have going for them is that this is the NFL. And in the NFL, unlike in the living room or the backyard, little brother can win on any given Sunday. But little brother is in for quite a fight.
Of course, for the Browns to come out with a win on Opening Day, something they have only done once since the team returned to the league in 1999, nearly every single position group is going to have to exceed expectations and play better than their counterparts on the opposite side of the ball.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Browns Offensive Line vs. Eagles Defensive Line -- In my mind, the battle of the trenches will most likely determine the outcome of the contest. In what was supposed to be a watered-down, "vanilla" preseason game two weeks ago, the Eagles defensive front, employing their 'Wide Nine" formation, absolutely manhandled the Browns starting offensive line and forced two strip sacks on Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden. If the Browns are going to have any chance of winning the game on Sunday, the offensive line has to somehow neutralize the Eagles' speedy pass rush and give Brandon Weeden time to step into the pocket and make a decision with the football. Even if that decision is throwing it out-of-bounds, the Browns can ill-afford to have the turnovers they had back when the games didn't count yet.
Unfortunately for the Browns, the Eagles may have one of the deepest defensive lines in all of pro football when you look at guys like defensive ends Jason Babin, Trent Cole and rookie Vinny Curry. Clogging up the middle of the defense are tackles Cullen Jenkins, Derek Landri and the Eagles' first round draft pick, Fletcher Cox. Adding to that rotation will be veterans Darryl Tapp, Phillip Hunt and Brandon Graham. Conversely, the Browns currently have only one healthy back-up offensive lineman, rookie guard/tackle Ryan Miller. Therefore, it is imperative that the Browns' starting unit stay healthy and in sync in order for the offense to be able to move the ball downfield.
Look for Pat Shurmur to use tight ends Benjamin Watson and Alex Smith early and often to help out tackles Joe Thomas and rookie Mitchell Schwartz get a chip on the Eagles' pass rushers. With the "Wide Nine" formation, it is very difficult for the offensive tackles to drop step fast enough to get in the way of the downhill pass rush the Eagles will throw at Brandon Weeden. Having an extra body lined up outside of the tackles may give Weeden the time he needs to find an open receiver down field on passing downs.
PLAYER(S) TO WATCH: Browns Rookies vs. Eagles Veterans -- As basic as it may sound, the game really boils down to the key individual matchups on either side of the ball. On offense, rookies Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson hold the keys to the Browns franchise in their hands for this season and, hopefully, beyond. In this game, however, Weeden's decision-making and ability to protect the football are going to be paramount. When he is able to avoid the pass rush, he must be cognizant of the Eagles' veteran secondary led by Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Weeden showed in the preseason that he has a knack for squeezing the ball into tight windows. He is confident in his ability and it shows. However, he must not develop a false sense of security and take too many risks throwing into the coverage or the savvy veterans for the Eagles will shatter that self-confidence real soon.
As far as Richardson is concerned, the Browns coaches will likely play this game by ear. Coming off minor knee surgery and having no preseason to test his knee in a game-like atmosphere, Trent will likely not be asked to handle a full workload against the Eagles. It's very important for the Browns to realize that an NFL season is a marathon, not a sprint. Though I'm fairly certain Shurmur and company don't need me to tell them that, I'm also not sure it goes without saying. So it will be interesting to see just how much they rely on Richardson and how effective he will be on Sunday.
In a perfect world, you'd like to see him get somewhere around 20-25 touches and really take the pressure off the Browns offensive line and rookie quarterback. For as highly-touted as the Eagles "Wide Nine" is, it tends to leave sizable running lanes for opposing backs to slip through. A back like Trent Richardson could be an extremely powerful weapon if he's allowed to reach the second level of a defense and get into the open field. We'll have to wait and see whether that becomes a reality on Sunday.
On offense, the Browns are young by design. On defense, however, they are young out of necessity. With injuries to defensive tackle Phil Taylor and linebacker Chris Gocong and a likely three-game suspension for linebacker Scott Fujita, the Browns defense will also be a trial by fire. Starting, or at the very least seeing significant action, in place of the missing veterans will be rookie DT John Hughes, rookie DT/DE Billy Winn, undrafted rookie LB L.J. Fort and fourth-year backup LB Kaluka Maiava. Needless to say, the interior of the Browns defense will have their hands full containing the extremely agile and deadly Eagles' quarterback Michael Vick.
As if Vick didn't pose enough of a threat to the young Browns defense, running back LeSean McCoy and veteran receivers Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson will be a challenge to contain. It is likely that the Browns will rely on veteran middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson to "spy" on Vick in hopes of containing his ability to scramble and make big plays with his feet. While the Browns secondary will be focused on shutting down passing targets in Maclin, Jackson, and tight end Brent Celek, the remainder of the Browns defense is going to have to respect McCoy and his ability to find cutback lanes in the running game and his ability to gain big chunks on the screen pass. The Browns are going to have to play sound, fundamental defense and leave very little room for error in order to get off the field without giving up points. It will also help the Browns defense a great deal if Brandon Weeden and the offense can put together a few scoring drives themselves. If the offense can score points and give the defense enough of a rest, it could be anybody's game in the fourth quarter.
WHAT TO EXPECT: At this point, you may be wondering why the Browns would even get on the bus over to the stadium from the hotel Sunday morning. If you look at everything on paper, and listen to everything on all the sports talk shows, it's easy to see why the Browns are a heavy underdog this weekend. (When aren't the Browns underdogs for that matter?) But remember that these are NFL football players. None of them would be where they are if they weren't any good. This game is going to be about execution above all else. The Eagles are the much more talented team on paper, but with so many rookies playing for the Browns, it's really hard to know what to expect.
It's tough to project the unknown. History tells us that rookies struggle out of the gates. History tells us that the Browns don't often win on Opening Day. History tells us the Browns won't win this game. The only way the Browns are going to make those ideas indeed history, is by coming out on Sunday and showing everyone something we haven't seen on the lakefront for quite some time. They have to play fast, physical, and mistake-free football to even the playing field and have a chance to win. It's not impossible. It's the NFL. And it's great to be back!