The Browns are a hard team for me to figure out. Some portions of their game looked good or bad in the preseason, then looked completely different in Week One. Some portions of their game varied widely from the first to the second half of that first regular season game, too. Even their offensive line varies (looks much better on the strong side of the field than the weak side).
But in fairness, how predictable are the Broncos? Kyle Orton didn't look too sharp in his first regular season game for Denver, failing to move the ball down the field much. On the other hand, he gave up zero interceptions and had a good completion rate. (Chicago fans got what Denver fans said they would - a QB that moves the ball down the field like a Pro Bowler, but gets interceptions at the end of drives instead of touchdowns). Denver's vaunted running game? Didn't materialize. Poor special teams coverage? Nope, the team did a solid job. Denver's defense looked better than last year by far, while the offense (still star-studded) looked plain.
In short, this is a matchup of two teams that are morphing before our eyes, and anything can happen. While I'm inclined to favor Denver, there are enough question marks that I don't think the game is a lock by any stretch.
Let's look further into the matchup, and see what is worth watching for...
Browns Offense vs Broncos Defense
The Browns passing offense against Denver's defense is my favorite matchup in terms of intrigue.
vs Doom vs Thomas (courtesy - NFL)
Elvis Dumervil is an elite pass rusher, and has beaten the best left tackles in the League. He faces Joe Thomas, who is an excellent player, and this is going to be a terrific battle. With the 5-2 look that Denver presents (DE - DG - NT - DG - DE and two true LBS), Denver can use the extra pass rusher to form schemes that force the OL to make hard decisions and this may help "Doom". The Browns will counter by using TEs in to block, and the entire Browns' passing offense will hinge on the success of the Browns' offensive line.
I wrote two to three years ago about how the FB is a position being slowly phased out of modern football, to be replaced with more TEs. (The end of this evolution is expected to be 3-TE sets). We'll see some of this theory in the Denver - Cleveland game, as both teams will heavily rely on two-TE or 3-WR sets. I don't expect to see a FB very much for either side.
So, given the coaching theory that 1 defensive lineman is equivelent to 1.5 O-Linemen (based on rules that allow D-Linemen to do more than their counterparts), we see 5 DLs for Denver (they run a 5-2) and 7 (two TEs) for Cleveland. Denver has 7.5 points (1.5 for each lineman) against 7, which are close odds. Denver's LBs shouldn't be a factor on most plays, as there are only really two true LBs on the field in the 5-2 to cover other responsibilities.
Now the key comes down to what Cleveland decides to do. Cleveland has three worthy receivers in Braylon Edwards (a good all-around WR) and Joshua Cribbs (a deep threat who is also a monster in the return game). Some would argue that Mike Furrey should get the start over Cribbs because he is a better all-around receiver. But Denver has an elite secondary, with future Hall of Fame-players Champ Bailey at CB and Brian Dawkins at FS. Denver also also has CB Andre' Goodman, who has been excellent since coming to Denver, as well as Renaldo Hill at SS. As if this isn't enough, Denver has depth at defensive back with rookie phenom CB Alphonso Smith and several players at safety.
If I'm Cleveland's offensive coordinator, I stick with Brady Quinn's strengths and the TEs. Quinn likes to throw to his TEs, and the coverage against even three-receiver sets should lean in Denver's favor. Cleveland should play two-TE sets to match the Denver front five, with the added threat of one or both TEs going into quick routes. This forces D.J. Williams and Andra Davis to make decisions between covering TEs, or watching for the run. Expect Denver's two LBs to be in zone.
Andra Davis (Courtesy - NFL)
A quick note on Andra Davis. A lot of Cleveland fans may look forward to playing against Davis. He was considered slow (true) and not a great asset for Cleveland (true again). But in Denver's scheme, Davis has found his niche as a very effective run stopper, and is getting put in position to (surprisingly) make a difference when the ball goes in the air. As I wrote during the re-loading season, the acquistion of Davis makes sense for Denver. Cleveland fans would be surprised to watch some game film of Davis in Week One against the Bengals, and with a chip on his shoulder, he might be a force in this game as well.
Watch the right side of the Cleveland offensive line. Denver has suddenly found depth by swtiching from a 4-3 to a 5-2, and players ranging from Mario Haggan to Darrell Reid to 1st-round pick Robert Ayers may be rotated in to attack a suspect duo of John St. Clair and Floyd Womack.
A big question mark is Cleveland's RB situation. As of Thursday's practice, Jamal Lewis was limited in practice, and Jerome Harrison practiced fully, but is coming off of a knee injury. Cedric Peerman and James Davis were also limited in practice. Denver's rush defense is much improved, and the new schemes in use by Denver tend to support stopping the run.
Jamal Lewis (Courtesy - NFL)
Cleveland likes to run the ball, and did so (and well) against the Vikings. Lewis is the kind of player that can average over 5 YPC, so I think Cleveland will continue to pound the ball and avoid some of the issues in the passing game. Cleveland's game plan may be as simple as trying to establish the run, force a safety into the box, and then let go with a deep ball. Don't be surprised if the biggest gain via pass turns out to be to a TE, and not Cribbs. Denver's safeties will be making tricky decisions on whether to cover a TE or play over the top of WRs that may streak the field at any moment.
Broncos Offense vs Browns Defense
Denver's run game didn't look so hot in the season opener. I noted two problems here. First, Denver was calling sweeps with Peyton Hillis, who is more of a downhill guy who shouldn't be racing to the edge. But more importantly, rookie Knowshon Moreno was dancing around instead of taking his one cut and committing. This is something that I'm sure the RBs coach (Turner) will be addressing this week in practice. Correll Buckhalter had some flashes, and looks to develop into an effective RB for Denver.
Cleveland's run defense was solid in the first half of Game One, severely limiting an elite Vikings gound game. But when the second half rolled around, the defense rolled over. In Denver, where the altitude makes endurance a bigger factor, watch closely to see if Denver goes into the second half with a lead to wear down the Browns defense.
Denver's pass game is interesting to look at. Brandon Marshall is deadly with yards after the catch, but didn't look comfortable having missed much of the offseason either suspended or holding out. Eddie Royal didn't have a great game, but that's a rare thing. Denver can still count on amazing depth, having seen great play in the preseason from Brandon Stokley, Jabar Gaffney, and Brandon Lloyd. Denver also has receiving threats at TE with Daniel Graham and Tony Scheffler, as well as superior blocking from Graham and rookie Richard Quinn.
Kyle Orton (Courtesy - NFL)
The big question mark is, as always, Kyle Orton. Denver fans that were used to spectacular yards aren't seeing them, and this is bad. On the other hand, Denver fans aren't seeing multiple interceptions, and this is terrific. Orton needs to have two goals for this game...
First, continue to protect the ball. The team can afford to be limited in passing yards while still winning ballgames. With a slow-moving offense though, the team can't afford more than one (if that) interception. Second, as Orton gets more comfortable, he'll need to make more passes. Denver won't win on the running game alone, and needs at least some balance to help the running game to get consistant yards.
Josh Cribbs (Courtesy - NFL)
This is a picture of Josh Cribbs of the Browns. Don't kick or punt to him. If you do, the coverage teams had better be ready. That is all that needs to be said about special teams.
Keys to the Game
Both teams share a crucial goal - get to the opposing QB. Both QBs will have severe problems if they are hurried, and both teams sport excellent pass rushes. The keys to the running games lay in the trenches, so both teams must rely on their offensive and defensive lines to win this game. This game will be won or lost in the trenches in my opinion.
If Dumervil can work his magic on the weak side, Cleveland is in serious trouble. If not, Cleveland still needs to worry about the right side of their line. Likewise, Denver's famous OL showed some cracks against Cincy, and needs to be at their best to stop the Browns' attack against Orton. Expect both teams to play an attacking defense.
While the oddsmakers, experts, and polls seem to show this being a win for Denver, I think the game is more evenly matched than most folks might think. I'll take Denver too, but with the caveat that both teams' fans are probably underestimating their opponents. I expect this to be a close game, with a big-play difference.
- Pressure Quinn. With enough pressure, Cleveland will have to use TEs to block instead of going on routes. This forces Quinn to pass into a dangerous secondary. If the pressure isn't effective, Quinn can pass to open TEs in the seams, and watch for a deep-threat moment to make a defining score in the game.
- Establish the run. Cleveland showed defensive weaknesses in the second half against the Vikings, while Denver didn't seem to sweat against a Cincy team that had their hands on their hips trying to catch their breath in the second half. If Denver's run game is sharp, the pass gets easier for Orton and the pass rush of Cleveland gets negated.
- Limit turnovers. Turnovers often determine games, but in a game with the matchups presented in Game 2 of this season, I think they are even more critical. Both teams will fight for short yardage, and I share Guru's predicition that a big play or two will likely swing the game. For this reason, Denver can't afford to lose hard-fought field position on an interception or fumble.
- Pressure Orton. Orton is careful and can hold onto a ball for too long. Orton is under a lot of pressure to succeed in Denver, and pressure on the field against the QB cancels out the star power of an elite receiving and TE corps.
- Force third-and-long situations so that Josh Cribbs gets plenty of touches on punts. The more that Denver has to punt, the better the odds of a Cribbs punt return. Denver has an improved coverage team over last year, but do they really want to face Cribbs several times? A big play will likely decide this game, and if it isn't a break away pass (or run), it will be Cribbs.
- Don't challenge Bailey. Better QBs and better WRs have made this mistake. Quinn's throws can be effective to TEs, and he can make a lot of short and medium passes for moderate gains around the field. Rookie nickelback Alphonso Smith can be a dangerous threat, as can veteran Goodman. But a medium-range pass to Bailey is suicide. Unless the receiver is clearly down field from Bailey, go elsewhere. As I opined earlier, turnovers and big plays should determine this game. Cleveland may need a deep pass or a return on special teams. Denver will shoot for the turnovers, particularly on INTs.