1) Let's get the big story with Cleveland out of the way first: Is Josh McCown for real? What are you guys loving about your starting QB this year and what do you think are his weaknesses?
A couple of weeks ago, I said that I would take Josh McCown over about 10 of the other quarterbacks who were starting in the NFL yesterday. That wasn't my opinion when the Browns first signed him -- he seemed like another one-year bridge to whoever Cleveland's next quarterback would be. Given his injury history, he still might be that one-year bridge. In terms of effectiveness in this offense, though, McCown is playing like a Top-15 quarterback and is not showing signs of it being a fluke. He has benefited from a fortunate and surprising offensive team. Aside from tight end Gary Barnidge, the Browns feature Duke Johnson, Travis Benjamin, Taylor Gabriel, and Andrew Hawkins as short, quick receivers in the passing game. They are good at making that first quick move to get a step on the defender, and then the big key is that McCown's ball placement on those short passes have been perfect -- right in stride and between the numbers, allowing them to gain yards after the catch. His accuracy on the deep ball has been fair as well.
The funny thing about McCown's weaknesses is that fans don't harp on him too much for them because our expectations were so low heading into the season. With that in mind, his primary weakness thus far has been down in the red zone, where the Browns are ranked 31st in the league, scoring a touchdown just 31.25% of the time. A couple of McCown's touchdown passes have come outside the red zone, but when Cleveland gets into that territory and the field shrinks, he's taken a few sacks on third down and hasn't been able to make use of his smaller targets as effectively. Another weakness is that there are times where he isn't willing to let a play die, which is concerning given the Broncos' turnover-prone defense. In Week 1, I'm sure Broncos fans remember when he went helicopter mode trying to make a hero play rather than sliding safely. Last week, McCown was pressured on one play off of a playaction, backpedaled, and tried to lob a 25-yard sideline pass, which the Ravens intercepted in their Cover-2 defense. Fortunately, the play was called back due to a roughing-the-passer penalty.
2) Looking at your defense, they appear to have a big problem defending the run. What's causing teams to run for so many yards on them?
The Browns were just as bad at stopping the run in 2014. Last year, I blamed the defensive line. Between injuries and players underachieving, the Browns' defensive linemen would be blown off the line of scrimmage way too often. This offseason, Cleveland re-tooled the defensive line by drafting Danny Shelton in the first round and signing veteran Randy Starks. While the defensive line has not been over-bearing, they hold their ground much better than last year's unit. This year, the run defense has suffered because all of the Browns' linebackers. Every other play, someone is either out of position or takes a poor angle. There have also been a few times when our safety, who was the "last line of defense" on a run, decided to take a chance to make an aggressive open-field tackle, but end up missing. Instead of it being a 12-yard gain, it turns into a 40-yard gain. When so many players are to blame, there is no easy fix to it: the Browns just need to upgrade their personnel next year.
3) In reviewing your team, I'm finding some comfort in knowing we aren't the only fan base who is gnashing our teeth over a poor offensive line. Where are the problems in the O-Line and what direction is their play headed?
The Browns' offensive line struggled a little bit to begin the season, but have since found their footing and on paper, they should be one of the best in the NFL. Despite what the sack numbers tell you, the Browns' pass protection is quite good. Josh McCown takes a few sacks, but he is not getting hit on every play, which is part of the reason he has such a high completion percentage the past couple of weeks. The run blocking has not been up-to-par, as the execution in the zone-blocking scheme is lacking. For every well-blocked play, there are probably three or four plays where somebody misses their defender. I would say that the bulk of the Browns' protection problems have actually come via the tight end position. Cleveland doesn't have a stout blocking tight end, and if there is one complaint I have about offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, it is the amount of trust he has in those guys in one-on-one blocking situations.
4) Tell us about two players we likely haven't heard of that are making an impact for your team in a good way.
On offense, you probably haven't heard about wide receiver Taylor Gabriel. The Browns rotate four receivers in during the game, but give each of them a pretty good amount of snaps, so Gabriel should be around the 45% mark. He is used on bubble screens because of his quickness in the open field, but for a 5-8 receiver, he also can spring open on deep post routes. Last year, Gabriel had gains of 70, 49, 48, 34, 35, and 49 yards. Last week, he caught a 56-yard pass.
On defense, cornerback Pierre Desir will get the start for veteran Joe Haden. Desir, in his second year, already started one game against the Raiders a few weeks ago and had several pass breakups. He was a very raw talent when he was drafted, but has progressed so quickly that it didn't take him long to leap past Justin Gilbert, last year's first-round pick, on the depth chart. Desir will probably draw a few penalties from trying to play too close to Denver's receivers, but a couple of those tight coverage spots might pay off.
5) What are your keys to the game and final score prediction?
Because Denver's offense has not been piling up the points this year, Josh McCown has to have the mentality that he has to be very safe with the football. Even if it means he has to throw away a bunch of passes and disappoint the home crowd with forcing Mike Pettine to send the punting unit out, playing the game of field position is the only way to have a fighting chance against Denver's defense.
Defensively, I think the Browns need to take risks on jumping shorter passes on what is expected to be a cold and windy day. Peyton Manning hasn't been pushing the ball downfield as well as he used to, so Cleveland can dare him to try -- something I never thought I'd associate with a guy like Manning. I'm leaning toward Denver with my final score prediction because of how consistently dominant their defense has been, and given how poor the Browns' defense has been playing, I think Manning will have some more time to throw and thus pick apart the Browns' linebackers in coverage.