FLORHAM PARK, NJ – Across New York, Jets fans are hoping their team doesn’t get lulled to sleep by the bland Cleveland Browns. Just ask any Saints or Patriots fans how that feels. How is it a team that has been cast aside for the last decade, in a city that has suffered more sports agony than any other, is one of the hottest in the league?
Their coach was exiled from New York after a horrible late season collapse. After losing their top two quarterbacks, an unheralded, baby-faced rookie has been leading an offense with zero house-hold names. And a former fullback-turned-running back has been unleashed on opposing teams, breaking the backs of any defense who dares to get in his way. The team filled with a bunch of send-offs and no-names have rattled off back-to-back victories against the reigning Super Bowl champions and a 6-1 division-leading team.
And they’ve been able to do it the old fashioned way.
When looking at the overall season numbers of the Browns, there is nothing that jumps out at you screaming this is a dangerous team. They have the 25th ranked passing offense, throwing more interceptions (8) than touchdowns (6). They also rank in the bottom third in passing yards (1,510), completions (145), and the bottom half in yards per completion (6.8). Ironically, they also rank 25th in passing defense, allowing the eighth most yards through the air (1,924) and the seventh most touchdowns (15). Certainly that is nothing to boast about.
However taking a closer look at how they were able to man-handle the Saints and Patriots may be more indicative to a season-changing turnaround rather than simple dumb luck.
Against the Saints and Patriots, the Browns were able to get early 10-0 leads, which enabled them to dictate their style of play. And they did so, pounding the ball and chewing up the clock. On the season they’ve averaged 117 yards per game on the ground, good for the 14th best rushing attack. In their last two games they’ve relied heavily on the run (72 att, 335 yards, 5 TD).
The Jets strong suit has been stopping the run. In fact, they’ve only allowed one team to rush over 100 yards against them this season. It will be a power versus power match-up with the breakout Peyton Hillis running up the gut into the teeth of the Jets run defense.
The Browns also found a direct correlation to winning and winning the turnover battle. Against New Orleans, they were able to pick off Drew Brees four times and return two for scores. Against New England, they were able to capitalize on two fumbles and a late interception. The defense had a bend-but-don’t-break approach to the high-powered Saints offense, allowing only four red zone trips (1 FG, 1 TD).
While their defense continues to make plays, the offense, led by rookie Colt McCoy, has been playing mistake-free football for the most part. After throwing two picks against the Steelers in his NFL debut, McCoy has played the role of game manager very well. Head coach Eric Mangini has simplified the playbook and has asked McCoy to simply not turn the ball over. Sound familiar Jet fans?
It has been well-noted that the Jets have struggled offensively, particularly in the red zone. The Jets cannot continue to settle for three points when they get inside the 20 like they have been, as their last few games have been too close. The defense also must pressure the young QB (sacked only once in the last two games) and force him to make uncomfortable throws.
While both teams do a great job stopping the run (Browns have allowed only one rushing touchdown this year), perhaps the biggest difference between the two teams has been their discipline. As the Jets continue to be one of most-penalized teams in the league, the Browns have been penalized a combined seven times for 50 yards over their last two games.
Additionally, the Browns were very adept at keeping Brees and Tom Brady off the field, which helps any opposing team. In the two games, they forced opposing offenses to a 31% third down efficiency rating.
However, it is important to keep in mind that this team is far from perfect. They still lack a big-play receiver (I have yet to see Joshua Cribbs and McCoy develop any sort of rhythm). Their quarterback is treading water in uncharted territories. And their defense seems susceptible to spread sets and the no-huddle offense.
Brees, while throwing four interceptions, was able to carve up the Browns defense for 356 yards and complete 37 passes, most of which was done from the shotgun formation. And in Cleveland, Brady and the Patriots had their only two scores of the day from the no-huddle offense. In that game, the Patriots had the ball for just over 21 minutes. On their two touchdown drives, which almost exclusively featured the no-huddle, they were able to chew up 10 minutes–half of the time they had the ball.
While the Browns have folded over for winning teams in the past, the have recently come out and played inspired football. In a game that features the return of their head coach to his former place of employment and a match-up of burly brothers, the will have all the more reason to be fired up. Take notes Jets personnel, these Browns are fresh out of the Dawg Pound.