Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Desert dust

A month ago, Browns fans looked at the club’s finishing schedule and cringed. The team was 4-6 and the fans feared the final outcome because five of the remaining six games were against Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

The only breather in that gantlet was the Arizona Cardinals, who had lost six of their first seven games. At least the Browns had a chance in that one even though the game was in Glendale, right?

Guess again.

The Cardinals have been one of the hottest teams in the National Football League since opening the season at 1-6. When the Browns arrive in the desert for Sunday’s game, they’ll face a team that has won three straight games and five of its last six.

No longer is Arizona the patsy. No longer can teams chalk up an automatic victory against the Cardinals. No longer do the Cards sulk and feel sorry for themselves because the season, for all intents and purposes, was over midway through the schedule.

And no longer are they the breather in an otherwise brutal finishing schedule for the Browns. What looked like a 5-11 finish this season now looms large as a 4-12 record in Pat Shurmur’s rookie season as a head coach.

You can bet Eric Mangini’s large support group in Cleveland will more than rise to the occasion if Shurmur sports a worse record than his predecessor, who fashioned a brace of 5-11 campaigns. That doesn’t make Mangini necessarily a better coach. It just makes him a coach with a slightly better record.

A quick look at the Cardinals this season shows they lost four of those early games in the losing streak by 1, 3, 4 and 3 points. Conversely, they have posted victories by 6, 4, 3, 6 and 2 points in their comeback.

Captain Obvious would say the Big Red, as they are known in the desert, play close games. Others more familiar with the club would say it was because it took half a season to acclimate to the new system of defensive coordinator Ray Horton.

Mistakes made early in the season have been eliminated dramatically as the opportunistic defense is more comfortable with the schemes of their coordinator, a disciple of Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Yes, that means the Browns are going to see a variety of looks Sunday, including the famed zone blitz. And the Cleveland offensive line, already shaky at best after the first 13 games, had better be up to the challenge or else it could be a long afternoon for whomever starts at quarterback.

The Cardinals have allowed just six touchdowns in the last six games mainly because they have been exceptional on third down. Their 31.8% conversion rate against opponents on that down is third best in the NFL. They get their offense back on the field quickly.

The best chance the Browns have of winning this one is to attack the Cardinals’ offense, which sputters more than it hums, especially with an abysmal 29.7% conversion rate on third down. Whether it’s John Skelton or Kevin Kolb at quarterback, you can count on at least one interception a game.

It is entirely possible backup quarterbacks will start. Unless Colt McCoy makes a miraculous recovery from the concussion he received last week courtesy of a James Harrison cheap shot, Seneca Wallace will make his first start.

It’s quite the opposite for the Cardinals. Skelton, who has filled in for the oft-injured Kolb this season, most likely will be under center since Kolb went down with a concussion last Sunday.

The big difference here is that Wallace has been in for only two plays this season. Skelton, although the numbers don’t reflect it, has been the savior on offense for Arizona with a 4-1 mark as the quarterback of record. The big guy from Fordham has thrown seven touchdown passes, including three in last Sunday’s upset of the San Francisco 49ers, but he has countered that with nine interceptions.

However, he has the luxury of throwing the football to Larry Fitzgerald, one of the NFL’s premier wide receivers. Wallace enjoys no such luxury. He’s got Greg Little, Mo Massaquoi and Jordan Norwood.

Fitzgerald catches everything within his zip code. He counts his career drops on one hand. Receivers like Little and Massaquoi count their drops on both hands over a season. Fitzgerald has 62 catches this season for 1,092 yards and nine touchdowns.

The Cardinals, however, are vulnerable along the offensive line. With any kind of pressure, opponents can get up close and personal with the quarterback. That line surrenders an average of slightly more than three sacks a game.

If Cleveland defensive coordinator Dick Jauron ever wanted to unleash an afternoon full of blitzes, this would be the perfect time. If you play conservatively against the Cards’ offense, you most likely will pay a dear price.

Running back Beanie Wells, the kid from Akron and Ohio State, has finally learned to play with pain and is having a very nice season. Even though he's banged up from head to toe, he has run for 943 yards and nine touchdowns.

On defense, players to watch include defensive end Calais Campbell, who has seven sacks and uses his 6-8 frame to knock down numerous passes at the line of scrimmage; linebacker Daryl Washington, who has 71 solo tackles on the season and is playing well enough to be considered strongly for the Pro Bowl; rookie linebacker Sam Acho, who has five sacks in limited duty since replacing the injured Joey Porter; and strong safety Adrian Wilson, one of the hardest hitters in the league.

And then there’s Patrick Peterson, the rookie cornerback who has all the makings of one of the best punt returners in history. He has already returned a record-tying four for TDs, including a 99-yarder that beat St. Louis in overtime a few weeks ago. Now factor in the Browns’ season-long poor special teams performance and a record-breaking fifth return for a score is a distinct possibility.

All in all, this will not be the breather most fans thought when the schedule came out. It looks as though the Browns, losers of three in a row, six of the last seven and eight of the last 10, very well might finish with a flourish. The wrong kind of flourish. Make it:

Cardinals 24, Browns 19

No comments:

Post a Comment