Friday, October 19, 2012

Hard to figure out

On paper, after breaking down the Browns and Colts for their Sunday meeting in Indianapolis, one gets the feeling they just might wind up in a tie.

Each club has weaknesses that can be easily exploited. And each has strengths that can mean the difference between winning and losing.

The Browns, for instance, have proven much better on offense when Brandon Weeden drops back to throw. So, too, have the Colts when Andrew Luck drops back to throw.

The rookie quarterbacks have traveled a similar course as they take their first National Football League baby steps. Weeden has completed 55.8% of his 231 passes with seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Luck has completed 53.4% of his 221 passes for the 2-3 Colts with seven TDs and seven picks.

The biggest difference between the two is that Weeden is the beneficiary of a stronger – but not by much – running game. Thus, Luck shoulders a bigger burden in the Colts offense. In fact, more than 75% of the Colts’ yardage has come through the air.

At least Weeden can rely on Trent Richardson and Montario Hardesty on the ground. Luck’s choices have been reduced to just Vick Ballard after starting running back Donald Brown underwent scoped knee surgery this week.

So it’s pretty safe to say Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron’s job Sunday will be to ignore the run and force Luck into mistakes by applying extra pressure in the form of a heavy dose of sophisticated blitzing.

Because Luck relies so much on wide receiver Reggie Wayne, it won’t be much of a shock if Joe Haden is assigned to cover the veteran, who has averaged eight catches and nearly 120 yards a game with his new quarterback.

Shut down Wayne and the running game and Luck, who has been sacked 13 times, will have to come up with some new wrinkles. But Jauron should be aware that Luck, much more mobile than Weeden, is also the Colts’ second-leading rusher with 103 yards in 17 scrambles. Obviously, he runs more out of necessity than by design.

The Browns should be able to run on the Colts’ defense, which is still trying to adjust to its new 3-4 hybrid look. The switch has taken premier pass-rushing defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and converted them into linebackers.

The defense takes on the hybrid look when Freeney and/or Mathis are allowed to put their hand on the ground and become a defensive end in a four-man front. Sunday, it will be Freeney because Mathis is expected to miss the game with a sprained left knee.

The Indianapolis defense against the run resembles the Browns’ run defense of the last several seasons, surrendering nearly 160 yards a game. Then take into consideration that the Browns have averaged a meager 83 yards a game on the ground and you have what could amount to a stalemate. But Richardson and Hardesty should thrive against the worst run defense the Browns will face all season.

The Browns’ run/pass ratio checked in at nearly 54-46 in favor of the run in the Bengals victory last Sunday, reversing a 65-35 trend favoring the pass that led to an 0-5 start. So unless offensive coordinator Brad Childress changes his mind and reverts to a pass-happy attack against the Colts, look for that more balanced trend to continue.

The Browns are also a much more opportunistic team on defense with 10 interceptions and three fumble recoveries in their six games. The Colts have picked off just two passes and recovered a pair of fumbles.

The only advantage the Colts have in this one is home field. The last time the Browns played under the Indy dome was last season, racking up the first of four victories under rookie head coach Pat Shurmur. But the quarterback for the Colts then was Kerry Collins.

If the Browns are to be successful Sunday, they must dramatically improve their time of possession.  Half of last Sunday’s 16 drives against the Bengals wound up lasting no longer than three plays. That must change.

For the season, the Browns have owned the ball just 26½ minutes a game, which means the defense has spent 33½ minutes on the field. That’s way too long for a defense that has been hampered by injuries.

All of which adds up to what could be a high-scoring game. Two teams that love to throw the ball; two teams with marginal defenses that have trouble keeping the opposition off the scoreboard; two teams that can’t stop each other; and two teams trying very hard to climb back off the scrap heap and make some noise.

The Browns are just coming down from their high of knocking off the Bengals, while the Colts can’t forget soon enough the 35-9 thumping they absorbed last Sunday against the New York Jets.

It’s an intriguing game insofar as it’s difficult to get a definitive handle on it. The strengths and weaknesses of the two teams cancel out each other. It comes down to one team looking to build on something positive, the other in recovery mode.

Grabbing a coin and flipping it one time only results in . . . tails. So . . . make it:

Browns 34, Colts 27

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