Friday, September 12, 2014

Defense takes a back seat

When the New Orleans Saints help the Browns open their home season Sunday, two things will be most evident. The Saints will throw the football a lot. And the Browns will run the football a lot.

That’s where these teams excel. When Drew Brees is your quarterback, you had better feature the forward pass. And when Brian Hoyer is your quarterback, you had better feature the running game.

This is no slam at Hoyer, who has performed admirably for the Browns when healthy. But he is no Drew Brees. Not even close. And Brees does not need a running game to be effective. He’s that good.

And considering the way in which Ben Roethlisberger deconstructed the Cleveland secondary in the first half of last Sunday’s loss in Pittsburgh, Brees must be salivating just thinking about what lies ahead after watching tapes of that one.

Now in his 14th season, Brees has thrown for nearly 51,500 yards – he’ll reach that figure with the first 86 yards against the Browns – and 364 touchdowns, completing an astounding 65.9% of his 6,841 passes. He lives to throw the football.

The Browns’ front seven should have no problem locating the smallish Brees, who is only a half-inch taller than Johnny Manziel. He will be either in or very close to the pocket at all times. He rarely wanders and has arguably the quickest release in professional football.

You can almost bet Browns coach Mike Pettine will liberally rotate his defensive linemen to keep them fresh because the only way to have any chance of beating Brees or slowing him down or force him to unload the ball before he wants to is to harass him relentlessly.

In Saints coach Sean Payton’s offense, the run game is almost an afterthought. Last season, for example, Pierre Thomas was the leading ground gainer with just 549 yards. The ball was airborne on nearly two of every three plays.

This is an offense built around throwing the ball. And with receivers like Marques Colston, Kenny Stills, rookie Brandin Cooks and All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, running the ball takes a very comfortable back seat.

Where the Saints are vulnerable is on defense, at least based on the first game of the season. In losing to Atlanta in overtime in the season opener, that defense was gouged for 568 yards and the secondary was torched by Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan for 448 of those yards and three touchdowns.

Former Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan took over coordinating that side of the ball for the Saints last season and brought some order to one of the National Football League’s worst defenses the year before. It finished fourth in total defense and second against the pass. And yet, it was clueless against Atlanta.

All the more reason the Browns’ offense must be prepared for what should be a full out Ryan blitzkrieg. Which, of course, makes it vulnerable against the running game. And with rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell emerging last Sunday, that could translate into positive yardage for the Browns.

This could turn out to be a game of big plays. The Saints are used to them on both sides of the ball. The Falcons last Sunday rang up nine plays of 20 yards or more. The Cleveland secondary surrendered seven plays of 20 yards or more against Pittsburgh.

The Saints compiled 30 first downs and generated 472 yards of total offense against Atlanta, but the defense gave up 28 first downs. They were 8-of-13 on third down, but the defense allowed the Falcons to convert 6-of-11.

About the only way the Saints can win games, it seems, is by outscoring the opposition because the defense can’t stop it. And that’s where the Browns have a problem in this one.

They are not capable of outscoring teams because they don’t have enough talent on offense to overcome any defensive deficiencies. And they will need a nearly flawless defensive performance in order to have a chance against the Saints.

The only Cleveland team since 1999 that had the capability of staying in a game no matter how the defense played was the 2007 club that finished 10-6 and featured the passing of Derek Anderson, pass catching of Braylon Edwards, Joe Jurevicius and Kellen Winslow Jr. and running of Jamal Lewis.

This iteration of the Browns’ offense is quite different. Anderson had a gunslinger mentality. Hoyer is exactly the opposite. He’s much more of a technician who rarely takes chances. And no one in the current receiving corps comes close to what Edwards accomplished that season.

The one saving grace for the offense, if it can keep it up against the Saints, is the ability to hang on to the ball. Not one turnover against a Pittsburgh defense that is far superior to the Saints’, although Hoyer was fortunate the Steelers’ secondary dropped what should have been two interceptions.

Ball control will be the key against the Saints. The longer the Browns can keep Brees & Co. on the sideline and their defense fresh, the better chance they have of not going 0-2 for the sixth time in the last seven seasons. If the Browns can play relatively mistake-free football, they’ve got a shot.

The Saints can’t afford to open the season with two losses. Since 1990, only 12% of teams that begin the season that way wind up in the postseason.

Can’t say the same about the Browns. They do not harbor the same goals as New Orleans. Their immediate goal is respectability. The Saints immediate goal is getting back to the Super Bowl.

One final fact: The Saints are just 6-11 on the road since the 2012 season after posting an 18-6 record away from the Superdome from 2009-2011.

From a statistical standpoint, this should be a high-scoring game. The Browns rank 31st in total defense heading into this game; the Saints rank 32nd. The two worst defenses in the NFL collide. The movable objects vs. the resistible forces. In that case, the Saints hold a decided advantage with an explosive offense. Make it:

Saints 38, Browns 20 

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