Friday, October 31, 2014

Taming unpredictability

Finally, a breather on the schedule for the Browns. Or is it?

After a cursory look at the 1-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it is very easy to immediately conclude they are the third straight soft spot in this portion of Cleveland’s 2014 schedule.

First, it was the Jacksonville Jaguars and we all know how pitifully and shockingly that one ended a few weeks ago. Then came the Oakland Raiders and the Browns had to scramble to win that one.

The Buccaneers roll into Cleveland for a Sunday date with the Browns on the heels of a season chock full of question marks.

For example, are they the team that upset the Pittsburgh Steelers – in Pittsburgh, no less – in week four? Or the team that took New Orleans and Minnesota to overtime before losing?

Are they the team that surrendered 165 points during a four-game stretch? Or the team that was blistered for 104 points in losses to Atlanta and Baltimore? Maybe the team that gave up 119 points in the other five games?

To say they are unpredictable would be an understatement. And if new coach Lovie Smith is honest, all he can do when asked what he expects from his team is give an I-have-no-idea shrug.

What he does know is his offense struggles. In five of the seven games, the Tampa Bay attack scored in the teens. It owns the football an average of just 27 minutes a game, converting only a third of its third-down opportunities.

The Bucs also have one of the National Football League’s worst running games, which must frustrate Smith, a run-first coach during his long tenure with the Chicago Bears. 

All he has is ex-Brown Bobby Rainey and rookie Charles Sims, who is expected to be activated for the game after spending the first half of the season mending an ankle injury suffered in the exhibition season.

Running against an injury-ravaged Cleveland run defense that ranks near the bottom of the league might be the panacea the Bucs need. It certainly helped the Jaguars and Raiders, who flourished on the ground after entering their games against the Browns with weak running games.

Mike Glennon will open at quarterback for the Bucs, but he’ll be on a short leash with Josh McCown healthy and ready to go after suffering a thumb injury in week three. The Bucs’ offense racked up just 100 total yards in the first three quarters in the overtime loss last week to Minnesota.

Favorite targets for Glennon and/or McCown are veteran Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans, Johnny Manziel’s favorite receiver at Texas A&M the last two collegiate seasons. They have combined for 51 catches, 693 yards and four touchdowns.

The Cleveland secondary, which played well against the Raiders despite getting little help from the pass rush, most likely will be tested heavily unless the Bucs find success with the ground game.

But it’s the Cleveland offense that holds the key to this game. The Bucs have surrendered 124 yards a game against the run. That’s just as bad as Jacksonville and Oakland. And we all saw how poor the Cleveland running game was against them.

Unless the offensive line wakes up from its snooze the last two games, it looks as though Brian Hoyer again will have to shoulder the major burden for the offense. And he’ll be working without tight end Jordan Cameron, one of his favorite targets, out with a concussion.

The Tampa Bay secondary yields 295 yards a game, which might give Cleveland offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan some pause. With a struggling offensive line, it’s not outside the realm of possibility he might turn Hoyer loose.

That, of course, would go against his offensive philosophy, which is run the ball first to set up the pass. Considering how often his team is in third-and-long situations, he might at least be thinking of throwing more often to create more second- and third-and-short situations.

The Cleveland offense has been horrible on third downs this season, converting only 28 times in 90 attempts, a 31% ratio. It is only 14-of-52 (27%) in the last four games. Figures like that contribute to a lot of punts and a tired defense in the latter stages of games.

Knowing that, look for the Bucs’ defense to try and create those third-and-longs for the Browns by stacking the box on first and second down. How effectively they can do that depends on how well their four-man front neutralizes Cleveland’s offensive line.

To that end, also look for Shanahan to employ a lot of two-tight-end sets with Gary Barnidge and Jim Dray in an attempt to get back to the running game that was so successful in the first five games.

Key matchup is Browns guard John Greco and center Nick McDonald against defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, one of the few bright spots on the Bucs’ defense. McCoy is quick, strong and a play disturber. If Greco and McDonald can handle McCoy, look for the strong Cleveland running game to make some noise.

Hints out of Berea suggest Isaiah Crowell, who has fallen out of favor with the coaching staff because of ball-security (read: fumbles) problem, will get more touches Sunday.

These two teams have not met that often over the years. After losing the first five games of this series against the original Browns, the Bucs have rattled off three straight victories against the new Browns. But those Bucs played at a much higher level than the current version. The 2002 team, for instance, won the Super Bowl and the 2010 version finished 10-6.

So which Tampa Bay team will show up Sunday? Better yet, which Cleveland team will show up? The way these teams have played lately, it wouldn’t surprise to see a repeat of last Sunday’s ineptitude bowl against Oakland.

This one is likely to be a defensive struggle (offensive inefficiency?) with a multitude of punts, field position playing a strong role in the outcome. After a low-scoring first half (6-3 Cleveland), a strong second half blunts Tampa Bay’s attempt for an upset and improves the Browns’ home record to 4-1 and season record to 5-3 at the halfway point of the season. Make it:

Browns 19, Buccaneers 7

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