Friday, December 5, 2014

It will not be pretty

The only way the Browns have a chance to knock off the Indianapolis Colts Sunday at home is by taking the infantry route as often as possible.

Run the ball. Then run it some more. Maximize the importance of winning first down. Stay away from third-and-longs. Sustain drives that bleed minutes off the clock. Give the defense a chance to rest.

Keep quarterback Andrew Luck, the abundantly talented linchpin of the Indianapolis offense, off the field as long as possible. Minimize his opportunities to put points on the board, something he does with astonishing speed.

That’s the formula a good team uses as a weapon to beat the highest scoring team in the National Football League. Right now, though, the Browns are not a good team, their 7-5 record notwithstanding.

Last season, that formula would not have worked because the Browns did not have a ground game and a defense that couldn’t stop the run. The overwhelming portion of the offense featured the forward pass.

With Brian Hoyer at quarterback, the Browns (4-2 at home) must rely on running the ball. Pound away at the Indianapolis front seven with relentless monotony. Limit his throws to slants, shallow crosses and an occasional seam route, throws designed to get the ball out of the his hands quickly.

Do not even think about trying a screen pass. The Browns haven’t been able to run a successful screen for years now. Outside of the naked wide receiver screen that works on occasion, the Browns have failed time and again to run a fundamental screen. Rip them out of the playbook and burn them.

As for Hoyer, it’s even more important for the offensive staff to dumb down the game for the embattled quarterback since he seems to have fallen into an interception trap in the last five games

Losing veteran receiver Miles Austin to a kidney injury doesn’t help, which means rookie Taylor Gabriel, who lost reps with the return of Josh Gordon, will get them back.

It also looks as though the ground game will take a hit with Isaiah Crowell highly questionable for the game with a hip injury. If he can’t go, the Browns’ running corps will be reduced to Terrance West, whose costly fumble contributed to the loss in Buffalo, Glenn Winston and Shaun Draughn, signed just a few days ago. Yikes!

The Colts probably will eschew coverage of deep throws because Hoyer doesn’t have the arm to stretch a field. It wouldn’t surprise to see them stack the box with eight and sometimes nine men at the snap, daring Hoyer to throw.

If the Browns fail to establish a running game – the Colts surrender just 108 ground yards a game – and force Hoyer to put the ball up, they are in trouble. That’s when coach Mike Pettine might have to yank Hoyer’s short leash and summon Johnny Manziel.

Once the Colts go on offense, the Cleveland defense will see the best quarterback they’ll face all season in Luck. He is as talented from the neck up as he is from the neck down. His cerebral approach to the game is mindful of a young Peyton Manning.

Under his guidance, Indianapolis averages 24.6 first downs, 438 yards on offense and 6.2 yards a play, converts 45% of its third downs and leads the National Football League in scoring.

Luck has completed 63.7% of his passes and thrown for 34 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He has been sacked a modest 21 times, but has developed a knack of extending plays and at 6-4, 240 pounds is just as dangerous a runner as Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.

In other words, the Browns’ defense will rely heavily on their offense to keep Luck pinned to the sidelines as long as possible.

The Colts quarterback has a wide array of receivers at his disposal, but seems to have fallen in love with tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, who have combined for 13 touchdown passes.

Throw in wide receivers T. Y. Hilton, who has caught 68 passes this season for 1,145 yards and five scores, veteran Reggie Wayne (54-626-2 TD) and Donte Moncrief (24-390-3 TD, two last week against Washington) and you have all kinds of trouble for the Cleveland secondary.

Where the Colts are relatively weak on offense is at running back, where Trent Richardson has sustained the mediocrity he reached in 17 games with the Browns after being selected with the No. 3 pick of the 2012 college draft.

Richardson leads the Colts with 445 yards and three touchdowns, but still averages 3.3 yards a carry. With Ahmad Bradshaw out the rest of the year with a broken leg, former Ohio State running back Boom Herron has stepped in and performed well.

The Colts’ defense is not among the league leaders in any statistical category, but it doesn’t need to be because the offense covers up many of the defense’s inefficiencies.

Former Brown D’Qwell Jackson, as he did most of the time with the Browns, leads the Colts in tackles with 101, but only 59 of the solo variety, The best way to neutralize him is to run right at him. He is not as strong at the point of attack as an inside linebacker should be.

Jackson also has four of the club’s 34 sacks. Fellow inside backer Erik Walden leads the club in that department with just five. In the secondary, former Browns safety Mike Adams has four of the club’s nine thefts and is third on the team in tackles with 66 and second in solo tackles with 54.

On paper, this one favors the Colts even though oddsmakers surprisingly give Cleveland just 3½ points. The Browns are not good enough on offense to outscore the visitors and the defense, which has played well in the last six games, might find themselves on the field for long periods due to the ineptitude of the offense.

This one will be over quickly as the Colts strike suddenly and often in the first half.  Luck plays pitch and catch with his receivers as the Cleveland pass rush flails futilely to corral the son of former St. Ignatius quarterback Oliver Luck, playing in his father’s hometown for the first time.

He will record his first 400-yard plus game (he threw for 400 yards in a loss against Pittsburgh) this season and connect on four touchdown passes, one each to Hilton, Wayne, Allen and Fleener. Richardson will gain his normal 45 yards on 15 carries and score a touchdown from a yard out at the Dawg Pound end of the field and attempt to get up close and personal with the fans. He’ll be sorry he did.

The game will be over at the half with the Colts defending against Manziel by the beginning of the second quarter. Hoyer will throw two interceptions trying to hit Gordon and the Indianapolis defense will reduce the Cleveland ground game to rubble.

It will be ugly from the outset as the Colts toy with the Browns, handing them their worst loss of the season and crushing any hopes they had for the postseason. It will also mark the beginning of the Johnny Manziel era in Cleveland. He’ll begin it by throwing scoring passes to Gordon and Travis Benjamin in the second half. Make it:

Colts 41, Browns 17

Update: Vontae Davis, the Colts' best cornerback, is out with a concussion. No change in the prediction. 


  1. Well, you were half right. The offense wasn't pretty(as usual) but the defense did everything they could to win this game single-handedly. Do you think Pettine learned anything about Hoyer, or is he still our "best opportunity to win" with his 37.4 QB rating?

    1. You already know the answer to that one.

    2. I thought I knew it last week but so much for that. And I'm not real confident in Pettine's learning curve.