Friday, September 25, 2015

Lakefront fireworks loom

While Browns fans debate whether Mike Pettine made the correct decision to start Josh McCown over Johnny Manziel Sunday against the invading Oakland Raiders, the bigger picture is being ignored.

The Browns’ pass rush and secondary had better be ready because Oakland treats the running game like a stepchild. True to the tradition of Raiders football, throwing the football is far more glamorous, dangerous and productive.

To that end, the Browns should take note that the Raiders last Sunday scored 37 points on a pretty good Baltimore defense as Derek Carr strafed the Ravens’ secondary for nearly 400 yards and three touchdowns.

This could be one of those games, assuming the Browns don’t fall into the trap of trying to manage the game, where points will arrive often and in bunches. There will be no rest for the defenses in what could be an up-and-down-the-field game.

Now whether the Browns can match that kind of firepower is debatable. With an offense that is far less dynamic than Oakland’s and a defense that has been Jekyll/Hyde thus far, it will be interesting to see how prepare for the Raiders, who put the ball in the air 70% of the time.

Which Cleveland defense pass rush will show up? The one that couldn’t get close enough to New York Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the season opener to identify which deodorant he used that day? Or the one that treated Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota like a piƱata last Sunday?

It also will be interesting to see how Pettine and his coaches game plan this one. As in the first two games this season, the Browns can expect the Oakland defense to crowd the line of scrimmage and take away the ground game, forcing McCown to throw the ball.

The Raiders surrender 450 yards a game (325 through the air) on defense. So do you take advantage and attack the secondary relentlessly? Or do you stubbornly attempt to run the ball behind an offensive line that has not played well at all?

And on defense, do you forsake the pass rush and play with strictly nickel and dime packages, removing one and sometimes two linebackers? After all, we are led to believe the secondary is the strength of the defense. Time to prove it.

What exactly do the Browns do well on offense? It has been so erratic in the first two games, it’s almost impossible to adequately answer that question. The run game is stagnant. The passing game is hit and miss.

The only positive on that side of the ball that can correctly be singled out is the bust-out season wide receiver Travis Benjamin has launched. He has scored four of the five touchdowns Cleveland has put on the board.

McCown, on the other hand, is the X factor. He played only one series before a concussion abbreviated his season opener. So we don’t really know what to expect from the journeyman.

What we probably won’t get is the aforementioned hit-and-miss performance of Manziel, who has racked up many more misses than hits. In between his hot start and hot finish in the Titans victory, he put up a handful of three-and-outs. The consistency factor was definitely absent.

It is almost certain McCown will involve wide receivers Brian Hartline and Dwayne Bowe and his trio of tight ends in the offense more than did Manziel. Now whether that will be enough in what promises to be a shootout is another matter altogether.

About the only way McCown can be successful is if the ground game suddenly kicks into high gear. Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. showed flashes last Sunday, but it will take a lot more than that to convince the Oakland defense to back off.

Two more questions on the defensive approach to slowing down the so-far dynamic Oakland offense: Try to get to Carr before he can hurt them? Or respect him and try instead to confuse him with mixed coverages in the secondary?

They know Carr will come off the bus throwing. And they know his main targets will be rookie Amari Cooper and rejuvenated veteran Michael Crabtree, who combined for 16 catches, 220 yards and a pair of touchdowns last Sunday against Baltimore.

Getting to Carr against a decent Oakland offensive line is the key. Disrupting his rhythm is essential if cornerbacks Joe Haden and Tramon Williams are to be successful. Both will be tested early and often.

Daring the Raiders to run the ball with only three-man fronts could be another tactic the Browns employ. Second-year man Latavius Murray is the only runner used on a regular basis. That approach could backfire because the Raiders, in the tradition of the late Al Davis, are much more comfortable when the football is in the air.

So do the Browns climb out of their security blanket and attempt to shoot it out with the Raiders (to the delight of the fans)? Or do Pettine and his coaches go the conservative route (shocking!) and try to milk the clock and limit the number of times the Raiders own the football?

What Pettine does not want to see is fans calling for Manziel if McCown struggles. It might be the natural thing to do for fickle fans, but it solves nothing and places the Cleveland coach in an untenable position.

Let’s be perfectly honest here. The Browns are not going to win many games from here on out, certainly not with their rugged schedule. So it’s understandable for fans to believe the club might as well see what Manziel can do to gauge the future.

At some point, McCown will show his true colors and make the kinds of mistakes he has made throughout his career and play his way back to the bench, giving Manziel his chance.. But for right now, though, McCown is the man. How he performs dictates his immediate future.

And the right now says Sunday’s game will turn into a shootout because neither defense can handle the passing game. Points will litter the scoreboard with Carr and McCown trading blows like heavyweight boxers and the team that winds up with the ball last wins the game, much like the Raiders did last Sunday against Baltimore.

That team will be the Browns with McCown and Benjamin hooking up for two of the quarterback’s four touchdown passes, the second with less than 30 seconds left, while the defense gives up two Carr touchdown passes and a Murray TD on the ground. Make it:

Browns 31, Raiders 30

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