Saturday, October 1, 2016

Not like the old days

The Browns and Washington Redskins have met 45 times over the last 65 years with the Browns owning a 33-11-1 lead in the series.

It has been a series dominated by the Browns, who won the first nine games and constructed subsequent winning streaks of eight and 12 games along the way.

From the 1950s on into the ‘60s and ‘70s right through to the 1980s, it was nothing but win, win, win. Those were the days when beating the Redskins was not only commonplace, it was expected.

Those were the days of Otto Graham, Lou Groza, Dante Lavelli, Mac Speedie, Bill Willis, Len Ford, Bob Gain, Jim Brown, Frank Ryan, Gary Collins, Gene Hickerson, Dick Schafrath, the Pruitts (Greg and Mike), Brian Sipe, Bernie Kosar, Clay Matthews and Ozzie Newsome.

We’re talking about some of the all-time great players whose contributions helped make Cleveland one of the most respected franchises in the National Football League.

Those were the days, for the most part, before the American Football League, the days before the Browns and Redskins were eventually separated by conferences, the Browns in the American and the Redskins in the National.

But that was then. And this is now. Remembering what it was like back then is a lot more comforting than remembering what it has been for the last 17 plus seasons.

And now, for only the fourth time since Cleveland returned to the NFL scene back in 1999, the Browns and Redskins, who now face each other only once every four years, will meet Sunday afternoon in the national’s capital.

This was a game Cleveland quarterback Robert Griffin III no doubt had circled as extra special since it was to have marked a return to a place where he achieved glory and massive disappointment in a three-year period.

It is a game he will watch, instead, as a spectator on the sideline with a broken left shoulder, held in place by a sling after he unsuccessfully impersonated a battering ram in the final moments of the season-opening loss in Philadelphia.

While with the Redskins, The Third went from wunderkind quarterback as a rookie in 2012 to free agency – and the Browns – four short years later. The freefall, caused by injuries and a dramatic falloff in production, was climaxed by his benching in 2014 after winning only five of 20 games in his next two seasons.

It was during that sensational rookie season that the Redskins last played the Browns. And it was the only game that season The Third missed. A knee injury, a precursor to his eventual downfall, forced the Redskins to go with backup quarterback Kirk Cousins that Dec. 16 afternoon in Cleveland.

Cousins was a rookie at the time, drafted in the fourth round as insurance against anything catastrophic happening to The Third. When the Redskins decided to give their starter a one-week respite, Cousins got the call and gave a performance that served as an audition that eventually turned into a full-time gig.

The former Michigan State quarterback led the Redskins, who trailed, 14-10, at the half, to a 38-21 victory, throwing for 329 yards and a pair of scoring passes to Leonard Hankerson, the only passes he caught that day.

For the record, Brandon Weeden threw for 244 yards and a long touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin for the Browns but threw a couple of interceptions. Running back Trent Richardson also scored on a pair of short-yardage runs in the first half.

Cousins, who became the starter last season, is coming his strongest game of the season, a 296-yard, two-touchdown effort in a victory over the New York Giants and becoming more comfortable in the pass-heavy Washington offense.

There is no question the Cleveland secondary will be extremely busy Sunday, trying to stay with the likes of wide receivers Jamison Crowder, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon and tight end Jordan Reed. This quartet has racked up 59 receptions for 738 yards and three touchdowns in three games this season.

The very average Washington ground game averages only 76 yards a game mainly because coach Jay Gruden has Cousins dropping back on nearly two out of every three plays. The strength of the team on offense is clearly through the air, so why not lean on it.

Defense is where the Skins find trouble, allowing 123 yards a game on the ground (425 a game overall) with a secondary that allows opposing quarterbacks to complete 70% of their passes. That secondary includes Josh Norman and DeAngelo Hall, a couple of very good cornerbacks.

Keep an eye on the Washington pass rush, which has produced seven sacks. The leaky Cleveland offensive line has permitted 10 sacks, numerous quarterback hits and nearly 30 hurries in their three losses.

The big question is whether the Cleveland offense, which has averaged a measly 17 first downs a game and scored only five touchdowns, can take advantage of what seems to be a defense ready to be taken advantage of.

It showed positive signs of coming to life in last week’s tough loss in Miami. Due in large part to the insertion of Terrelle Pryor as a part-time quarterback in addition to his receiving duties, the offense moved the ball with seeming ease after a shaky start by rookie quarterback Cody Kessler.

But now that Redskins coaches have tape of Pryor’s big week last Sunday against the Dolphins, his versatility and the way in which Cleveland coach Hue Jackson uses him is no longer a surprise. Unless, of course, the execution is as good as last Sunday, in which case the Browns could very well hang with the Redskins.

The Cleveland running game has helped immensely this season by churning out nearly 145 yards a game, a testament to run blocking strength of the offensive line. It will be interesting to see whether Jackson ratchets up the run-pass ratio to the point where the run sets up the pass and play-fake passes work.

But the defense has to keep the score close in order for the run game to become the major portion of the offense. If the Redskins jump out to an early substantial lead, that aspect of the offense disappears.

One incentive not mentioned in the run-up to the game is the Redskins’ inability to win at home this season, having dropped their first two games to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys in front of the home folks.

The outcome of this one will hinge largely on how often the Cleveland pass rush can get close enough to Cousins to disrupt his rhythm. The very good offensive line in front of him has allowed just four sacks this season.

If he is given as much time to unload as the first three quarterbacks the Browns have faced this season, this one could get out of hand early, very early. At the same time, it would allow the Redskins to polish off a running game that seems to have been shelved to a large degree in favor of the forward pass.

When predicting how the Browns would do on a game-by-game basis, I had them winning this game due the revenge factor for The Third. But since he’ll be a mere spectator, I see Cousins in a repeat performance of the 2012 game.

He throws touchdown passes to Jackson, Garcon and Reed and runs for one himself on a naked bootleg and kicker Dustin Hopkins, perfect on 11 field goals this season, adds three more.

The Browns counter with a pair of Isaiah Crowell touchdowns in the first half and a Kessler-Pryor connection late in the second half. Far too little and way too late. Make it:

Redskins 37, Browns 21

No comments:

Post a Comment