Taming Lions not Browns' forte
Whenever the original Browns, not the ones who left Cleveland nearly 20 years ago and now go by the name Baltimore Ravens, played the Detroit Lions, it was usually a big game.
The two teams did not meet often back then when it was a 12-team National Football League. But when they did, it was usually in a championship atmosphere.
Of their first seven meetings between 1952 and 1957, four determined the NFL title with the Lions winning three. The Browns, then known in some quarters as the Greatest Show in Football, always had problems with the Lions.
The only Cleveland victory in those seven games was a 56-10 blowout at home, quarterback Otto Graham throwing for three touchdowns and running for three more in the penultimate season of his Hall of Fame career.
The Lions won eight of the first nine games and 12 of the first 14 in the 23-game series, which Detroit leads, 18-5. The only time in 12 trips to the Motor City the Browns walked away feeling good about themselves was a 31-26 victory in 1983.
That was then. This is now. And the situation hasn’t changed much except these Browns are nowhere as talented as those who preceded them.
The current iteration returns Sunday to Detroit, a city that represents sheer misery to professional football teams from Cleveland since 1950. They haul a nine-game losing streak overall and a 16-game losing streak on the road (17 if you include the latest loss in London, which was technically a Cleveland home game).
These Browns own one victory over the Lions in four tries, a 24-14 victory in 2001, their third season after the resurrection in 1999, with Tim Couch throwing three touchdowns passes.
They have had two weeks to correct the multitude of mistakes committed during the first half of the season. Which means coach Hue Jackson and his staff have probably been putting in long hours in an effort to put together a representative performance.
(In case you’re interested in such statistics, the Browns are 6-10 coming out of bye weeks since 2000. They did not have any schedule breaks in the first two expansion seasons.)
Awaiting the Browns is a Lions team that just broke a three-game losing streak after winning three of their first four games and a quarterback who has thrown for 784 yards in his last two games.
Matthews Stafford loves, love, loves to play the Browns. The 10-year veteran has faced them only twice, but has racked up 690 yards, nine touchdowns, just two interceptions and 69 points in a couple of victories. And he has been sacked only once.
The Browns had nice leads in both games, 17-7 at the half of one game and a 24-3 lead 17 minutes into the game of another, and collapsed defensively before Stafford’s onslaught. In the latter game, the Browns led, 37-31, in the final seconds before falling.
In some ways, these teams are mirror images of each other statistically except, of course, in the won-lost column.
For example, each team has 16 sacks; the Browns have allowed 23 sacks, the Lions 26; the Browns allow opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 69% of their passes, the Lions check in at 64%; the Lions give up 252 yards a game through the air, the Browns 229; both teams throw the ball roughly 65% of the time.
Balancing those negative stats for the Lions is their +6 turnover ratio, tied for fourth in that category (the Browns are tied with Denver for last with –12). They have picked off 10 passes, including a pair of pick 6s, and recovered six opposition fumbles.
Neither team has a running game about which to brag. But both brag about their ability to stop the run, the Lions limiting opponents to 90 yards a game and the Browns, fourth best in the NFL, that much better at 84 a game. This one will not be decided on the ground.
The Lions obviously have the decided edge at quarterback with Browns rookie DeShone Kizer struggling with the learning curve in the NFL. Saddled with an awful corps of wide receivers doesn’t make it any easier.
Stafford, meanwhile, will throw against a Cleveland secondary that has surrendered 16 touchdown passes this season. He loves to spread the wealth among wideouts Golden Tate, halfway to a 100-catch season, and Marvin Jones, five touchdowns; and tight ends Eric Ebron and Darren Fells, who have combined for 30 receptions and four scores.
Help for the Browns’ defensive backfield will arrive Sunday with the expected return of cornerback Jason McCourty and free safety Jabrill Peppers, who have missed the last two games with injuries.
Rookie defensive end Myles Garrett, out the last two games with a concussion, is also expected back to fortify a pass rush that has been anemic in his absence. It’s amazing how much of a difference one man can make in this critical aspect of the game.
The Browns’ punt team will have to wary of Lions defensive back Jamal Agnew, who has 291 return yards and has scored twice to lead the NFL in both categories. He averages nearly 20 yards a return.
The only way the Browns can hang with the Lions and their penchant for turning Stafford loose is to make him throw the ball before he wants to which means a strong pass rush.
Having a healthy Garrett back is a step in the right direction. It is possible he will have to face offensive tackle Taylor Decker, the Lions’ top pick in last year’s college draft who has missed the first half of this season with a shoulder injury.
If the former Buckeye is not activated for the game, Garrett will take on another Ohioan, Avon Lake’s Brian Mihalik, who played his college football at Boston College and is also a second-year pro.
This one will be close for maybe a series of two before Stafford finds his rhythm and strafes the Cleveland secondary. The Browns will stop the weak Detroit run game, but that will be nullified by the Lions, who will counter by forcing Kizer to throw and we all know what that will lead to.
Stafford runs his touchdown total against the Browns to 13 in three games, the opportunistic Detroit defense pads its turnover ratio by three with a pick 6 and two fumble recoveries as the Browns enter the red zone, Agnew chalks up another punt return for a score and Jackson yanks an inconsistent and inaccurate Kizer again midway through the second half. Make it:
Lions 32, Browns 10