BEREA— On October 26, 2014, the Browns defeated the Oakland Raiders at FirstEnergy Stadium by a final score of 26-13, in a game that featured Raiders tight end Mychal Rivera as Oakland's leading receiver.
Although Derek Carr did pass for 328 yards on the day, the then-rookie could only do so much with the wide receivers to whom he had to throw – something that played a big part in the Raiders falling to 0-7 in the loss.
Fast-forward nearly a year and the Browns and Raiders are primed for yet another matchup at FirstEnergy Stadium, but this time, things look much more promising for the Oakland offense.
Carr, who’s in his second season, now has 2015 fourth overall selection Amari Cooper and 2009 tenth overall selection Michael Crabtree to throw to and has taken advantage of his new targets.
“(He's) very confident, he’s got a very strong arm,” Browns defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said. “He’s obviously got some new toys on the outside to play with, but he’s playing really well right now.”
Having completed 37 of his 58 pass attempts for 421 yards and three touchdowns in just two games this season, Carr has certainly made himself known around the Browns facility and has impressed Joe Haden, who’s seen his fair share of NFL quarterbacks.
“He seems comfortable. He makes a lot of throws. He seems like he has control,” Haden said. “I like him since when he came out of college, so I think he’s just growing into the job and he’s going to be a good quarterback.”
Browns safety Tashaun Gipson went a bit further in his praise of Carr, even going so far as to call himself a “fan” of the Oakland’s passer.
“I'm a fan of his. I respect his game. He's a lot more athletic than a lot of guys give him credit for,” Gipson said. “He's an overall great player and I have a great deal of respect for him.”
Though Carr has earned the respect of the Browns secondary, Haden, the cornerback, is more worried about the two-headed monster of Cooper and Crabtree that he’ll have to help corral on Sunday afternoon.
“I think their receiving corps is definitely upgraded from when we played them,” Haden said. “Those dudes, they just know how to make plays when the ball’s in their hands. They’re stepping up.”
In Cooper, Haden sees a potential star, who looks nothing like the rookie he is.
“That dude is going to be special. He has a really good stop-and-start, his burst, everything,” Haden said. “He has body control, runs really good routes, so I think he’s growing and growing from the first time I’ve seen him play, and I think he has a lot of potential to be really good in this league.”
Crabtree, on the other hand, poses a bigger threat with the ball in his hands.
“When he gets the ball in his hands, that’s when the play starts for him,” Haden said. ‘He can make people miss. He has a bigger body. YAC (yards after catch) is his thing.”
Gipson definitely agreed with Haden in his assessment of Oakland's dynamic duo.
“They complement each other. You've got a craft vet in Crabtree, you've got a speedy explosive receiver in Cooper,” Gipson said. “They give different components to the passing game and he's able get the ball to those guys when need be and they're able to make plays.”
With the weapons on Oakland’s offense well-documented, Haden laid out a two-pronged attack for the Browns defense.
The first step is to pressure Carr in the way that the defense pressured Titans QB Marcus Mariota just a week ago.
“Pressures and hits and things like that – if they can pressure like that, I feel like in the secondary we just need them to throw it off a little bit,” Haden said. “We just need them make it a little uncomfortable off the back leg and make a play on it. Those dudes did a great job. If they can keep the pressure up it would help the secondary tremendously.”
Then, once the ball is in the air, it’s all about the Browns making tackles.
“Just shoot your shot, wrap him up and everybody has to run to the ball,” Haden said. “We have to gang-tackle these dudes. If somebody’s got their arms in and you’re wrapping on him, somebody else come in and deliver the hit.”
That approach may seem simple in theory, but when the Browns take the field on Sunday, O’Neil knows that the task of taming Carr, Cooper and Crabtree isn’t going to be an easy one.
“It’s a good group, it is,” O’Neil said. “It’s going to be a challenge for us.”
For all of your news, updates and analysis from Berea, follow Hayden Grove on Twitter: @H_Grove.