Most fans may be remembering the 2002 game between these two franchises but this Browns team is starting to remind me a great deal of the 2001 team. The team that held their own but wasn't experienced enough to pull out those crunch time victories.
You can see the "us against the world" mentality developing with this young group of players and that will lead to chemistry. Chemistry leads to confidence and confidence leads to winning.
Atlanta meanwhile is ready to take that next step, the step from contending for a playoff spot to contending for the Super Bowl. The only thing that is holding back this team is themselves. They must break the mentality of playing down to their level of competition. This is a huge test for Atlanta, especially coming off of their disappointing loss to Detroit.
The Falcons run a variation of the west coast offense with a mix of the Texas Longhorns version of the quarterback option. It is not a true quarterback option but more of misdirection. Quarterback Michael Vick will either hand the ball off to running back, Warrick Dunn and head in the opposite direction or he will fake the hand off and head in the opposite direction. This bit of confusion forces the defense to become very patient.
They have also installed the Denver Broncos line blocking scheme. When all three are clicking, this is one of the most frustrating opponents for any defensive unit.
Quarterback Michael Vick leads this dynamic offense. Vick has shown a tremendous amount of improvement throwing the ball but it is legs that make him one of the most feared quarterbacks in the game.
The key to slowing Vick is to contain him and punish him. You contain him by sliding with him and slowly closing. He will run around for an eternity but when he finally makes the decision to throw or run, it is imperative to make him pay.
The Falcons receivers are prone to dropping the football and the accuracy of their quarterback has not helped in this area but they do have weapons. Former OSU standout Michael Jenkins has been a bit of a disappointment in Atlanta but he is still a menace over the top as well on the crossing patterns.
Vick's favorite target is the monster tight end, Alge Crumpler. He is listed at 262 lbs. but he appears to be closer to 285. He understands how to use that size to shield defenders, especially in the red zone where he leads all tight ends in touchdown receptions. Crumpler also possesses very deceptive speed. This size/speed combination is a nightmare for defensive backs.
Michael Vick isn't the only great runner on this team as Warrick Dunn is an elite back that can take over the game. He is a small speed back that can make himself even smaller, as he disappears behind his linemen. He has the patience and vision to excel behind this zone blocking offensive line.
It doesn't get any easier when the rookie running back enters the game. Jerious Norwood has rushed for almost as many yards as Reuben Droughns with only 52 carries to his credit. He is averaging almost 7 yards per attempt.
With all the props to the running game, it isn't nearly as effective as it was earlier in the year. This is in large part due to the 4 game suspension of guard Matt Lehr. Atlanta averaged 232 yards per game with Lehr and 160 without him.
Atlanta is one of the worst teams in the league at defending the pass. This is in large part due to injuries of two of their best defensive players in linebacker Ed Hartwell and defensive end John Abraham. The front 7 is not getting the pressure needed to help out the Falcons talented defensive backfield.
DeAngelo Hall is an elite cover corner. He has that shutdown ability combined with a knack for making the interception. Hall is bothered by a hamstring injury and the Browns will look to test this injury early. Look for receiver Braylon Edwards to run several deep routes early in the game to see how Hall reacts to the long run.
The safety combination for Atlanta will be very familiar to Browns fans as well as the players. Former Brown Chris Crocker is the starting free safety, while veteran Lawyer Milloy mans the strong safety position. Chris has yet to live up to his lofty expectations and has been prone to giving up the deep pass.
The Falcons are capable of shutting down the running game thanks in large part to defensive tackle Grady Jackson. Jackson is often injured but when he is in the game, this behemoth controls the line of scrimmage. He makes it very difficult to run the ball inside the tackles.
Outside linebackers Michael Boley and Keith Brooking add to this potent run stuffing defense. They excel in making the open field tackle and each has the ability to quickly read the running plays. Brooking can be exposed in coverage and could find himself in a difficult match up against tight end, Kellen Winslow.
The Browns offense has been very consistent.
The offensive line is consistently being owned by opposing defensive lines.
Quarterback Charlie Frye is consistently missing open receivers as well as consistently turning the ball over.
Running back running Droughns is consistently being stone walled at the line of scrimmage.
Fullback Terrelle Smith is consistent at missing the key block.
The Browns receivers may be the most consistent group as they have consistently dropped pass after pass.
The only aspect of the Browns offense with any positive consistency has been the play of tight end Kellen Winslow Junior. KW2 did a great deal of talking before this season and he has managed to back it up and more. He is proving to be virtually unstoppable despite the constant double teams that he faces. He will be facing a quality veteran tandem with OLB Brookings and safety Milloy.
Facing Vick and Dunn is enough to give any defensive coach an ulcer but one thing with this Browns defense is that they play hard each and every week. They have been worn down but they have kept the offense in great field position all year.
The key for the Browns defense will be the young group of linebackers. The defensive line will be forced to slide with the running back and play Dunn honestly. For young linebackers it often a difficult task to remain patient when you have the quarterback in your sites. This aggression will lead to a missed tackle and that missed tackle will lead to Vick running free. If however, they allow the Falcons to commit and then make the play, they will have success.
As the line slides to the back, the linebackers will work to contain Michael Vick. Keeping him in check will lead to opportunity for the secondary.
Vick loves to overthrow receivers. This should lead to opportunity for the Browns secondary, especially the safeties playing 8 yards behind Crumpler. One of the linebackers will be forced to drop back into coverage on the big tight end and that will force Vick to put the ball over the linebacker and under the safety.
The Browns secondary looks more like a MASH unit but they continue to play as good as any secondary in football. Defensive backs coach Mel Tucker has replaced his top 3 corners with players no one has ever heard of and they haven't skipped a beat. The young defensive backs have numerous built in excuses but they haven't used any of them. Instead, they have simply gone out and held their own. Defensive backs coach Mel Tucker is becoming the most respected man in Berea.
Safeties Sean Jones and Brodney Pool improve with each passing week. Both will see a great deal of playing time this week as well as opportunities to make plays. They will be asked to protect against the pass as well contributing run support. This is a huge test for these safeties.
This is a very interesting match up to say the least. The Falcons have one of the worst pass defenses in the game and the Browns have the worst passing attack. The amazing part in this battle is that the Browns do have a great deal of offensive weapons and Atlanta has 2 pro bowl players in their secondary.
Atlanta has one of the best rushing offenses as well as an excellent run stuffing defense. The Browns have no running game and the defense has struggled against the run.
The Browns have the best special teams unit in football. Atlanta's special teams is nothing special.
This should be another exciting football game decided in the final minutes. The Browns simply need to take that next step from a young team that can compete to a young team that can win.