Coming off a victory over the Kansas City Chiefs one week ago, the Browns will face an entirely different type of team in the Detroit Lions. The Lions are an explosive outfit, thanks to an outstanding passing attack featuring the likes of wide receivers Roy Williams, Mike Furrey, Shaun McDonald, and first round draft selection Calvin Johnson.
Offensive mastermind Mike Martz has brought his style of aggressive play calling and imaginative schemes to the struggling Lions franchise. Last weekend, Detroit quarterbacks threw for almost 500 yards in a preseason game. Surprisingly, starter Jon Kitna accounted for only 52 yards through the air.
The Detroit passing game will provide a significant challenge to an upstart Cleveland secondary, which has potential All-Pro players in Leigh Bodden and Sean Jones emerging under the tutelage of DB coach Mel Tucker. Coming off an ankle injury which robbed him of portions of the 2006 season, Bodden is healthy, but the Browns are committed to letting Bodden return to form progressively throughout training camp, in hopes he will remain healthy.
The Lions array of receivers will provide matchup problems for any team, on any play of the game. Matching the talented Detroit receivers up against the talented Browns defensive backfield could create some interesting clues heading into the season.
The Detroit offensive line permitted one sack last week against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Browns are expected to generate more pressure on the quarterback, however, with linebackers Kamerion Wimbley and Antwan Peek leading the charge. Lions' starter Jon Kitna has been prone to turning the ball over in the past and will be challenged to make plays against the much improved Cleveland pass rush and pass coverage units.
The Lions current lack of consistent rushing attack could provide some intrigue to this second preseason contest for both squads.
The Browns have been a below-average rush defense team over the past few seasons, while the Lions will be without starting running back Kevin Jones. In Jones' absence, the Lions have been counting on off-season acquisition Tatum Bell and T.J. Duckett. While posing a threat in the backfield, neither player is of the caliber of Jones. The Browns defensive line has been fortunate to miss their opponents top running backs two weeks in a row.
In the Browns victory last week against the offensively-challenged Chiefs, Cleveland gave up 5.4 yards per carry to a Kansas City team without All-Pro running back Larry Johnson and possessing less-than-fearsome quarterbacks. If Cleveland is unable to stop the Lions from running the football effectively, the Browns rush defense will come under some scrutiny, as quality and depth along the line has been a concern in Browns camp.
When the Browns offense is on the field
Watch the matchup of Kalimba Edwards and left tackle Joe Thomas. Edwards provides the pass rush coming off the corner of the defense for the Lions and is a threat. Thomas should more than hold his own after facing Kamerion Wimbley every day in practice.
The interior of the Browns offensive line needs to improve their ability to push defenders off the line of scrimmage and provide rushing lanes for the running backs. Right guard Seth McKinney has looked good in training camp and is recovered from neck surgery. Center Hank Fraley and left guard Lennie Friedman (replacing the injured Eric Steinbach) need to gain consistency. Against the Chiefs, the Browns struggled in this regard and should have the opportunity to gain an edge against the Lions defensive front.
Derek Anderson is expected to start for the Browns and needs a solid performance to recover his chances to become the starter for the Browns. Throughout the preseason, Anderson has displayed very good arm strength, but inconsistency has stymied the young signal-caller. Facing an improving defense which utilizes a variety of the cover-two scheme, Anderson will have to be careful not to force balls and recognize the traps this defensive scheme feasts on.
Cincinnati was able to move the ball effectively against the Lions through the air and the Browns' offense could do the same, with their controlled passing scheme featuring Braylon Edwards, Joe Jurevicius, and Kellen Winslow. Keep in mind that the Browns are looking for one or more of the receivers on the depth chart to step up and make plays. Throughout camp, inconsistency and an inability to hold onto the football has riddled Tim Carter and Travis Wilson, the third and fourth receivers on the roster.
While the starting five linemen are all but set, the depth along the line and the question of who will fill the final roster positions are still open. Rob Smith, Cliff Louis, and Andrew Hoffman are competing for roster spots, while Nat Dorsey, Fred Matua, and Isaac Sowells seek playing time to show the coaching staff they can be reliable contributors, if called upon.
Second-year running back Jerome Harrison will get the opportunity to atone for last Saturday's mistakes (fumble, lackluster attempt to cover a lateral). Harrison's speed and quickness in the backfield make him an attractive player in the backfield, but reliability is critical and Harrison's lack of same has to worry the coaching staff. While Harrison has had his share of ups and downs, Jason Wright has been steady and provides a reliable presence backing up veteran Jamal Lewis.
Keep an eye on Wright's patience when rushing the football. Wright tends to be impatient, which does not provide the offensive linemen the opportunity to open the running lanes orchestrated in the offensive scheme.
When the Browns defense is on the field
Stop the run, stop the run, stop the run.
The Browns defense must make their presence felt and prevent teams from rushing the football down their throats. The time to set this pattern is now.
Veteran defensive end Robaire Smith has played the run well in the past as a member of the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans and will be counted on to fill a significant role within this Browns defense. The knee injury suffered by Orpheus Roye has shifted the gameplan for the Cleveland defense, with Shaun Smith taking over at defensive end. This has, in turn, weakened the nose tackle spot where Smith was splitting time with Ted Washington. Ethan Kelley moves in to help spell Washington and needs to exhibit physical play in the middle of the line.
Defensive line depth has been a major concern for this Browns team throughout the off-season. Players such as Orien Harris and Alvin Smith are relatively unknown commodities, with Harris showing some power and strength against the run in camp. Both figure to see a significant amount of playing time late in the first half and carrying through the end of the game.
Simon Frasier has settled into his role as a depth player in his second season with the team. Following an off-season which Frasier worked diligently to improve his body strength and technique, he could provide the team an option in the event Shaun Smith is needed at the nose tackle spot.
Rookie Chase Pittman has flashed some of his speed and quickness in camp sessions, but needs to improve his technique and overall strength to become a player the team can count on this season. Against a Detroit offensive line that does not match up very well against speed rushers, Pittman and fellow rookie Melila Purcell could make plays in the second half.
I look forward to the matchup of the Browns defensive backs against the Lions receiving corps with great anticipation.
The Browns defensive backfield will get a true test of their strength against a team which will throw the ball under any circumstance. While players such as Bodden and Jones are solid, rookie Eric Wright will face another stern challenge as he attempts to wrestle a starting job away from ballhawk Daven Holly and veteran Kenny Wright. The rookie has performed well in training camp and in the Browns preseason opener, but will be tested early and often by a veteran coordinator in Mike Martz and quarterback Jon Kitna.
Players vying for roster spots could be in line to open some eyes if they are able to win the battle in the air against the Lions. Jereme Perry, Brandon McDonald, Jeremy LeSueur, and Therrian Fontonet will see plenty of playing time against the Lions and their coverage skills will be significantly challenged. This is a game which the players embattled in roster competition could begin to separate themselves.
The outcome on the scoreboard is not really as important as the individual player battles and standing up to the test of the Detroit air assault.
The challenge has been waged, now it is time to see where the chips will fall and which Browns players vying for roster spots can sleep a little better next week.