The (5-5) Houston Texans will visit the (6-4) Cleveland Browns on Sunday. The playoff run continues as the Browns look to close the distance between themselves and the Steelers. Look for another shootout that could once again be decided with another Dawson kick.
The Browns offense is currently third is points per game at 29 but there is little doubt that this offense is capable of much more than it has shown. They have yet to play a complete game. Thus far, this offense has a bipolar personality. They are excellent for one half of football and painful to watch in the other half of football.
The one consistency for the Browns has been the play of their offensive line. They will be in for a huge challenge this week as the Texans have one of the best groups of young defensive talent in the NFL. Left tackle Joe Thomas is likely to see himself in Pro Bowl consideration as he is having a tremendous year but Sunday will be one of his stiffest challenges to date. The knock on Thomas coming out of college was his lack of power. He will be facing off against Mario Williams, who was last year's number one overall pick.
Veteran tackle Ryan Tucker is having a terrific campaign since being inserted at guard for the injured Seth McKinney. Tucker has not only continued the success in pass protection but he has added to the run game with his power. The battle between Tucker and 20 year old rookie phenom, Amobi Okoye, will be one of the most exciting battles we will have the pleasure of witnessing this year.
There has been a lot of talk about running back Jamal Lewis needing to be replaced, especially from me, but Lewis showed up last week and looked to be the Lewis of old. There are a lot of questions, however, and many of those should be answered this week. Has Lewis simply been slowed from injury or is he simply no longer capable of being a consistent running back? Sunday will go a long way in answering that very question. With teams being content to drop eight men into coverage, Lewis should be having career games.
Quarterback Derek Anderson is finding out the hard way that NFL defenses can and will adjust to the quarterback. Anderson can shred a defense if they allow him the opportunity to work deep but his short game continues to be a struggle. Anderson is in a bit of a slump as he has not thrown a touchdown pass in 6 straight quarters. This should change this week as the Houston secondary is suffering from injuries.
The trio of receiving threats for the Browns has been outstanding all year. Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow are now seeing the results of such a spectacular season. They have forced the opposition into playing each with double coverage. Joe Jurevicius is benefiting from the double coverage geared towards Edwards and Winslow. Joe is physically too much of a match for most corners and against the injury plagued Texans secondary; he should have a terrific day.
The Texans are accumulating talent on the defensive side of the ball like no other team in football. It all starts up front for the Texans with the likes of Amobi Okoye, Mario Williams, Anthony Weaver and Travis Johnson. All four are young and explosive. They have a knack for playing in the backfield and creating turnovers. It will be one of the most difficult challenges for the Browns offensive line they have faced all year.
Not all of their talent is in their front four, however. Middle linebacker Demeco Ryans is one of the best linebackers in football. Ryans is a highly intelligent player that seems to know what the offense is doing before they do it. His ability to read and react makes it imperative for fullback Lawrence Vickers to locate Ryans and get a helmet on him.
If there is a weakness to the Texans it is their secondary. This secondary without Dunta Robinson lacks the man up ability. Injuries to Robinson, Glenn Earl and Jason Simmons have depleted the talent and depth in the secondary. Look for a lot of zone this week.
When the Texans gave up two second round picks to acquire Matt Schaub from the Falcons, many were left wondering if they had overpaid for an unproven quarterback. Few are questioning that decision now and Matt has brought legitimacy to the Texas offense along receiver Andre Johnson. Together this pair is undefeated but injuies to both has been devastating for the Texans.
Matt is a big physical quarterback, with a strong arm and a quick release. He also has a tremendous presence in the pocket as he is able to use his mobility to buy that extra second. He will run and is capable of picking up yards with his legs but seems to prefer being a pocket passer. Matt is a very difficult quarterback to defend due to his accuracy along with that mobility.
Up front, the Texans have gone to the zone blocking scheme favored by head coach Gary Kubiak. Kubiak became a fan of zone blocking while serving as offensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos. While this line is not where they want to be either in talent or understanding the scheme, they are starting to add pieces to that puzzle.
Offensive tackle Eric Winston appears to be a perfect fit for this scheme due to his quickness and mobility. Former Packer center Mike Flanagan now anchors the middle for the Texans. His experience has been instrumental in the improvement on the line. Another piece of the puzzle could already be on the roster in rookie guard Kasey Studdard. I was a huge fan of this young man coming out of college and with his tenacity and fierce competitive nature, he could see playing time down the stretch.
If there is one area to the Texans that is in need of a major overhaul it is the running back situation. Veteran running backs Ahman Green and Ron Dayne have not fit as well as hoped. Both seem to still be in that mind set of hitting the first hole and settling for the short game instead of allowing the zone to stretch and open up additional options. Former Brown Adimchinobe Echemandu could see additional playing time and through the final stretch of games.
At receiver, another former Brown seems to have found a home. Andre Davis has become a tremendous vertical threat for the Texans. His speed opens up the short game for veteran Kevin Walter as he likes running those short to intermediate routes making him the safe target. The return of Andre Johnson was also a welcomed sight for Texans fans. Johnson is one of the best receivers in the game. He runs excellent routes and he has a knack for using the short game to set up the deep post. He will take that five or six yards in the first half in order to draw the defender closer. When that happens, he will look to go over the top for the big play.
I have been screaming all year for the Browns to play more aggressive football. In the last two weeks we have seen a more aggressive defensive philosophy but when the Browns seemed to have the game gift wrapped, they have returned to the soft zone. This allowed the Steelers, as well as the Ravens, to build confidence to mount a comeback. Last week, I don't believe the Browns gave up a play bigger than five yards when they brought more than four defenders. When they went to the four-man rush soft-zone philosophy, they allowed Kyle Boller to look like Tom Brady. The defensive players on this team are built for aggressive blitzing.
The defense has suffered a great deal of injuries this year. Last week the Browns saw two of their better players go down with injury. Rookie Corner Eric Wright was coming off of his best game as a Brown but it is unknown when he will be able to return from a knee strain. Defensive linemen Shaun Smith's status for Sunday's game is also still in doubt.
Inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson has also been sidelined and his loss has been noticeable but it has given Leon Williams a chance to prove himself. Getting Jackson back and healthy should help both the run as well as the pass defense. This young combination of linebackers may be the key to helping the Browns defense down the stretch. D'Qwell does a great job at sliding through the hole, the zone blocking scheme of the Texans should be a perfect setup for Jackson's skill set.
Defensive End Robaire Smith is certainly the MVP for the defense this year. His ability to get to the quarterback has become a major focus for opposing defenses but it is also freeing up the blitzing linebacker or safety to make the play. Smith has made huge strides in stopping the run as well.
Cornerback Leigh Bodden is yet another of the walking wounded. When healthy, Bodden is one of the best corners in football but health is the reason that he has not reached that status. Leigh still does an amazing job in run support and is also excellent at tight press coverage but as the Browns go into their zone, he simply lacks the ability to stay with the better receivers in this league.
With Wright out, the Browns will turn to cornerback Daven Holly. Holly has been invaluable to the Browns secondary. He always seems to find himself in the lineup and while he may not be ready for pro bowl consideration, his value as the 3rd corner has been tremendous. Holly will find himself with his hands full once again as he tries to cover Andre Johnson.
Safety Sean Jones is one of the big reason's for the emergence of the Browns pass rush. Jones is great at blitzing the quarterback and he is also difficult for the opposition to pick up. He has a knack for hiding behind the linebackers and defensive linemen until he makes his move and explodes to the quarterback. He could have a huge game this week.
Josh Cribbs puts the special in special teams. Not only has he been a sensation at returning kicks and punts but he is down there making plays in coverage as well. Unlike most returners that are blazing speed demons, Josh doesn't appear to be that fast but he uses craftiness and patience to find the seams. Don't look for the sensational returns this week as the Texans surely will avoid kicking to Josh.
Jerome Mathis doesn't have as many returns as Cribbs but he is a speedster that the Browns must contain on kickoffs. The Browns must maintain their spacing or they will be chasing Jerome into the end zone.