The (7-4) Cleveland Browns head to Phoenix to take on the (5-6) Arizona Cardinals. The Browns are looking for their third straight win against a team with their playoff hopes residing on a win versus the Browns. This should be a immensely exciting game as two of the most talented young receiving corps face off this week.
The Browns offense is in the process of transition. They have gone from a big play vertical stretch offense to a more balanced attack as the deep ball has been taken away and teams have challenged the Browns to run the ball. This is even more noticeable when you take a look at the stats. Earlier in the year, Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards were averaging almost 20 yards per catch and they have seen that average drop to 15.
The major beneficiary to the defensive adjustment has been Jamal Lewis. Lewis looks fully healthy and he is running with both speed and power. He is also showing that sensational balance that made him successful in Baltimore as he is making the first defender miss. The play of fullback Lawrence Vickers is also contributing to Jamal's success. It takes time for the fullback and running back to adjust to what the other wants to do. You can see this chemistry in the anticipation of the block.
With the running game picking up steam, the Browns will look to go deep off of the play action fake. Quarterback Derek Anderson is vastly improved in selling that fake. He has learned to hide the football from the defense during the fake just long enough to get Kellen Winslow open down the middle. The timing on this play is special and it is a perfect demonstration of the trust that Anderson has for his tight end. Anderson will throw the ball with astonishing velocity and as soon as Winslow turns his head the ball is there. This play has become almost impossible to defend.
Anderson is also showing improvement in several other areas over the course of the season. His footwork is vastly improved and that is one of the reasons for his improved accuracy but when he doesn't set his feet he can become very erratic. Anderson has also learned to take what the defense is giving him but he has the confidence to thread the needle especially in the red zone when the coverage tightens.
The trio of Browns receiving threats has become very complimentary to one another. Braylon Edwards brings the vertical threat but he is also a major option in critical situations with the quick slant. This has been a great setup for the style of football Joe Jurevicius brings to the table. He is the big physical receiver that can out muscle most defensive backs and with his clutch mentality, it is a perfect setup on third down situations. While Edwards dominates with the deep ball and Jurevicius picks up the tough yards, Kellen Winslow owns the middle of the field. It is a true balanced passing attack.
Up front the Browns offensive line is gelling at the perfect time. Their pass blocking has been tremendous all year but the run blocking is now showing signs of coming together as well. A huge part of the equation has been the play of right tackle Kevin Shaffer and right guard Ryan Tucker. While most of the positive press concerning the offensive line revolves around the outstanding play of rookie left tackle Joe Thomas and guard Eric Steinbach, it is the emergence of the right side of this line as a complete run and pass blocking unit that has this team thinking playoffs. With the option to run to either side of the line and pass protection across the board, this offense can compete with anyone.
The Cardinals defense is going through a difficult period of transition as the team has shifted from the 4-3 to the 3-4 defense. While they do have much of the personnel required to play the scheme, the lack of experience in a tremendous hindrance.
Up front the Cards have a wealth of young talented linemen in Gabe Watson, Alan Branch, Antonio Smith and Darnell Dockett. This will be one of the better lines in football as they grow in this defense. They have been exceptional at getting to the quarterback despite a secondary that doesn't give them the luxury of time to get to the quarterback.
Dockett is extremely quick off the snap and has the athleticism to dominate the game. He could be even better as he matures and learns how to finish off the play on a more consistent basis. This young man will be a force for years to come. Watson and Branch adds run stopping bulk and talent to this line. Branch has seen little action but look for him to receive an increased roll down the stretch.
The Cardinals also have a young talented group of linebackers led by Karlos Dansby. Dansby always seems to come up with the big play. He has the ability to rush the passer but has been forced to play a bigger roll in coverage due to the poor play and injuries of the Cardinals secondary. Dansby has produced by getting his hands on the ball and also delivering big hits to anything that crosses his path.
Gerald Hayes is the big hitter in the middle. He has a big thick body and loves playing the run. His lack of height has not been an issue to do his natural instincts to locate the running back in traffic. If you hear a huge crash this week, it will likely be Hayes and fullback Lawrence Vickers going head to head.
The Cardinals secondary has been banged up all year but one player is rapidly becoming a star in this secondary. The play of cornerback Antrel Rolle has been phenomenal. Rolle is a big physical corner that loves to play tight coverage although in this scheme he has been asked to play a great deal more zone. Few teams choose to challenge Rolle as he is the best player in the Cardinals secondary but when tested he has come up big. Rolle will have his hands full with Braylon Edwards this week and could be one of the games biggest match ups. Look for Braylon to challenge Rolle with the deep ball if he is playing his coverage tight at the line of scrimmage.
The Cardinals would love to run the ball 30 times a game but the offensive line just isn't where head coach Ken Whisenhunt wants it to be. The young tandem on the right side with Levi Brown and Deuce Latui are exactly what Ken is looking for to install his Pittsburgh Steeler type of offense. These are two monster run blockers with that mean nasty streak of physical play but the remainder of the line just isn't getting the job done on a consistent basis. Look for the Cardinals to continue to upgrade this line in the off-season.
At Quarterback the Cardinals thought they were set with USC phenom Matt Leinart but even before Matt was lost to a season ending injury questions were surfacing. That opened the door for veteran Kurt Warner and his veteran presence in the huddle is one of the reasons the Cardinals remain alive in the playoff hunt.
Kurt throws a very catchable ball and he has the arm to stretch the field especially with the offensive weapons they have at the receiver position in Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. Larry Fitzgerald is having a terrific year as he already has posted 75 receptions for 1060 yards. Keeping these two in check will be a difficult task for the Browns secondary. The best way to stop Fitzgerald and Boldin is to get pressure on Warner. He is one of the best in the league when he has time but when he is taking shots he becomes very erratic and begins looking for the rush instead of receivers.
The Browns also must be wary of tight end Leonard Pope. Pope doesn't have a large number of receptions due to being asked to block more than catch but he is becoming a favorite target in clutch situations. Pope becomes a greater threat in red zone receptions. The Browns can not afford to overlook the big tight end.
Edgerrin James has been inconsistent at best since his arrival. Edge is struggling behind a line that just doesn't open the running lanes needed for success. The key to stopping Edge is to stop him early and make the Cardinals a one-dimensional offense.
The Browns defense is coming off of its best performance of the year. There were several reasons for the defensive performance last week. The return of Shaun Smith and D'Qwell Jackson was invaluable but it was a rookie that shocked the world.
Rookie corner Brandon McDonald shut down one of the best receivers in the game when he faced off against Andre Johnson. Most want to talk about the interception but that may have been one of the few times all game where the rookie was out of position. He blanketed the pro bowl receiver all game with spectacular coverage. He can go a long way this week into pushing himself into starting position with another solid performance against a pro bowl receiver.
The Browns front three continue to improve by leaps and bounds. Shaun Smith and Robaire Smith should be in for another solid week as they face off against vulnerable Cardinals offensive line. Orpheus Roye was huge last week in showing his mobility to slide with the stretch runs used by the Texans. Orpheus slid with the play without losing containment but this week he will be facing the mauling ability of Latui and Brown.
Roye must hold the line but for the Browns to have success the linebackers must be able to get into the backfield. Kamerion Wimbley is starting to reemerge as a pass rushing force. Wimbley has been in a horrendous sophomore slump but I saw that same flash of dominating speed last week. Veteran left tackle Mike Gandy simply does not have the speed to stay with Wimbley without help. Look for Wimbley to have a huge game this week against Gandy but the Browns could also look to move Wimbley to the opposite side to face off against the rookie Levi Brown. Neither has the foot speed to stop Wimbley from getting to the edge.
D'Qwell Jackson is getting healthy at the right time. The inside linebacker's ability in both pass coverage as well as run support has been missed during his absence. Look for Jackson to have another solid game in pass coverage this week.
The safety tandem of Brodney Pool and Sean Jones are still rather inconsistent with their play but they have begun to produce positive plays with their capacity to blitz and also their ability to make plays in the secondary by delivering the big hit or the interception. They must have a big game this week with their coverage help against this highly potent Cardinals offense. They can not allow anyone to get behind them or they will be chasing the receiver into the end zone.
If there is one area in which the Browns have a solid advantage it is in special teams. The Cardinals coverage is suspect and the Browns special teams ace Joshua Cribbs is by far the best kickoff return man in football. Josh has over 1500 return yards and 7 returns over 40 yards.
Also Phil Dawson may only be remembered for the kicks he missed and the controversy kick but he has quietly had a solid year making 19 of 22 attempts. Phil benefits from having the best long snapper in the business. Ryan Pontbriand simply gets the ball to the perfect spot over and over while also having the best velocity on his snaps of any long snapper I have seen this year. Sometimes it's the player that no one notices that has the biggest impact and this year Ryan has been flawless.