Three of the biggest changes on offense for the Browns this season are changes not as glaring as making Rob Chudzinski offensive coordinator, Derek Anderson the starting quarterback and Jamal Lewis the starting running back.
As the Browns head into Giants Stadium Sunday to face the Jets, the run blocking and pass blocking is better than at any time in the past 20 years. It is part of the reason Anderson (24) is on pace to throw more touchdown passes than any quarterback since Brian Sipe threw 26 in 1983 and why Lewis is closing in on the 10 touchdowns Kevin Mack rushed for in 1986.
Left guard Eric Steinbach and rookie left tackle Joe Thomas are the big money additions to the improved blocking. Not so big on the payroll is fullback Lawrence Vickers, a sixth-round draft choice from Colorado in 2006.
"I love my fullback," Lewis said. "Vickers is a special guy. He's my eyes to the hole a lot of times.
"Sometimes it takes a while to get confidence in your fullback because that's a relationship thing. You have to build that chemistry. I think we're coming to that. He's understanding me more and I'm understanding him. We're fine. He's not the biggest fullback, but he packs a punch."
Defenses had very little respect for the Browns run offense in the past, so they could drop linebackers into coverage and dare Charlie Frye, Trent Dilfer, Jeff Garcia or whoever was quarterback at the time to beat them.
Opponents did not have to worry about the Ravens quarterbacks beating them when Lewis was in Baltimore so they would fill the box with one safety and sometimes two, forcing Lewis to run through nine defenders. Browns opponents dare not do that as they defend Anderson. That gives Lewis more room, and it makes giving him room less daunting for his blockers.
"I look to improve in every game," Vickers said. "The position is physical. It's the little things that put you above the rest. I'm trying to work my way to where I can be great.
"My thing is to get Jamal one-on-one with somebody. It's hard to run with somebody in front of (a running back) who doesn't know what he's doing."
Vickers said he has an edge on some fullbacks because he carried the ball in high school and college. He knows what a back like Lewis sees as a play unfolds. Vickers' model is Lorenzo Neal, now the blocking fullback for LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego. Before that he blocked for Eddie George of the Titans.
"I try to take what he does and put my own twist on it to make it better," Vickers said. "I want to be able to block on the inside, outside, run the ball and catch the ball."
The Browns were in Baltimore for their final game in November. Vickers stood up middle linebacker Ray Lewis on a one-yard touchdown run by Jamal Lewis early in the game. After the play, he told Ray Lewis how much he admires him, but he also let the leader of the Ravens defense know he planned to make it a long day for him.
"He's the best," Vickers said. "I want to be the best so I want to go after somebody I admire the most. When I hit him, I told him 'I admire you, but today I'm going to get you.' That's when you have to up the ante."
The Browns are more confident in their run offense than they have ever been. Reuben Droughns rushed for more than 1,200 yards two years ago, but that was on a team that finished 6-10. He ran out of gas in December, finishing the season with 74 yards against the Bengals, 53 yards against the Raiders, 36 against the Steelers and 40 against the Ravens.
SERIES HISTORY: 19th meeting. The Browns lead the series, 11-7, and won the only playoff game they played against the Jets. If recent history is an indicator of what to expect, the Browns should fare well because they won the last two times they played in Giants Stadium.
The Browns built a 20-3 lead against the Jets in a game in Cleveland last season and held on to win, 20-13. Reuben Droughns was a workhorse, carrying the ball 33 times for 125 yards and a touchdown.
The 2004 season was made more dismal when the Browns lost a home game to the Jets, 10-7, to fall to 3-7. It was their fourth straight loss. Phil Dawson missed a short field goal that would have tied the game. No one knew at the time, but Butch Davis would coach only one more game before abruptly resigning.
Al Lerner, father of current owner Randy Lerner and the man who brought the expansion Browns back into the NFL, passed away during the week before the Browns and Jets played in 2002. The Browns dedicated the game to him and won, 24-21.
The first-ever Monday night game was between the Browns and Jets on Sept. 21, 1970. A crowd of 85,703 jammed into old Cleveland Stadium and saw the Browns win 31-21. The key play was a kick return for a touchdown by Homer Jones to start the second half.
The Browns and Jets met six times between 1970 and 1980 and the Browns won each time. Two of those games went into overtime. The Browns won 37-34 at home in 1978 and 25-22 on the road a season later.
Bernie Kosar set a Browns playoff record by throwing 64 passes against the Jets on Jan. 3, 1987 in a game the Browns won 23-20 in double overtime. He completed 33 of them for 489 yards.
Matt Bahr was the Browns kicker in the 1980s, but Bahr injured his knee making a tackle in midseason and was unavailable for the playoffs in 1986. Mark Moseley, one of the last straight-on kickers, made the game-winning field goal against the Jets to send the Browns to the AFC championship against the Broncos. The Browns lost, ironically, 23-20 in overtime.
BY THE NUMBERS: 12 -- With 12 touchdown catches, Braylon Edwards is one short of the team record set by Gary Collins in 1963.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're not going to let (losing to Arizona) get us down or stop us. We're going to keep playing hard and whatever happens, happens." -- Browns linebacker Willie McGinest, on the necessity for the Browns to finish strongly.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
If all goes as planned, nose tackle Ethan Kelly will be back in the lineup when the Browns face the Jets after missing two games with a knee injury. Kelly's return will be a welcome relief to a defensive line strapped for healthy bodies. Kelly practiced on a limited basis Wednesday. He missed the last two games.
Defensive end Orpheus Roye tried, but a painful right knee prevented him from playing against the Cardinals. With Roye and Kelly both in street clothes, the Browns were reduced to four healthy defensive linemen -- Simon Fraser, Shaun Smith, Robaire Smith and Louis Leonard. Coach Romeo Crennel did not use the injuries as an excuse, but the Browns were clearly gassed defensively when they were unable to force a punt in the final minutes.
Kelly returning would allow Shaun Smith to move back to left end if Roye has to miss another game. Simon Fraser started against Arizona. Run defense is not his strength. At times, the Browns lined up with no defensive linemen, but flooding the box with linebackers did not pay off. They should not be forced to use that strategy against the Jets if Kelly plays.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--CB Eric Wright expects to play against the Jets. He practiced Wednesday and Thursday after missing the last two games with a knee injury.
--RDE Robaire Smith practiced Thursday after missing Wednesday with a sore neck. He dismissed the injury as 'bumps and bruises at this time of year' and vows to play Sunday.
--LDE Orpheus Roye practiced for the first time since playing against the Texans Nov. 25.
--TE Steve Heiden missed practice with an ankle injury.
--LB Antwan Peek missed practice with a sore knee. He routinely rests in the early part of the week.
--DL Simon Fraser missed practice with the flu.
--RT Kevin Shaffer missed practice to rest his knee. He has taken Wednesday off the last three weeks.
--LB Kris Griffin was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury. Linebacker Colby Bockwoldt was signed to take his roster spot.
GAME PLAN: The Browns will be on guard every time they are on defense because of the gadget plays the Jets like to run. Jets coach Eric Mangini said just having the reputation for using those plays makes defenses work more in practice to get everything covered.
"They have a couple guys they use for their gadget plays and they'll throw them in there from time to time," coach Romeo Crennel said. "We're going to have to be ready when those come up."
Jets quarterback Kellen Clemens factors into preparing for trick plays because he is effective out of the pocket. The last time they played a quarterback with those skills was when they played the Steelers in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger beat the Browns with his feet as much as with his arm.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Browns SS Sean Jones vs. Jets TE Chris Baker. The Browns have had difficulty covering tight ends all season. Baker has 26 catches for 257 yards and three touchdowns. All three touchdowns were on passes within the 5. The Jets could go to Baker on longer routes to take advantage of a secondary that has allowed a league-high 27 touchdowns. Jones has improved since a slow start and is tied for the team lead with four interceptions.
Browns LB Kamerion Wimbley vs. Jets LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Wimbley got close to sacking Kurt Warner last week, and even though he did not take Warner to the ground, he forced him to throw an incomplete pass. The Browns would take a similar result Sunday, but it will not be as easy against Ferguson. Wimbley has developed an inside move to go with his quick move bending low around the tackle's left side. Wimbley has four sacks and 15 quarterback pressures.
INJURY IMPACT: Getting Eric Wright back for the final four games would be a boost to the secondary. Crennel said Brandon McDonald would continue playing in nickel situations, which means either Leigh Bodden or Daven Holly would be reduced to the dime back. Bodden is not having a good season.
The Browns will miss Robaire Smith (neck) and/or Orpheus Roye (knee) if they cannot play. Run defense is a problem compounded if the starters are out.