In what is expected to be the game of the week, the Cleveland Browns will defend their home turf against the visiting Dallas Cowboys. Most prognosticators have already penciled in the Cowboys for the Super Bowl -- and for good reason -- but the Browns have the firepower to not only compete but also win this contest. To avoid another opening-day disaster, the Browns must avoid getting off to a slow start. The opener doesn't necessarily set the stage for the season but a win here would be huge for the Browns post-season aspirations.
Dallas possesses one of the most prolific offenses in football with arguably the best offensive line in football. LT Flozell Adams (6-7, 340) and Marc Columbo (6-8, 320) are a monster tandem of tackles for the Cowboys. Their pass protection is solid but their run blocking is spectacular. I have been very impressed with Colombo's athletic ability, which allows him to seal for the inside run but, when the backs bounce it outside, he finds a way to get out in front and continue to block downfield.
RB Marion Barber will run between the tackles as long as there is a place to run, but he also has those quick feet that allow him to take a step back and break it wide. Both Barber and rookie Felix Jones will bounce it out to the right when there is nothing in the middle following Colombo's lead. Keeping outside containment even on an inside run is vital for the Browns' defense.
QB Tony Romo has all the tools. He has a big time arm combined with an elusive pocket presence. Tony, however, has negatives that the Browns can take advantage of. If you can pressure the middle, he has a tendency to throw off of his back foot and getting very little velocity on the pass. To take advantage, however, the Browns defensive backs must get their head around and be ready to find the ball.
The Cowboys most dangerous weapon on offense is TE Jason Witten. Witten becomes Romo's favorite target whenever Romo gets into trouble and gives the quarterback a wide target that claims ownership of the middle of the field. He is willing to take and deliver the big hits all day long. With an injury plagued receiving corps, look for Witten to line up as a receiver often on Sunday.
WR Terrell Owens is one of the more deceptive receivers in the NFL. While teams tend to concentrate on taking away the deep ball with Owens, it is his underneath routes that make him a special receiver. Owens is at his best when he is running the quick slants and crossing routes. This gets him involved in the offense and also gets his confidence growing. Taking away the quick strikes is the best way to take the prolific receiver out of the game. If the ball isn't coming his way, he tends to take himself out of the game mentally.
Being a fan of the trench warriors, one can't help to be excited seeing the Browns revamped defensive line facing one of the best offensive lines. Cowboy's center Andre Gurode will have his hands full with Browns NT Shaun Rogers. Gurode is an excellent center but I can't see him being able to handle the monster Rogers without a significant amount of help from the guards. Rogers forcing the double and the Cowboys tendency to run right will make a busy day for DE Corey Williams. If Williams can get a slight amount of penetration off the snap, it could be a long day for the Cowboys' running game. If, however, he is getting pushed off the line, the Browns' linebackers could be in for a rough day at the office.
With LOLB Antwan Peek now on injured reserve and veteran Willie McGinest recovering from an injury of his own, expect to see a great deal of playing time for seventh-round rookie Alex Hall. The rookie was very impressive during preseason even as he was moved from the right side to the left side. He appears to have a natural feel for the position and will hustle all over the field. He also has patience to allow the play to develop and has better-than-expected pass-rushing skills. The Cowboys are certain to test the rookie's ability to play the run throughout this contest.
One improvement the Browns linebackers must make is avoiding the trap of being caught up in the trash at the line of scrimmage. Inside linebackers Andra Davis and D'Qwell Jackson have the talent, but they have yet to provethey have broken the habits developed by playing behind a bad front three. They tend to get caught up in traffic when there is no reason to do so. The inside blitz could be an effective weapon in this contest for the Browns' defense.
ROLB Kamerion Wimbley will be counted on to make Tony Romo as uncomfortable as possible, although facing off against LT Flozell Adams will be a difficult task. Wimbley's speed is a huge advantage but he must be able to beat him underneath to have any success. If he goes wide all day, Adams will simply ride him and bury him behind the quarterback.
Linebacker Leon Williams should see a great deal of playing time on Sunday. He is the Browns best coverage backer and will be counted upon heavily to defend Witten.
The Browns' corners will be tested early and often with the deep ball. The Cowboys are similar to the Browns in that they look for the big play first. It is vital for the corners to disrupt the routes of the Cowboy receivers. Jam them hard and force them toward the sideline. The CBs have the speed but the key to this one is being physical. If they can feel the receivers while watching the backfield, the interception will be there.
With FS Brodney Pool expected to be absent from this contest, Mike Adams must step up to the challenge. Simply put, he can't allow the receivers to get behind him. This was an issue for the Browns' secondary throughout preseason.
The Cowboys live to blitz and, seeing how the Browns' offensive line struggled in preseason with the inside blitz, they are likely to test Hank Fraley and the guards early and often. I expect to see the Cowboys move OLB DeMarcus Ware around quite a bit on Sunday. Ware is too vital for the Dallas defense to have him tied up with LT Joe Thomas for four quarters.
OLB Greg Ellis is often the forgotten Cowboy defender; however, he should not be overlooked as his speed off the edge is a nightmare for most slow-footed right tackles. Keep an eye on the match up between Ellis and RT Kevin Shaffer.
The Cowboys' front three is a good front but not a dominate one. They are looking to hold their ground and force the run wide. The addition of Zach Thomas at inside linebacker makes this group much harder to run on. He may have slowed by a step or two but his instincts for the position are off the charts.
The Cowboys' secondary looks great on paper but appearances can be deceiving. Safety Roy Williams is great in run support but his coverage is a major issue as he doesn't react well to the ball in flight. Safety Ken Hamlin is solid in support, but he may be asked to cover TE Kellen Winslow and that will be a difficult challenge for the veteran safety.
The Cowboys are deep at corner, but, with Terence Newman recovering from an injury, it could throw Adam Jones into the mix early. Jones' suspension has hurt his game and he has yet to knock off all of the rust. Jones is having trouble in deep coverage using his hands to grab and hold receivers, so the Browns should start complaining before the coin toss. If Jones is covering Edwards, look for Anderson to test him early.
Whether RB Jamal Lewis will be able to carry the load is uncertain, but running the ball is a must for the Browns on Sunday. By running the ball effectively, you take away the Cowboys' potent pass rush. This also gives you an opportunity to use the fullback to punish the Cowboy edge rushers. The more you hit them, the slower they will get.
QB Derek Anderson is recovering from a concussion but I don't expect this to be an issue unless he is taking more hits. The key to avoiding those hits is the chemistry of the line. At times this preseason, the supposed strength of this team was a glaring weakness. It is uncertain if G Ryan Tucker will be ready to play and his absence appeared to be the biggest reason as to why the line struggled.
The Browns should look to use the screen pass to set up their vertical offense. The running back screen, fullback screen, tight end screen and even the wide receiver screen could be brought into play this week. The screen will serve two purposes. First, it will take advantage of the pass rush and make the front seven weary of the screen. It will also force the secondary closer to the line. The Browns have excellent blocking receivers and this is a great way to use that strength while also opening up the passing game.
Derek Anderson will likely find a variety of receiving options. The Cowboys don't have enough players to double up on Braylon Edwards, Donte Stallworth and Winslow. If Anderson is able to get into rhythm, he is capable of having a huge day against this secondary. Use the play-action fake and also the pump fake to get the defense to hesitate.
If Josh Cribbs is unable to play this week, everyone on special teams must step up and make up for his absence. Cribbs is not only great at returning kickoffs and punts but he is the best in the game at coverage. Coverage is the area of greatest concern for both teams.
The Cowboys have a tendency to go on a lot of three-and-out possessions. If you are keeping them pinned back, it puts your offense in excellent position. The Cowboys have struggled in almost all phases of special teams and if the Browns are to pull out a win this week, special teams will be a huge factor.