Just one season ago, most of the "experts" were predicting the Browns to run away with the AFC North. Too many players read those press clippings and the season of doom unfolded. That horrible season cost Romeo Crennel and his staff their jobs.
2009, those same experts are predicting the Browns to be one of, if not the worst team in the National Football League. The Vikings, on the other hand, are one of the popular picks for the Super Bowl.
No one is giving the Browns a chance in this one... but this game has all the makings for an upset special.
Vikings Offense vs. Browns Defense
The Minnesota Vikings have a terrific offense led by the most explosive running back the game has seen since the days of Barry Sanders. Adrian Peterson is big, fast and elusive with terrific vision to find the hole. The only chance anyone has against Peterson is to force the run away from the middle and to the outside. Even then, AP has enough speed to beat you to the outside.
The Vikings have added another weapon in former Packer and future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre. Brett is not the same quarterback most fans have grown accustomed to seeing. He no longer has the best arm in football and he does not have the great assemblage of weapons at receiver.
What Brett has for weapons is the best running back in the game, a young playmaker at receiver and a terrific tight end in Visanthe Shiancoe. Visanthe was unknown until one year ago when he caught 42 passes for 596 yards and 7 touchdowns.
The Vikings have a below-average group of receivers when healthy and Bernard Berrian, arguably their best receiver, may miss Sunday's contest due to a hamstring injury. Harvin is a unique prospect in that he reminds me a great deal of the Browns' Josh Cribbs. Percy has tremendous speed and elusiveness. He is a bit of a project as a receiver but anytime he touches the ball, he can take it the distance.
Brett must play within himself and use the dump downs and screens. It is his natural instinct to hurl the ball deep but that part of his game will get him into trouble. He must become "the field general" and instead of "the warrior" and simply allow his troops to make plays for him.
In order for the Vikings offense to get going, their offensive line must come together quickly. Bryant McKinnie and Steve Hutchinson provide a terrific combination of power and athletic ability to anchor one of the best left sides in all of football. John Sullivan is a young but improving center.
The glaring weakness and/or question mark is at the RT position filled by rookie Phil Loadholt. Phil is a beast of a young man. He has tremendous power in both his hands as well as his legs. He is a terrific drive blocker that can engulf opponents. Phil also can become planted at tackle. He forgets to move his feet, and when he isn't moving his feet someone is going past him.
Browns OLB Kamerion Wimbley must have a terrific game if the Browns have a chance at slowing down this potent Viking offense. Wimbley has great speed and his overall play of the position has vastly improved. His speed could give Phil Loadholt and the Vikings nightmares on Sunday but he must also be wary of those screen passes that the Vikings use so well.
Another huge asset for the Browns front seven is a slimmed-down version of nose tackle Shaun Rogers. Rogers was arguably the best defensive linemen in football one year ago. He will have a decisive advantage over center John Sullivan in both size as well as quickness. The Vikings must find a way to keep Rogers out of the backfield.
Second year nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin has performed admirably in place of Shaun Rogers throughout preseason and he could possibly allow Rogers to spend more time at defensive end. Rubin is playing with that low center of gravity and just engulfing blockers as well as running backs. His play was vital in the Browns improved play versus the run this preseason.
Inside linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and Eric Barton must play the most intelligent game of their careers. Their role is more about patience than aggressiveness in this one. They must allow the play to develop before committing. This is important in stopping the screen pass as well as keeping Adrian Peterson in check. Force him to make his decision before you make yours, and when you tackle take a shot at stripping the football. Peterson will put it on the ground.
The Browns corners should be able to keep the Vikings receiver in check, but the one area of concern here is the slot position with Percy Harvin. The Browns do not have anyone that can match up with him on equal terms from an athletic standpoint. This means the nickel corner must play very physical and use their physical strength to disrupt his routes and to keep him running that quick slant. The nickel duty could fall upon the shoulders of rookie Coye Francies.
Safety play was a disappointment throughout preseason. They can redeem themselves quickly however by supporting the run game as well as playing Brett Favre and making the pick. We all know Favre will throw a few ducks. It is in his nature to do so and it is up to those safeties to make the play on the ball.
Bottom line for this defense is the Browns must find a way to hit Brett Favre early and often. The more he gets hit the more often he throws those wounded ducks off of his back foot. This will also keep Adrian Peterson from getting off to an early start.
Browns Offense vs. Vikings Defense
If the Browns are to have any success in this one, they must keep their defense along with the Vikings offense off of the field for as long as they can. This makes quarterback Brady Quinn's ability to sustain drives a vital element in this contest. Brady must be patient but also keep the chains moving. His receiving options have a physical advantage over the smaller defensive backs of the Vikings.
While patience is a must Braylon Edwards should be option one on every passing play especially when isolated with Antoine Winfield. Winfield plays much bigger than his size indicates but he is giving up nearly 40 pounds and 6 inches in height.
The Vikings love to come up and land the big hit on opposing receivers and with the size and strength of Joshua Cribbs do not be surprised if he takes one of those quick slants or wide receiver screens for a touchdown. His confidence is growing every time he touches the ball.
The Vikings have the best front four in football with tackles Pat and Kevin Williams in the middle with the games best sack artist in Jared Allen coming from the outside. Allen should have a difficult time matched up against the Browns left tackle Joe Thomas. Thomas has the quickness to negate the burst of Allen as long as he doesn't allow Jared to get into his chest and use his bull rush.
The best way to slow down Pat and Kevin Williams is to keep them on the field and do not allow them to rest. These two go as hard as they can on every play and they wear down. If the Browns can use the hurry up and not allow for substitution they can make life difficult for this line in the second half.
To run on this group you need running backs that can get to the hole quickly and slash and dash their way through. You simply do not find large running lanes against this Vikings defense. The Browns will be best served to allow Jerome Harrison and rookie James Davis to carry the ball early in this one. Jamal Lewis is simply to slow to the hole to be very effective in this contest at least early in the game.
The Browns must find an adequate replacement for Kellen Winslow at the tight end position. Winslow was often a distraction but he was productive. If the Browns tight end position does not produce look for the Browns to use more multiple receiver sets.
One advantage the Browns certainly have is in the special teams unit. The Vikings although improved do not cover punts nor kicks all that well and that can be disaster when facing the likes of Joshua Cribbs and the Browns. The Browns must not lose focus when they are covering kicks as Percy Harvin is Mr. Dynamite whenever he touches the ball.
This Browns team is more than capable of walking away with a victory on Sunday. To achieve that goal they must play smart disciplined football. The winner in this one will likely be the team that makes the fewest mental errors and also the team that gets out to the early lead.