1. Bracket Gordon — Not having top cornerback Vontae Davis makes defending Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon even more important. Not disrespect to the Colts corners, but Greg Toler, Darius Butler and Josh Gordy can’t guard this guy. So you have one underneath and a safety over top, either Sergio Brown or Mike Adams. Perhaps not all the time, but on most plays. Don’t do it and Gordon will get open. He needed just 14 games last season to lead the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards. He has 15 catches for 195 yards in two games since returning from suspension. Don’t overthink it, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. Just accept it’s going to take extra attention to keep this guy from dominating. Don’t start out man-to-man until he beats you continually to force you to switch. Make Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer have to find other receivers as much as possible.
2. Pressure Hoyer — In his last three starts, the Browns quarterback has been intercepted six times with only one touchdown pass. He’s completed 61-of-120 passes, just 50.8 percent. Thirty-three of the Colts’ 34 sacks have come in wins, so how often they get to Hoyer should be telling. The Colts had a season-high six sacks in Sunday’s 49-27 win over Washington at Lucas Oil Stadium. And it’s not any one guy. Outside linebacker Erik Walden has five. Rookie outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome has 4.5. Inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and outside linebacker Bjoern Werner each have four. Defensive end Cory Redding and rookie defensive tackle Zach Kerr each have three. So load up the box, let Hoyer know early on that he won’t have much time to throw. He has a knack for throwing the ball to the other guys when under duress.
3. Stuff the run — The Browns average 113.9 rushing yards per game, which ranks 14th in the NFL. But they’ve run for 15 of their 27 touchdowns, so it’s no secret they will try to overpower the Colts’ front if or when they get close to the end zone. The Colts have climbed back to 14th in run defense, 107.8 yards allowed per game, after falling to 19th in the wake of New England running over them two games ago. As the old saying goes, make the Browns one-dimensional as much as possible. If they can’t run it, that puts more of the burden on the mistake-prone Hoyer. Rookie running back Isaiah Crowell averages 4.4 yards per carry, but managed just 29 yards on 17 carries at Buffalo in Sunday’s 26-10 loss. Rookie Terrance West is the leading rusher with 502 yards, but he averages 3.8 yards per carry and typically doesn’t get as many touches as Crowell.
4. Turn Luck loose — While many of the Colts coaches are rooted in this grind-it-out, winter-weather smashmouth offense from their days in the AFC North while coaching with the Browns, don’t get conservative. Andrew Luck is coming off a five-TD pass game in which rookie wide receiver Donte Moncrief stretched the field with two long scoring receptions. Tight end Dwayne Allen will be back, which means he can share some of the responsibility with tight end Coby Fleener. Washington tried to double team wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, which gave others more chances. The Browns will likely stick Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden on Hilton, so Luck shouldn’t force it to No. 13 unless Hilton is open. Haden has interceptions in each of the last three games. He’s a tremendous ball hawk. Get everybody involved, which Luck typically does, and the offense should move the chains. The Browns have 20 sacks, but outside linebacker Paul Kruger has eight of them. So there’s no excuse for not giving Luck enough time to find open targets. If Kruger is a problem, you chip him with a tight end and/or running back.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.