This unit was one of the best in the NFL in 2007, since their offense finished eighth in total offense and tenth in rushing, but they have taken a step back in 2008. They allowed 41 sacks all of last season, but have already allowed 28 so far this season and are currently ranked 27th overall in offense and 22nd in rushing.
LT Joe Thomas
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For the Browns, it all starts on the left side where second-year tackle and Pro Bowler Joe Thomas paces the unit with left guard Eric Steinbach. Cleveland has had trouble running to the left side — or any side, for that matter — this season and converted center Hank Fraley has had difficulty with larger nose tackles.
This is still a talented group, though, and they can create creases against any defense that is hesitant to attack the line of scrimmage.
Therefore, the Colts defensive line needs to be as aggressive as usual, penetrating gaps and either forcing the tailback wide, or gobbling him up in the back field. The Browns line, as a whole, is a group of tacticians that excels when they are able to take a moment, assess the situation, and attack. It is in that moment where Eric Foster, Keyunta Dawson, and Antonio Johnson need to attack upfield, closing off rush lanes.
Thomas and Shaffer are technicians and very skilled at their positions, however, Thomas has the hips and feet to get wide, whereas Shaffer does not.
Dwight Freeney can be successful if he fakes to the outside, gets Thomas to turn his hips, and makes his way to the inside. Robert Mathis and Raheem Brock need to work the outside of the pocket and clean up the play when the quarterback steps up or back.
The interior linemen need to collapse the inside of the pocket and shoot their gaps in order to be effective. But, Freeney, Brock, and Mathis should not suffer any ill effects if they make their primary objective to pursue the quarterback.
Braylon Edwards is the man to watch, though he has suffered through drops and inconsistencies thus far this season. Edwards is the one player on this offense that can make an opponent pay for lack of discipline and poor tackling.
WR Braylon Edwards
Although the Browns generally target Edwards with slants, skinny posts, and fly routes — routes that the Colts defense has proven that it can shut down, regardless of matchup — it is vital to the success of the overall gameplan that Kelvin Hayden jam him at the line and stay with him, as well as that Freddy Keiaho fills his area of the zone with competence and authority to shut Edwards down.
Inconsistency mars the remainder of the Cleveland receiving corps, with the unreliable Donte Stallworth manning the other flanker position and rookie Syndric Steptoe as the slot receiver. As long as the Indianapolis defender can jam, stifle, and tackle these men early, they will shut them down for the duration, as Steptoe and Stallworth have the reputation of quitting on a game early.
The stiffest challenge the Colts secondary faces outside of Edwards is tight end Kellen Winslow, who is an exceptionally gifted and competitive young man. Although he is nursing a shoulder injury, Winslow will not hesitate to attack the Indianapolis defense at all levels.
He is a very athletic player that doubles as an exceptional route runner and presents the one true threat to the Colts defense. If Clint Session can bump him off the line, the linebackers in general can contain him, and the secondary — especially Melvin Bullitt, or Bob Sanders, if available — can step up, then Winslow can be contained.
But, the primary weakness in exploiting the Cover 2 defense is a skilled tight end. If the Colts allow Winslow a clean release and free domain over the intermediate middle, he will be an easy safety blanket for the quarterback all game. If, however, they are able to bump and contain him, the pass offense will sputter and leave the game up to the running backs.
Jamal Lewis no longer possesses the power and explosion that he had during the 2003 season, when he rushed for over 2,000 yards, but he is still a very talented and deceptively quick athlete that has more than enough left in the tank to wear the Colts defense down over the course of the game.
RB Jamal Lewis
The issues along the offensive line have exacerbated the issues that Lewis is experiencing. They have not been opening up big holes for Lewis, so he has been skittish and hesitant, running far too high and not making yards after contact. Since the problems are interrelated, they can be solved simultaneously or made far worse simultaneously.
If Thomas and Steinbach play to their ability and their 2007 seasons and the defensive line fails to get good penetration, the Browns can seal off the weak side of the formation, giving Lewis plenty of room to operate in. If he has big holes to breeze through, he can easily get to full speed when he reaches the second level, where he can overpower and maul through any of the Indianapolis defenders he meets there — at 245 pounds, he outweighs everyone in the back seven for the Colts.
If, however, the defensive line is able to attack the line of scrimmage, penetrate into the backfield, and make Lewis run east-to-west, then the defense cannot only contain Lewis, but put pressure on the offensive line to perform better, which will make them play tight and Lewis start to run higher and higher, as well as more and more tentatively.
When Lewis gets a crease, he can do an awful lot of damage, even at this stage in his career. He does not work as well without a hole as he used to, though, and has proven unable or unwilling to put his head down and move the pile.
The faster the defensive line — the tackles in particular — can get on the good side of the line, the more they will force Lewis into making decisions sooner than he would like, which will result in a lot of negative plays, runs for no gain, and a great deal of confidence lost across the board for this offense.
Although backup Jerome Harrison has more speed and upside than Lewis — and more of an ability to create when nothing is there — he also won't be able to do as much damage if he gets a hole to run through. It is possible that this will be a platoon situation, with Romeo Crennel riding the hot back, but this is still Lewis' job to lose.
The most action Harrison will see is on third downs and known passing situations, since he his a better receiver than Lewis and more dangerous in space. It is also possible that the Browns could be passing a lot early in an attempt to catch up to the Colts, so we may see a good deal of Harrison in Sunday's game.
When Brady Quinn was placed on injured reserve earlier this week, it ended the quarterback controversy in Cleveland and gave Derek Anderson one last chance to prove that his 2007 Pro Bowl season was not a fluke. Anderson struggled down the stretch last season and opened 2008 with more inconsistent play.
QB Derek Anderson
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The knock on Anderson coming out of Oregon State was that he was a turnover machine, that he was far too cavalier with the ball, and that kind of attitude and those types of mistakes would be his undoing at the NFL level.
In 2007, he took a number of chances, but won more gambles than he lost and ended up parlaying that into a trip to Hawaii. So far this season, the ball has not been bouncing his way and he has gotten sloppy — he ranks last in the league with a 49-percent completion rate — and gotten careless. Though he has only turned the ball over nine times so far this season, he has also only lost one of his eight fumbles.
Still, Anderson's history has shown that he will not give up. He has plenty of talent around him and nothing to lose. He takes enough chances and shoots for the moon often enough that, if a few balls bounce his way, he can certainly be a threat to the pristine numbers that the Colts pass defense has accumulated thus far.
In all reality, though, the deck seems to be stacked against Anderson and, if the anemic Texans secondary was able to hold him to a passer rating of 17.3 last week, he will need a lot of help and an effective running game to prevail.
The left side of the offensive line. Thomas and Steinbach are the two most talented players on the front five and they are both on the left side. If they can get on a roll and start opening up running lanes for Lewis, the Colts defense could be in for a long day.
Success breeds success and failure breeds failure in this situation, so the Indianapolis defensive line needs to mind their gaps, get good penetration, and force Cleveland's offensive line into the negative end of the spectrum.