Cleveland Browns (1-3) at Carolina Panthers (2-2)KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon
SERIES: 3rd meeting. The Panthers lead the series 2-0. Both games were against the Browns in the expansion era. This upcoming game will be the first for Coach Romeo Crennel against the Panthers.
2006 RANKINGS: Browns: offense 30th (28th rush, 20th pass); defense 25th (29th rush, 12th pass). Panthers: offense 23rd (13th rush, 24th pass); defense 22nd (23rd rush, 17th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Panthers' offense has stepped up an entire notch with WR Steve Smith back in the lineup. His presence has even helped the ground game, with RB DeShaun Foster enjoying bigger holes thanks to increased defensive focus on the passing game. It's a dilemma for the Browns, who have an injury-ravaged secondary that could be without CBs Leigh Bodden and/or Gary Baxter. Cleveland has to find a way to limit the big plays defensively while controlling the ball and working on field position on offense. RB Reuben Droughns will see plenty of work, and QB Charlie Frye needs to manage the short passing game in order to move the chains consistently. The Panthers' run defense hasn't lived up to expectations, so there should be room for Droughns to work. And Frye is beginning to develop more chemistry with TE Kellen Winslow.
FAST FACTS: Browns: First ever visit to Carolina. ... Have not won consecutive road games in the same season since 2003. Panthers: Are 5-0 when RB DeShaun Foster rushes for at least 100 yards. ... WR Keyshawn Johnson has caught at least one pass in 155 consecutive games, the second longest streak behind Indianapolis' Marvin Harrison (158).
--TE Kellen Winslow said his knee is fine, but he continues to be listed on the weekly injury report. Winslow has had to fight through soreness in the knee he wrecked in a motorcycle accident, but he still has had an excellent start to the season.
--RB Reuben Droughns is listed as questionable on the injury report, but he ran for 100 yards in Oakland after being listed as questionable last week. Droughns should play, but he may have a tougher time gaining yards against the strong Panthers defensive line.
--QB Charlie Frye said a key to success in Carolina is getting rid of the ball quickly to counter the Panthers pass rush. One problem Frye has had in a strong start is occasionally holding the ball too long.
--WR Joe Jurevicius worked his way back on the field last Sunday for the first time since the opener. This weekend he may work his way back into the starting lineup. Jurevicius is too smart and too valuable to be a situational player.
--S Brian Russell is the quarterback of the defense, the guy who makes coverage calls. His job will be vital this weekend if the Browns, as expected, start corners Daven Holly and Ralph Brown. Russell said it's vital the team has no breakdowns against Carolina's Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith.
--When the Browns were looking for a head coach in 2001 former president Carmen Policy considered John Fox, now the Panthers coach, but Policy wanted a flashier name so he hired Butch Davis.
--This will be the first regular season game for the Browns in Charlotte. The Panthers are the only team the Browns have yet to play on the road.
--A preseason in Charlotte is where all Courtney Brown's injury problems began. He suffered a knee injury and missed the first six games of 2001, his second season. He has been bothered by injuries since and his troubles continued after being traded to Denver.
--The Panthers got in line to beat up on the Browns in 1999. The Panthers won 31-17 in Cleveland on Nov. 21 eight years ago. It was one of eight home losses suffered by the Browns that year.
--Though the Browns' record, 1-3, still resembles that of a first-year team, the only active player still left from the 1999 team is kicker Phil Dawson.
--By the time the Browns and Panthers met again, in 2002, the Browns were improved. It was the Browns only playoff season, but the Panthers stalled a two-game winning streak by winning 13-6.
--Tim Couch played one of the worst games of his inglorious career in that 13-6 loss. He completed 12 of 27 passes for 130 yards, was sacked three times and threw three interceptions. His passer rating was 19.6.
--Charlie Frye has thrown seven interceptions in four games. At that rate he will throw 28 interceptions in his first season as a starter.
--Desperate is a word not too strong to describe the situation in the secondary for the Browns. On Tuesday rookie nose tackle Babatunde Oshinowo was waived to create a roster opening so cornerback Jereme Perry could be promoted from the practice squad. Perry showed in preseason and training camp he could stay close to a receiver. He just did not finish the job.
Perry is needed because Leigh Bodden is down with a sprained ankle and Gary Baxter is recovering from a pectoral injury. Daven Holly and Ralph Brown will start if Bodden and Baxter cannot play against Carolina Sunday. Antonio Perkins would be the nickel back. No other corners were on the roster until Perry was promoted.
--QB Jake Delhomme should have a big game Sunday facing a Browns secondary that has been depleted by injuries. Delhomme has thrown only one pick this season, although he has turned the ball over three times on fumbles.
--SS Shaun Williams (foot) practiced on Thursday, but he probably will serve as a backup to Colin Branch on Sunday.
--CB Ken Lucas is likely to start this week after getting benched last Sunday because of a shoulder problem that limited his ability to tackle. There has been slippage in Lucas' skills, but coach John Fox wanted to rest him as much as possible, so Lucas only played on third downs.
--WR Steve Smith could be in for a huge afternoon Sunday against a suspect Browns secondary. Smith has outstanding speed, and the Browns don't appear to have anyone who can hang with him.
--MLB Chris Draft will start in place of Dan Morgan (concussion) this week. The Panthers are 13-5 since 2002 in games in which Morgan has not played.
GAME PLAN - PanthersThe Panthers should have no problem dicing up Cleveland's injury-depleted secondary. Expect Jake Delhomme to come out throwing the football to loosen up the run defense. This could be a real get-well game for the offense. Expect a big game from Jake Delhomme, Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson.
Carolina's defense hasn't made many big plays this season, but they could come this week if the team gets a lead. If that happens, expect defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac to turn the dogs loose on Browns quarterback Charlie Frye.
GAME PLAN - BrownsCharlie Frye is not afraid to throw into tight coverage, but this week more than ever he has to be cautious and not give the Panthers an opportunity to play on a short field against a depleted Browns secondary.
Frye can dink his way downfield while relying on running back Reuben Droughns. The run offense struggled in the first three weeks but was better last week against the Raiders. The Browns will need a push from the interior of the line. That is something they have not had this season.
MATCHUPS TO WATCHPanthers WR Steve Smith vs. Cleveland's secondary -- Who knows who'll cover Smith this week given the Browns injury situation, but whoever gets the nod will have their hands full. Smith has 17 catches for 199 yards and a touchdown in two games and the team hasn't even taken the saddle off him yet and let him run deep. Smith has done his damage with short slants and smoke routes thus far, but with his hamstring getter better each week he could be set to fly.
Browns RB Reuben Droughns vs. the Panthers front four -- About the only way the Browns win this game is if Droughns has a big outing. That's certainly possible. The Browns run a lot of zone blocking techniques, which is what the Panthers struggled to defend in Week 1 against the Falcons. Because their offensive line is bigger, the Browns don't run as many "stretch runs" as the Falcons. Droughns' best career game came against Carolina back in 2004, when he ran for 193 yards as the Denver Broncos beat the Panthers 20-17.
Browns RT Ryan Tucker, a 10-year veteran, vs. Panthers LDE Julius Peppers -- Tucker is not the quickest tackle but he has good footwork and knows how to handle quick pass rushers like Peppers. Pass protection for Charlie Frye has been an issue from the start of the season, but part of the problem is Frye holds the ball too long. He has to learn to throw the ball away without risking an interception.
INJURY IMPACTCenter Justin Hartwig returned to practice Wednesday after missing the last three weeks with a groin injury and it looks like he could suit up on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.
However, it's unclear at this point if he'll start or be used in a backup role for now. Geoff Hangartner has been filling in for Hartwig at center and the offensive line finally began to jell this past week in the fourth quarter against New Orleans, so Fox may be hesitant to change up his starting lineup right now.
"Every coach every year has to deal with that," Fox said when asked if putting Hartwig back in might disrupt the continuity of the offensive line. "We'll evaluate it this week and we'll make that decision Sunday."
Hartwig is listed as questionable on the injury report along with safety Shaun Williams, who also practiced.
"They are both easing back into," Fox said. "It's good to have them back out there. They both looked like they were ready to play."
--LB Dan Morgan is still not ready to play. For the fourth straight week, the team's starting middle linebacker has been declared out on the injury report, meaning his comeback from a concussion remains on hold.
--TE Mike Seidman is lost for the season with a torn ACL in his knee. It's not considered a big loss for Carolina as Seidman didn't have a reception all season and can be replaced as a blocker.
TE Kellen Winslow (knee), CB Gary Baxter (pectoral), CB Leigh Bodden (ankle), S Justin Hamilton (ankle), WR Travis Wilson (knee) and LB Willie McGinest (calf) are questionable. All were limited in practice Wednesday.
--CB Leigh Bodden watched practice from the sideline Wednesday wearing a walking boot.
--S Justin Hamilton is wearing a walking boot. He missed the game last week with an ankle injury.
--The Browns waived C Alonzo Ephraim on Monday, the day his four-game suspension for substance abuse ended.
--LB Willie McGinest is being rested during the week because of his calf injury. Last week he was clearly hurting when he tried to chase Lamont Jordan.
--CB Gary Baxter was in full pads but was limited in practice Wednesday.