On paper, Sunday's game between the Vikings and Browns has all the makings of a classic mismatch. Not only is Cleveland without its starting quarterback, Brandon Weeden, but the Browns front office made the decision to unload 2012 No. 3 overall draft pick Trent Richardson.
There are a lot of questions being asked about how soon is too soon to give up on a season and start building for the future? Although the Browns made the deal with 2014 and beyond in mind, there are still 14 games remaining in the 2013 season – starting Sunday with the Vikings.
The problem that many analysts have with the decision to trade Richardson is that Cleveland was as viewed as one of the up-and-coming teams in the AFC, especially on defense. The decision to bypass veteran backup Jason Campbell for Brian Hoyer, who has just one career start, is a sign that the new Browns coaching staff is going to assess the players currently on the roster on a game-by-game basis – perhaps the longest audition in league history. In Hoyer, you have a player who realistically has nothing to lose and everything to gain with his performance, which is always dangerous.
How many times have fans seen a backup quarterback who has been waiting in the wings get his chance when the starter either gets hurt or is ineffective and a change is made. Aaron Rodgers hadn't seen the field except in mop-up time until Brett Favre got injured mid-game down at Texas Stadium. Rodgers came off the bench and lit up the Cowboys defense, giving the coaching staff the confidence in that brief window that they had someone special who could develop into an elite quarterback. In that game, Rodgers knew he was heading back to the bench as soon as Favre recovered and had nothing to lose. He was aggressive and wasn't worried about throwing the interception that could get him in the coach's doghouse. Hoyer has much the same prospect facing him.
Compounding Cleveland's offensive problem is that Richardson was such a focal point of the running game that Cleveland only had three running backs on the roster – T-Rich, Bobby Rainey and Chris Ogbannaya. Rainey is a second-year player whose only NFL experience has been as the Browns' kick returner in the first two games. Ogbannaya is a fullback who has been used more as a receiver than a runner, and even those opportunities have been few and far between. Following the Richardson trade, the Browns signed street free agent Willis McGahee, who is expected to see action Sunday, perhaps even being the primary running back. With none of the three players having any runs in the Browns offense – Ogbannaya is the only one with a single career rush for Cleveland – there will be competition for who will become the primary running back in the offense. Given the priority Richardson had in carrying the offense in his first season, the Browns will need to sort out that pecking order quickly.
The team does have some nice receivers. Josh Gordon returns this week from a two-week suspension and the Browns have invested draft picks in Greg Little and Travis Benjamin to create depth. Veteran Davone Bess is a solid slot receiver and leads the wide receiver corps in receptions (10) through two games. The player that Hoyer may end up counting on most is tight end Jordan Cameron, who has blossomed in his third season. Last year in 14 games (six starts), Cameron caught 20 passes for 226 yards and one touchdown. Through two games this season, he leads the Browns in receptions (14), yards (203) and has the team's only touchdown. Don't be surprised if Cameron is targeted early and often Sunday.
The problem with the Browns offense is that it has been built to be an old-school, ground-and-pound attack that doesn't fit in the modern era of the NFL. If the ground game can be stopped, the Browns struggle to move the ball when defenses know they're going to pass. Through two games, they have scored just 16 points – one touchdown and three Billy Cundiff field goals. Yet they haven't been blown out in either of their games because the Browns have assembled a defense that has the potential to be dominant.
Some scouts believe the Browns have one of the most formidable front seven defenders in the league. Nose tackle Phil Taylor is a run-stuffer who has helped pace a defense that is allowing just two yards per rushing attempt. Sixth-overall rookie draft pick Barkevious Mingo is talented and relentless in chasing down the ball, whether it's as a blitzer in the 3-4 system, in run support or taking backs or tight ends in coverage. While technically listed as a backup, expect to see Mingo all over the field Sunday. Free agent linebacker Paul Kruger led the Ravens in sacks last year and brings a strong pass rush to the Browns. He is expected to give Matt Kalil all he can handle on Sunday.
But it doesn't stop there. Right defensive end Desmond Bryant leads the team with 2.5 sacks and, when healthy, the Browns have excellent depth in the front seven. But injuries could factor in. Kruger's backup, Quentin Groves, has been ruled out with an ankle injury and starting left defensive end Ahtyba Rubin is listed as questionable with a calf injury. When the Browns have all their front seven troops available, they can be formidable – just ask Baltimore, which escaped with a 14-6 win last week at home against the Browns.
Cleveland has one stud player in their secondary in cornerback Joe Haden. He has developed into the type of player who can mirror a team's top receiver, but opposing quarterbacks have opted to target other players because the talent drop-off is pronounced. Fellow starting CB Buster Skrine is undersized and earned a starting job only because he was solid in nickel coverage off the bench last year. Safeties T.J. Ward and Tashaun Gipson are both physical safeties but are limited in deep coverage, which means if the Vikings can get a downfield mismatch, the Browns may be a little late in providing safety help over the top.
Less than a week ago, the Browns looked like a poor man's version of the Baltimore Ravens – a team that can win games with a strong defense and an offense that has to play error-free and grind out time on the clock. Now, the Browns look like a team that has effectively waved the white flag on 2013 and will start their own rebuilding process in 2014 – most likely with a new quarterback hand-picked by the new-look front office.
On paper, this looks like a blowout win for the Vikings … and very well could be. But the Browns are a team with nothing to lose. Those types of teams can be dangerous if allowed to hang around. If the Vikings are to make a statement, they will need to put the Browns down early. The opportunity will be there, because, by all appearances, the Vikings are a team focused on righting the ship in 2013 while the Browns look focused on the long game starting in 2014.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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