Cleveland Browns Preview

Reuben Droughns has been a symbol of the 2005 Cleveland Browns, unheralded players who get the job done and keep their teams in games. With wins already over the Packers and Bears this season, while fans may think this game is a lock for the Vikings, you can bet the players and coaches don't share the unabashed confidence.

When the 2005 schedule came out, giddy prognosticating Vikings fans that were predicting a 11-5 or 12-4 season figured the home game with the Cleveland Browns would be an automatic win. And why not? The Vikings have never played the Browns since they returned to the NFL and the team is going through its first overhaul as a franchise – abandoning first overall pick Tim Couch to go in a new direction. Coming off a 4-12 season, this looked like a clubbing in the making, but then again that's what the Bears and Packers thought and the Browns beat both of them earlier in the season.

The Browns have already matched their win total of 2004 (four) and have done it in 10 games this season. They are a team that is young in many positions with a sprinkling of veterans throughout the lineup. With the Vikings on a high from sweeping the Packers for their third straight win, it isn't likely that the team will look past the Browns, but it could be understandable considering Viking whipping boy Trent Dilfer is at QB.

Dilfer has always struggled against the Vikings, especially at the Metrodome. In 10 career games, he has thrown just 11 touchdowns, which pretty much matches his 2005 season. In 10 games, he has thrown 10 TDs and 10 interceptions and the Browns have the worst Red Zone touchdown percentage of any offense in the league – 22 trips into the Red Zone and just six touchdowns. If the Vikings can avoid allowing the big play and put heat on Dilfer, he will make mistakes. Much like Brad Johnson, his primary objective is to manage the game and the clock and not make mistakes. If he does, the Browns will have a hard time catching up if they fall behind early.

The running game was supposed to be a heated competition with former first-rounder William Green – who then-coach Butch Davis selected over Clinton Portis, whom he had coached in college and should have been aware of his ability – injury-prone Lee Suggs and Reuben Droughns, who the Browns acquired from the Broncos for a mid-round draft choice. Instead, Droughns got an opportunity early on and took the job over and never let it go. He currently ranks seventh in the league with 868 yards and is on pace to rush for nearly 1,400 yards. He has shown no signs of slowing down. Last week he rushed 30 times for 166 yards and a touchdown vs. the Dolphins – but it was his 75-yard TD that was of most interest. Prior to that, Droughns had just one touchdown – more a comment on the weak-scoring offense of the Browns than of a lack of talent near the goal line. Expect the Browns to pound Droughns early and often and, if the game remains close, he could easily surpass 20-25 carries.

While Droughns is the centerpiece of the Browns offense, they are not without weapons – which would have been much more potent if TE phenom Kellen Winslow hadn't missed yet another season with injuries. At the forefront of the wide receivers is Antonio Bryant, who met the Vikings in the 2004 season opener and caught eight passes for 112 yards. Vikings receivers coach Wes Chandler has said Bryant is one of the most physically gifted wide receivers he has ever seen and he is on pace to finish 2005 with close to 1,000 yards receiving. Rookie Braylon Edwards was taken with the third overall pick, but has yet to fully get acclimated into the lineup. Through 10 games, he has caught just 23 passes for 384 yards and a one touchdown. With the exception of one 80-yard TD reception, his numbers are almost identical to starter Dennis Northcutt, a possession receiver with deceptive deep speed who is used more to move the chains than change the scoreboard. A player to keep an eye on is Steve Heiden. He is quietly on pace to be the team's second leading receiver with about 50 receptions and, considering the problems the Vikings have had with tight ends this season, he is someone that will have to be accounted for, since he has two of the team's six Red Zone touchdowns.

Up front, the biggest matchup on the offensive side of the ball will be for the Browns front five to create running lanes for Droughns. That job will fall to a solid, veteran group assembled to be the plows to clear the path. At the tackles, they have L.J. Shelton, a former first-rounder who fell into Denny Green's doghouse and was released, and nine-year veteran Ryan Tucker as veteran bookends who know all the tricks of the trade. On the inside, they have a pair of free-agent signees in Joe Andruzzi (Patriots) and Cosey Coleman (Buccaneers) that have been instrumental in the Browns re-establishing their running game. In the middle is third-year man Jeff Faine at center. He's the least experienced of the group and will likely be asked to be the second set of arms pushing around Pat Williams. If Faine can't hold up his end and Williams can do damage on the inside, the Vikings will go a long way to knocking out the Browns offense.

While the Browns offense is smattered with star quality players, the defense is largely filled with no-names and NFL Bedouins who have made a pilgrimage into Cleveland. But they are an opportunistic bunch that is especially strong in the Red Zone – a tip of the hat to Romeo Crennel. The Browns have allowed opponents into their Red Zone 30 times through 10 games. Of those, just 12 have resulted in touchdowns – the third-lowest percentage in the league – and seven of those have come away with no points.

The Browns employ a 3-4 defense that features former Viking Jason Fisk in the middle, 10-year veteran Orpheus Roye and first-year starter (but six-year veteran) Alvin McKinley at the ends. Roye and Fisk have a combined 21 years of experience between them and Fisk will be locked up often with former Brown and current Viking center Melvin Fowler. This a matchup the Vikings should have the upper hand in, despite the constant revolving door of starters on the offensive line.

What makes the Browns defense work is a corps of young linebackers that, while still a little green and susceptible to being burned by their own aggression, are active and chase plays sideline to sideline. On the outside, the only graybeard of the group is nine-year veteran Kenard Lang, who still has the big hitting ability to play a standup DE when needed. On the other side is third-year man Chaun Thompson, who became a full-time starter on the inside last year, but because of his rushing skills was moved outside by Crennel. The inside is manned by fourth-year men Ben Taylor and Andra Davis. Both have good run-stuffing instincts, but Davis is undersized and Taylor has battled injury problems throughout his career. Individually, these guys aren't the most talented players at their positions, but Crennel has always found a way to get his players to overachieve – especially at linebacker – so they can be overlooked.

In the secondary, the Vikings will see another familiar face in safety Brian Russell. A guy who made big plays with the Vikings, he was never viewed as anything but a stop-gap by Tice and was allowed to leave via an offer sheet to the Browns. He's joined by third-year man Chris Crocker at strong safety in his first year as a full-time starter. Both are capable of making plays, but neither are a deterrent from offensive coordinators looking to come after them in the deep passing game. At the corners, the Browns suffered their biggest loss of the year when Gary Baxter, a big physical corner signed as a free agent from the Ravens, was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. In his place is third-year man Leigh Bodden, who joins seven-year pro Daylon McCutcheon as the starting corners. Both have a couple of interceptions, but Crennel likes to run man-to-man press coverage and, while Baxter could do that for a full game, neither McCutcheon nor Bodden are players that have excelled in that kind of coverage. The Vikings will likely look to throw short timing routes to set them up and don't be surprised to see the team take more shots deep down the field than they have in previous Brad Johnson starts.

If special teams comes into play, there's both good news and bad news concerning the Browns. The good news is that punter Kyle Richardson has the second-worst net punting average in the league. The bad news is that, if the Browns line up for a field goal, they're likely to make it. Kicker Phil Dawson has missed just one of 19 field goal attempts this season, although it should be noted that his longest kick of the year thusfar has been just 44 yards.

The Browns are a team that shouldn't be taken too lightly. They have limited seven of their 10 opponents to less than 20 points, but have scored more than 21 points just twice – at Green Bay in Week 2 and vs. Miami last week. This has all the makings of a tight game that will be decided in the fourth quarter and, considering that the Vikings have made a point of playing well in the second half during their turnaround, that should favor the Vikings as they look to improve to 6-5 and get back into the middle of the playoff hunt.

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