Cleveland keys to season, key players

The Cleveland Browns have a lot to prove to their fan base, and they will try to get that started Sunday against the Vikings in Cleveland. Where do the Browns need to get better and which players hold the keys to their season?

More than anything, the Browns have to shake free of the way the 2008 season ended with Derek Anderson (knee) and Brady Quinn (finger) on injured reserve and, consequently, no offensive touchdowns in the last six games. No coaching change, no remodeled team complex and no fancy slogans hanging in the building will change anything until the Browns prove they can score.

Quinn, in his third year, finally got the chance to compete for the starting job. He did not run away with it, but he played the last two preseason games without any major mistakes. He will not wilt under pressure, but he still has to prove former general manager Phil Savage was justified in trading the Cowboys his second round pick in 2007 and first-round pick in 2008 to draft Quinn with the 22nd pick in 2007.

Likewise, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan promises an attacking defense saying, "We're going to fight like hell, just like the people of Cleveland would want us to," but the players have to prove it to convince a skeptical fan base. Last year the Browns' defense ranked 26th and they were tied for 30th in sacks.


1. Jamal Lewis has to prove he is still capable of busting long runs and being a 1,000-yard back. Lewis, 30 and in his 10th NFL season, has carried the ball 2,399 times in his career. That is a lot of wear and tear on any running back. Lewis keeps himself in excellent shape, but he is not Superman, although he looked like Superman earlier in his career. If Lewis is not a legitimate threat, Quinn or whoever is the quarterback will be throwing into a crowded secondary.

2. The run defense has to get better. The pass rush is a problem, too, as 17 sacks a year ago attest, but if the Browns do not prove they can be better than 28th against the run opponents will continue to pound the ball as they did last year when the Browns gave up 16 rushing touchdowns. The key to making that happen is nose tackle Shaun Rogers. He played 16 games last year when the run defense was poor, but without him the Browns will be worn down. Rogers missed the first three preseason games with an injury.

3. Keeping pre-snap penalties to a minimum is essential. Coach Eric Mangini made cutting down on penalties a focus of training camp. Officials worked every practice. If a player committed a penalty he had to run a lap. The frequency of laps being run decreased as training camp progressed. Last year Mangini drove the same message home to Jets players. The Jets committed 77 penalties. The Browns committed 100, ninth most in the league. They were near the top in pre-snap violations, i.e. false starts, offsides, illegal formation and delay of game. The offense isn't good enough to continually escape from first-and-15.


WR Braylon Edwards: Edwards is sick of talking about last season. That's because he led the league with 16 dropped passes. He dropped one in the preseason opener against the Packers but has since played well. With former teammate Kellen Winslow now in Tampa Bay, the bulls-eye is going to be on Edwards every play.

LB Kamerion Wimbley: Wimbley has had to explain a drop in sacks for two years - 11 as a rookie, five in 2007 and four last year. He has been flipped to the left side from the right side. If the preseason and training camp is a true indication what to expect Wimbley will be very active this year.

QB Brady Quinn: This is Quinn's third season and no one really knows what to expect because he has three career starts. That means he'll be learning on the job with an aging running back, a suspect group of receivers (including Edwards after last year) and a tight end in Robert Royal who is no Kellen Winslow. It won't be easy.

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