CLEVELAND – At the midpoint of the season, the 4-3 Cleveland Browns will face the 1-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium. Once again the Browns’ performances in the areas of run defense, pass defense and run blocking will be critical to their success.
Last week the Browns’ run defense was able to limit the Raiders’ rushing attack to 74 yards and they also did an outstanding job defending receivers on vertical routes. The run game wasn’t great, but they produced at significant moments in the game. Will the Browns be able to build upon their momentum from week eight, when they ostensibly improved upon admitted weaknesses? Below I have highlighted ways the Browns can achieve another victory.
The Browns offensive line must continue to gel with Nick McDonald at the center position. The Browns had difficulty getting movement up front and sealing off edges on outside zone calls.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan weighed in on the Browns utilizing more power/gap-scheme concepts than many realize. “… We go a lot more downhill than you would think,” Shanahan said. “It’s not just sideline-to-sideline. We’re running at angles, and we’re trying to get on people. …I think the tough thing for defenses in the zone scheme is if you get one guy out of a gap, we can crease everybody. …In a gap scheme, you’ve got to get a hat for a hat. They’re a little bit easier to fit up.
“You’ve got to fit the zone scheme up perfect, and if you don’t then there are big lanes there.”
The Browns will look to get the running game going early in this contest and are hoping to get rookie Isaiah Crowell more carries than last week. The Buccaneers’ defensive front isn’t very big, and the linebackers have had difficulty throughout the season over pursuing and widening out to defend the run instead of forcing blockers into their gap. The Browns offensive line should be able to have their way with the Buccaneers’ defensive front as they’ve given up 123.9 yards per game, which is 23rd in the NFL.
Many criticized the play of Ahtyba Rubin last week but he did his job. He occupied blockers, which enabled his teammates to rally to the football. Prior to injury defensive end John Hughes also did an exceptional job hustling to the ball carrier and making plays along the backside. The run fits were also outstanding ranging from the linebacker position to the cornerbacks and safeties.
The Buccaneers are currently averaging just 86.4 rushing yards per game which places them 29th in the NFL. The Buccaneers will be without starting running back Doug Martin, but former Browns’ running back Bobby Rainey and Mike James will be looking to make a name for themselves this Sunday. The ability to set the edge will be especially important for Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard once James enters the game, as he has a propensity to get impatient and run along the perimeter.
Convert 3rd Down
The Browns are rated 24th in the NFL in third-down conversions and have converted just 31.1 percent of their attempts. Shanahan spoke about the Browns’ third-down woes earlier this week.
“None of us have done very good there, and the numbers show for it. We’ve got to get better at every position including coaching.”
The Browns can do two things to boost that percentage this week:
- Quick Passing Game
With Jordan Cameron out, the Browns will not have a vertical seam threat at tight end. In an effort to set up vertical throws, the Browns should look to employ a quick passing game such as quick outs and screens to force the Buccaneers to cover every blade of grass.
Receivers such as Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel and Terrance West will benefit greatly from this as they excel at finding daylight after the catch. Eventually the Buccaneers safeties will have to “sit heavier in spacing” (bring defenders closer to the line of scrimmage) to stop the quick passing game, and as a result the Browns should be able to get vertical against the Buccaneers.
- Spread to Run
If recent trends in football have shown us anything, it’s that the spread offenses working in conjunction with zone blocking scheme are the perfect marriage. If the Browns utilize four or more wide receivers at once, it will simplify the offense and abridge pre-snap reads for Brian Hoyer. If they are able to get the football where the Browns have the numbers advantage, it could be an easy day for the Browns on offense.
If the Buccaneers keep their fronts light when the Browns go with the spread, they could have a lot of success in the running game.
With the likes of Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins at receiver for the Buccaneers, the Browns literally have a tall task ahead of them. Each of the Buccaneers’ aforementioned targets are 6-foot-5 and do an outstanding job high-pointing the football.
Joe Haden coming off of a stellar performance against the Raiders will likely shadow Vincent Jackson. Justin Gilbert who has been improving steadily will see time lined up against fellow rookie Evans and Donte Whitner who has had difficulties matching up against larger tight ends will definitely have his opportunities to prove his worth in coverage against Seferian-Jenkins.
It is vital that the Browns’ defensive backs stay on top of these taller targets for the Buccaneers vertically, and quickly find the football when it’s in the air. Additionally the Browns must do well in jump-ball situations, and be mindful of the fact that they’re tackling larger wide receivers and wrap up. While Browns’ defensive backs have typically been in press this year, look for them to play off a little more than usual this Sunday.
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