The Cleveland Browns finally notched their first win of the season last week, defeating the Cincinnati Bengals, 34-24. This Sunday, they take on the Indianapolis Colts, hoping to extend their winning streak to two games.
The Colts are a two-win team in the first year of a multi-season rebuilding process. That's something the Browns are all-too-familiar with and something they may be able to take advantage of on Sunday.
Here's a two-step game plan for the Browns to employ in hopes of heading out of Indianapolis with a win.
Run the Ball, Then Run It Some More
The Indianapolis Colts have the 26th-ranked run defense in the league, giving up 159 yards per game on an average of 31.8 attempts. As a result, they are giving up the most rushing touchdowns per game, at 1.6. Conversely, Indianapolis has a top-three passing defense, albeit on just 28.4 pass attempts per game.
Clearly, the Browns need to run the ball against the Colts, at least in the middle of the field. Despite not giving up many passing yards, they rank 25th in passing touchdowns allowed, at an average of two per game. Regardless of how the Browns get their touchdowns on Sunday, they must set up the score by moving the ball with their ground game.
This presents yet another opportunity for Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson to display his considerable talents. Though Richardson is only averaging 3.6 yards per carry (he has 95 rushes for 340 yards), he has four rushing touchdowns to his name and five of Cleveland's total 11 scores to date.
He's broken off just one run of over 20 yards, but this week against the Colts, who have given up seven 20-plus yard rushes (and eight rushing touchdowns), Richardson seems primed to have a big game.
So does his backup, Montario Hardesty. Expect Hardesty to register between five and 10 carries on Sunday with a run-heavy offensive approach. As the Browns' No. 2 back, Hardesty has been able to make a positive contribution without being relied upon too heavily, which has kept him healthy thus far. He has 15 carries for 56 yards and a touchdown through the first six weeks.
Though the Browns' passing game likely won't be ineffective—receivers Mohamed Massaquoi and Travis Benjamin are set to return from their hamstring injuries and perennial scoring threat Josh Gordon seems to be the perfect candidate to exploit the Colts' poor yards-after-catch defense—it will be the running game that sets them up for success in throwing the ball.
With little resistance running the ball, Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden can maximize the returns on his play-action passes. And with that run defense performing so poorly, Richardson can finally have the breakout game we've all been waiting for.
Neutralize Andrew Luck
Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck may be the first overall pick in this year's draft and on a path to becoming just as dominant as his predecessor, Peyton Manning, but that kind of success comes with time and experience. Presently, he's simply a first-year passer, which means that he's prone to making the same rookie mistakes as Brandon Weeden.
Through five games, Luck has completed 53.4 percent of his passes, averaging 280.4 yards per game with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. He's been sacked 13 times and has had four passes batted down by opposing defenses.
Despite his struggles, the Colts rank in the top-10 in passing yards per game. That is partly attributable to Luck's passing prowess—in spite of his mistakes—as well as the fact that the Colts simply cannot run the ball. On average, Luck is throwing the ball 44.2 times per game, the third-most pass attempts in the league. That's 44.2 chances for the Browns defense to force Luck into making errors on Sunday.
Curiously enough—and to the Browns' advantage—Luck's greatest successes are coming on passes of 10 yards or longer. That's right where cornerbacks Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown will be prowling, waiting to pick the rookie off. If Luck cannot throw deep with consistent success, he'll be forced to go short. Though those shorter passes have had decent returns in terms of touchdowns, he has to complete them first.
In passes from zero to nine yards, Luck has gone 56-of-95, for 498 yards, four scores and an interception. If the Browns coverage linebackers can bat down or intercept those shorter throws and tackle well when they're caught, it's going to kill drive after Colts drive. The majority of Cleveland's linebackers grade positively in coverage, which bodes well for their chances to make this happen.
Then there's the matter of pressure. Of Luck's 81 drop-backs under pressure, he's thrown the ball 57 times, completing just 20 of them—a 35.1 completion percentage. He averages just five yards per attempt when pressured, and has thrown one touchdown, two interceptions and has been sacked 13 times.
Whether the Browns come at Luck with a traditional pass rush or via the blitz, it doesn't matter—they simply must pressure him. That pressure, combined with strong coverage will either force Luck to continue to make mistakes or turn the Colts toward running the ball, where they are averaging just 86.2 yards per game and 3.6 yards per rush. It shouldn't be hard for the Browns to keep them from scoring if they do.