The Cleveland Browns are coming off of their bye week to travel to Dallas and take on the 4-5 Dallas Cowboys and hoping that whatever work they did in their time off will lead them to their third win of the season.
Mainly, this week has been about injured players getting healthy and the team as a whole ironing out the issues that have marred its season thus far. Here's what we can expect out of the Browns as they head into the final stretch of the season.
Offense: Consistent Execution
What the Browns offense needs is to be more consistent from game to game as well as quarter to quarter. Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden had a two-game stretch without turning the ball over, but followed that up with two interceptions and no touchdowns in Week 9 against the Baltimore Ravens.
Though running back Trent Richardson went into the bye week with back-to-back 100-plus yard rushing days, he needs to continue having a high level of production. He can't do that with 10 or 15 carries per game—the Browns must remain committed to him getting around 25 carries per game, as he did in those two weeks.
The play calling also needs to adapt. Yes, this is a West Coast offense under head coach Pat Shurmur, and Weeden has been improving within that system, putting up more total yards thus far than any other rookie quarterback except Andrew Luck. However, only Mark Sanchez has a worse completion percentage at this point, and Weeden is tied with Matt Cassel and Philip Rivers for the second-most interceptions thrown. How he works best is not lining up with how Shurmur's offense works, and changes need to come after the bye week that reflect this.
Though Weeden's yardage is good, he's slumped in his last two games, throwing for under 200 yards each time. Richardson is a powerful running back, but it's clear the Browns cannot hitch their entire offensive wagon on his legs. Weeden must complete more passes, and that means he needs to be throwing more high-percentage plays in order to get them.
Weeden has attempted the sixth-most deep passes of any quarterback thus far, with 42, but he's completed a mere nine of them. Only three other passers have single-digit completions on deep passes, but they've also thrown significantly fewer of them, and among top-five quarterbacks in terms of deep attempts, only Carson Palmer has a comparable accuracy percentage.
Weeden may be big-armed, but the combination of the play calling, the fact that he's a rookie and inconsistent play out of his receiving corps (and only Josh Gordon looking like a legitimate deep target) means something has to change. The goal should be extending drives and picking up first downs rather than the home run shot—the former will likely result in more red-zone appearances and scoring opportunities than throwing the inaccurate deep ball, as well as fewer interceptions.
Defense: All-Around Improvement
While the majority of Cleveland's losses came by 10 or fewer points and much of the blame has been handed to the offense for failing to pick up the pace in the closing minutes of the game, the defense is also not living up to the high level of talent on the roster.
Cornerback Joe Haden's four-game suspension hurt the Browns earlier in the season, and injuries suffered at various times to linebackers Chris Gocong and Scott Fujita, cornerback Dimitri Patterson and defensive linemen Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin have left the team shorthanded week after week.
Gocong and Fujita's seasons are over, while Taylor is just one game back from his pectoral tear; Patterson and Rubin seem close to returning and could both be on the field against Dallas this week, and the hope is they'll help turn things around.
Presently, the Browns rank 24th in total yards allowed, at 380.1, are giving up nearly 22 first downs per game and of the 3.3 red-zone scoring attempts per game for their opponents, they are allowing 1.8 touchdowns.
Cleveland needs to do one of two things: Allow fewer scores, regardless of opposing offenses' yards, or keep those yards in check. Hopefully, the return of its injured players will bring improvements on both fronts.
Without Rubin and Taylor, rookies Billy Winn and John Hughes have been thrust into starting roles, and it hasn't been very pretty. Both rank near the bottom in Pro Football Focus' run stop rankings, with a combined 14 stops between their 317 snaps. The also rank 29th and 30th, respectively, out of 32 ranked defensive tackles when it comes to the pass rush. (Rubin ranks much higher in both categories.)
The pass rush out of their defensive ends is also leaving Cleveland wanting, particularly where Jabaal Sheard is concerned—he has just two sacks though he's played 279 pass rush snaps. Linebacker play is also a liability, with D'Qwell Jackson having 30 tackles on the year but just 19 stops out of 247 snaps against the run.
With a full complement of starters nearing 100 percent health, there should be an overall uptick in defensive production coming off of the bye. Though the young players have struggled as injury replacements, at the very least, they received much-needed on-field experience that will benefit the Browns—they now have more options when it comes to rotating players in and out based on their particular situational strengths.
If Cleveland's offense cannot improve and become both more consistent and more explosive, more pressure will be placed on its defense to help them win games. It's important that the Browns' injured defensive starters make an impact and lower the number of yards and points allowed. Cleveland simply needs more wins; hopefully, the bye week puts it on the right track.
What's Next: The Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys present a significant challenge to the Browns this week and their hopes of finally picking up that elusive road win. Dallas, for all of its inconsistencies (a hallmark of every NFC East team over the past few seasons), is a strong team, ranking above the top half of the league in passing yardage per game, passing yards allowed and rushing yards allowed, with its only weakness being its own run game, which ranks 29th in yards so far this season.
The biggest priority for Cleveland is stopping Dallas quarterback Tony Romo and shutting down his receiving outlets. His big-play wideout, Dez Bryant, is prone to bouts of disappearance, often limiting his impact to the first 15 or 30 minutes of regulation. If Browns cornerback Joe Haden (and whoever may be proving him support) can keep Bryant shut down, then they'll be one step closer to containing the entire Dallas offense.
In terms of completions under pressure, Romo is one of the best in the league, but he's also thrown the most interceptions of any quarterback. He needs to be forced into making poor throws, either via pressure or good coverage, with the latter having more overall success this year.
On offense, Cleveland needs to have a balanced approach, with Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson both playing major roles. They must also be aware that depending on which Cowboys team shows up, the possibility of being drawn into a shootout is very real. That will either present the Browns with the opportunity to finally prove they can close out a game or dash their chances for victory in the waning minutes.
It would be better for Cleveland's defense to do as much containment as possible rather than to have it come down to a potential game-winning drive for Weeden—he's had but one this year.