The 2-3 Cleveland Browns will visit the 4-2 Washington Redskins on Sunday at 4:15 pm. The Redskins are starting to accumulate a rather large group of injured, while the Browns are slowly beginning to get healthy. The Browns are coming off of a huge win against the previously unbeaten Giants, while the Redskins are coming off of a very disappointing loss to the previously winless Rams. This game is vital for both teams as the loser will have a very difficult time maintaining pace with the divisional leaders.
HC Jim Zorn has combined his Seahawk passing attack with the Joe Gibbs running game. The combination has worked very well thus far as RB Clinton Portis and the Redskins run game is 3rd in the league in rushing at 152 yards per game while Portis is leading the league in rushing. This is a balanced rushing attack that will run to either side and up the middle, which makes it very difficult for the defense to zero in on.
The running game could be a bit of a question as Portis missed practice this week with a hip flexor. To make matters worse, Ladell Betts will be out with a knee injury. The opportunity will be there for Rock Cartwright to see an increased role in the Redskins' offense.
The offensive line always seems to be the strength of the Redskins' offense but injuries and change make this unit a huge question for this week. LT Chris Samuels will play with an injured ankle and LG Pete Kendall will be playing with an injured knee. C Casey Rabach will be facing the Browns' Shaun Rodgers. Rabach cannot block Rodgers one-on-one and he will need guard support whenever Rodgers is in the lineup.
To make things even worse, the Redskins are struggling at the RT position. Stephon Heyer will get the start this week in place of Jon Jansen.
What this unit does well is during those stretch runs where they slide and just wear down the defense as the traffic collapses the defense. They must avoid giving up penetration from the blitzing safety or linebacker that can make a tackle for loss against the stretch run.
Jason Campbell is one on the most patient quarterbacks in football. It is no coincidence that he is yet to throw an interception. He doesn't like taking risks especially with a potent running game working the way it is. He may not make a lot of great plays but in this offense he doesn't have to. He is either making the good read and throw, taking a sack or throwing it away when the pressure comes. You can't ask for more from your quarterback.
With huge receivers becoming the norm throughout the NFL, the Redskins are a rarity at the position. Antwaan Randle El and Santana Moss are 5-10 speedsters. The Browns' corners just aren't used to playing against that type of receiver on a consistent basis. The battle between corner and receiver should be one of the best individual battles we will see on Sunday. Don't blink or someone will be gone.
TE Chris Cooley is off to a terrific start for the Redskins. He is not only second in the league in receptions for a tight end, he has also become one of the most clutch receivers in football. Chris is a very good run blocker and a master at chipping the DE while sliding out as the safety-valve receiver.
NT Shaun Rogers is playing at a level Browns fans have not seen since the days of Michael Dean Perry. He is dominating, intimidating and flattening quarterbacks. He only has one sack on the year, but sacks do not tell the story. Rogers is a tremendous mismatch against the undersized Casey Rabach and will receive the full attention of the Redskins offensive line. Look for a double and triple whenever Rogers is in the game.
Shaun Smith is unlikely to make a return this week and that means more pressure on Louis Leonard. The Redskins will be running the ball at Leonard and OLB Kamerion Wimbley. I believe they will come out and challenge their side of the defense throughout this contest. That means the Browns' linebackers will also have to step up and get through the traffic and make plays in the backfield. You can't have the defensive line sliding and chasing or they will be worn out quickly in this contest.
OLB Willie McGinest is better against the run than Alex Hall, but this week the rookie may be the better answer against the run as well as the pass. Portis brings incredible speed to this contest but also a sense of patience in the run game. To keep him in check, you have to get to him and make him make the quick decision.
The Browns' secondary could receive a boost of confidence with the return of safety Sean Jones. Jones may not start but should receive playing time. That is key as it will allow S Mike Adams to play the nickel when the nickel and dime packages are implemented. It will also help the run defense of the Browns as Sean is terrific in run support.
The most improved player in the entire league is the Browns safety Brodney Pool. Pool is coming into his own and when I watch Pool the one thing that is standing out is his reads. Last year, he was slow to read what was going on in front of him and also hesitating because he didn't appear to trust what he saw. This year, he is on the play before the snap.
Both Pool and Jones must not allow the speedy receivers of the Redskins to slip behind them. Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald will have their hands full with Randle El and Moss. Both corners love to jump the route and, with the quick timing routes of the Redskins, the opportunity will be there to do just that. If Campbell catches them however, it will be up to the safety to prevent the big play from happening. This battle will be a chess match at high speed.
The Redskins' defense is built upon the philosophy of aggression and punishment. They are going to come hard from every position and deliver hits. They also love to wrap, hold and hit. The first man wraps up the ball carrier and holds him as his teammates deliver the big hit. Facing this defense, you have to protect the football.
Up front, the Redskins are led by DE Jason Taylor. Taylor is expected to play despite an injured calf. Taylor may have lost a step but he hasn't forgotten how to get to the quarterback. This unit is lacking in the area of rushing the quarterback. It is important to chip Taylor with every opportunity as you do not allow him to get going.
The biggest area of concern for the Redskins is their injured secondary. It is easier to list the players healthy than it is to list the players that are playing hurt. Healthy and starting is safety Laron Landry. Everyone else is battling some type of injury. The Browns will look to exploit this group early and often.
To help with those injuries, look for the Redskins to play tight coverage and send every blitz in their playbook at the Browns. Forcing the Browns to make quick decisions will prevent the secondary from having to run those long deep routes over and over as they follow the Browns' receivers.
Watching the Browns' offense on Monday Night Football reminded me of Gene Wilder as Frederick Von Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein with the quote "It's alive! Haha! It's alive! IT'S ALIVE!"
QB Derek Anderson put together by far his best game as a Cleveland Brown. He played without fear and appeared to throw the ball instead of aiming it for the first time this year. Most importantly, Anderson was in a rhythm and having fun. The quick three-step drop was working brilliantly and his confidence could not have been higher.
Anderson will be looking to repeat his brilliant performance against the Redskins. The starter might also have his favorite target back in the fold on Sunday as Kellen Winslow should be ready to return to the lineup. The threat of Winslow over the middle will keep the defense honest on the outside.
WR Donte Stallworth and Braylon Edwards will square off against the corner tandem of Shawn Springs and Carlos Rodgers. Springs is at his best when facing the bigger type of receiver; Rodgers, when healthy, is as good as any corner in the game but he has had trouble staying healthy. The Browns should send a receiver deep on every given play and force the banged-up secondary to use their wheels as much as possible early in the game.
Another advantage of having your receivers running deeper routes is that it allows for plays to develop underneath. This is where the Browns can use the screen pass and also use the draw play with RB Jerome Harrison. Harrison is becoming one of the Browns' most potent weapons. While he only receives a handful of plays each game, he is making the most of his opportunity.
The Browns' offensive line saw dramatic improvement in the running game with the return of RG/RT Ryan Tucker into the lineup. The combination of Rex Hadnot at right guard with Tucker at tackle was a dominating force against the Giants. I would not be surprised to see Tucker sliding back to guard this week with Kevin Shaffer returning at the RT position. Shaffer is the better pass blocker and against Jason Taylor he may be needed.
RB Jamal Lewis is running fairly well but "fairly well" is not what is expected from Lewis. The veteran back is a beast that can take over a game. He has yet to have that kind of performance this season but the signs are good that Lewis will have a breakout game soon. FB Lawrence Vickers is paving the way for the running back with devastating blocks; Lewismust take advantage of his lead blocker.
With two very talented teams facing off, special teams play is often the difference in the outcome as field position becomes more valuable with each possession. The Browns have lost the "special" in their special teams unit. The best special teams unit in the AFC over the last two seasons is now ordinary at best. Part of the reason was the injury to return ace Joshua Cribbs, but what is disturbing is the lack of adequate blocking on returns. Simply put, the blocking is not up to standard.
This unit is also an issue for the Redskins as they signed punter Ryan Plackmeier this week; look for the Browns to get after the young punter. The Browns will also have their hands full with Randle El returning kicks as the return specialist is capable of returning it for six anytime he touches the ball.