The Arizona Cardinals are in Cleveland, getting ready to take on the Browns on Sunday. Arizona and Cleveland enter with opposite records -- the Cardinals at 5-2 and the Browns 2-5, having lost two straight. Since we are just waiting for the game, let's do one of our weekly previews. Joe Pokorny from Dawgs By Nature and I exchanged questions and here is what he had to say about his Browns.
It sounds like Josh McCown will play, but we're curious. How would the offense differ between his playing and Johnny Manziel at the helm? What are fans' opinion of McCown so far this season? Bruce Arians compared the preparation for the two players to preparing for Ben Roethlisberger and Michael Vick. Is that fair?
Although Johnny Manziel has made a ton of progress this year, Cleveland would go with a much more run-oriented approach under the second-year quarterback. In his lone start against the Titans, the Browns jumped out to a 21-0 lead, but it wasn't because of sustained drives. He completed 8 pass attempts on the day, two of which were long completions to WR Travis Benjamin.
With Josh McCown, the Browns go to a pass-heavy approach. A lot of it involves McCown dumping the ball off to the running backs or the team's short receivers to let them use their speed to gain yards after the catch. In contrast to Manziel, McCown has also made a star out of TE Gary Barnidge. With Manziel, in two games, Barnidge had 4 catches for 55 yards. In 5 games with McCown, Barnidge has 20 catches for 459 yards and 5 touchdowns. Fans aren't in love with McCown, but because he's already far exceeded expectations, the general opinion seems to be that if he struggles, fans are going to accept it without wanting to run the guy out of town.
I'd say that Bruce Arians' comparison is pretty fair when discussing how the offense is going to change between the two quarterbacks. With Manziel, the gameplan is to craft a conservative gameplan, yet rely on Manziel's improvisational skills to catch the defense out of position for a few big plays. With McCown, the team relies on sustaining drives consistently and feel like they can abandon the run game completely and still succeed with his decision-making and accuracy.
The injury bug seems to have hit the Browns defense a bit. What is the state of the defense in terms of health? Who will play, who might not and how could that affect the outcome?
The Browns have been without two Pro Bowl starters in the secondary -- CB Joe Haden and FS Tashaun Gipson -- and ILB Craig Robertson, a key nickel player, for several weeks. All three players are expected to return on Sunday against the Cardinals, which will obviously be a big boost for the defense.
From a gameplan perspective, it will be big for defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil. Since Haden's departure, the number of exotic blitzes the team typically deploys have been dialed back. The coaching staff has enough trust in Haden that they feel more chances can then be taken in other areas.
How much will the returning players impact the game? Last year, I would've told you that it could be the difference between winning and losing. While the talent is still there to make that type of difference, both Haden and Gipson got off to poor starts to the season when they were healthy. Hopefully they can turn things around on Sunday.
Karlos Dansby got paid two offseasons ago. How is he faring so far? Cardinals fans know how good he is. Is he still the impactful player and leader?
When the Browns signed Dansby, is was heavily discussed because the team opted to sign him over D'Qwell Jackson, a home-grown veteran who had been one of the team's more reliable cogs on defense. In 2014, Dansby came as advertised -- an impactful player and a leader. In 2015, it's been difficult to analyze any individual player's gameplay due to how poor the run defense has been.
Over the past two games, I feel like Dansby has picked up the pace again. Two weeks ago, he picked off Peyton Manning twice, including one that went for a pick six. Last week, he blew up a screen pass in the backfield to Todd Gurley. He's definitely the team's best inside linebacker by a mile, but that's a concern in itself for the team because he's only getting older and the club doesn't have a promising prospect waiting in the wings.
What are the favorable matchups for Cleveland against the Cardinals? The not so favorable? How can the Browns take advantage of or mitigate both?
The Cardinals seem so good on offense and defense, so there probably aren't any match-ups that overly favor the Browns on paper. If I had to pick a favorable match-up, though, it would be tight end Gary Barnidge as a receiver. He's consistently burned defenses for five straight games with no sign of slowing down. He's not a guy who is going to truck over defenders and run for a ton of yards after the catch, but he has great hands and knows how to shield off defenders.
The not-so-favorable match-up would be in the running game. The Browns' run defense is terrible, and this is how the flow of the game typically goes: the run defense stuffs several runs for much of the first half. Then, at the end of the first half or in the second half, they give up a 40+ yard run due to poor tackling or being out of position. In the closing moments of the fourth quarter, they start giving up runs in bigger chunks, such as 6-7 yards at a time. I've always known of Chris Johnson being a home-run hitter, so as long as the Cardinals stay patient with him, he'll eventually break the big one.
We don't get to see much of the Browns. Who are the players to watch?
I've already talked up Gary Barnidge a bunch, so the other guy on offense to watch is RB Duke Johnson. Johnson has become a very good receiving option out of the backfield -- he's not going to make cuts quite as sharp as Dion Lewis has been making in New England, but he'll line up everywhere on offense and will run anything from a crossing route to a go route.
On defense, the player to watch is CB K'Waun Williams. He'll play about 70% of the team's snaps as the nickelback, but he grades very well in that role by Pro Football Focus. Also, when Haden is in the lineup, Williams will often come on a nickel blitz and does a good job timing his blitz and picking the right hole to get a hit on the quarterback.
The combination of the Cardinals losing on the road to Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago and Cleveland's defense being back at full strength at least gives me some form of optimism. Given that Arizona is the most complete team we've faced this season, though, my money would certainly be on Arizona.