This week's opposing view comes from Clevelandbrowns.com senior editor and co-host of Cleveland Browns Daily, Vic Carucci. He can be followed on Twitter at @viccarucci
Everyone wrote the Browns off and accused them of giving up on the season after a 0-2 start and the trade of running back Trent Richardson. What's been the biggest difference in this team over their current win streak?
Carucci: Brian Hoyer taking over at quarterback after Brandon Weeden suffered a thumb injury was the obvious spark to the three-game winning streak. Through the first two games he started, against the Vikings and Bengals, he brought something to the offense that it simply wasn’t getting from Weeden – a dynamic quality of someone who made plays, made quicker decisions, got the ball out of his hand faster, and generally provided a stronger sense of command and leadership. It also helped tremendously that Josh Gordon, who has quickly established himself as one of the better receivers in the league, returned from a suspension that kept him out of the first two games. Since the start of the season, the Browns have been playing excellent defense, primarily because of a vastly improved front seven and creative scheming from coordinator Ray Horton. Defense and special teams came through in a big way after Hoyer suffered a season-ending knee injury early in the Buffalo game.
How different of an offense are the Browns with Brandon Weeden under center as opposed to Brian Hoyer?
Carucci: That remains to be seen. In fairness, Weeden didn’t have Josh Gordon in the first two games, and he was able to have some key connections with him after he came off the bench against Buffalo. Weeden played exceptionally well through the first two games of the preseason (with Gordon), but then struggled in his third game, at Indianapolis, and continued to have problems in the regular-season opener against Miami (one of the worst performances of his young career) and at Baltimore before suffering the thumb injury. His biggest issues are being slow with his decision-making and having poor pocket awareness, which has contributed greatly to his being sacked 16 times in three games. Those are areas that offensive coordinator Norv Turner is looking to correct with him, and if he can, the offense should be in pretty good shape. Weeden has a much stronger arm than Hoyer. Now, if he can duplicate Hoyer’s game above the shoulder pads, he could put together something special with weapons such as Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron.
This is a copycat league, as you know, will the Browns take a cue from the Packers' defensive playbook if the Lions are without All Pro receiver
Carucci: Obviously, if Johnson doesn’t play, that’s a massive break for the Browns, just as it would be for any Lions opponent. He is, by far, the best receiver in the league and I’m not sure that anyone is capable of covering him. If Johnson plays, the Browns will do what they always do and assign their best cornerback, Joe Haden, to him. But as well as Haden has performed so far – and he’s been tremendous – I think he’ll have a hard time matching up with Johnson’s off-the-charts skills, size, strength, speed, and athleticism. My sense is that you almost concede that Johnson is going to get his catches, and you just do your best to minimize the damage from everyone else. But that won’t be easy with the great versatility that
What's been the most impressive aspect of a Browns defense that ranks in the top 10 in every major statistical category on defense?
Carucci: The front seven. This group is doing an outstanding job, first, of stuffing the run, even though the Bills did have some success in that area (including a 54-yard touchdown run by C.J. Spiller). Free-agent lineman Desmond Bryant has been a beast, although he missed much of the Buffalo game after developing shortness of breath and an irregular heartbeat (he is fully recovered from that, according to coach Rob Chudzinski). So, too, is Phil Taylor, who has excelled since being moved to nose tackle in the new 3-4 look. Opponents immediately become one-dimensional, and the Browns are able to tee off with a pass rush that includes free-agent outside linebacker Paul Kruger and follow outside linebacker and No. 1 draft pick Barkevious Mingo (who has been a difference-maker). Outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard was playing extremely well before suffering a knee injury that has kept him out of the last two games. He is expected to return for Sunday, and should make a huge impact as well.
What's the most important matchup Sunday from a Browns perspective?
Carucci: The Browns’ offensive line against the Lions’ defensive line. I’m not sure there is any offensive line that can consistently be effective in keeping Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley and Ziggy Ansah at bay. And it will be an enormous challenge for a Browns line that has had its issues protecting the passer this season, especially on the right side. Some of the pass-protection problems have resulted from Weeden’s tendency to hold the ball too long and some are simply from losing one-on-one battles. The Browns will do what they can to provide help to offensive guards John Greco and Shawn Lauvao with their tight ends and running backs, but there will obviously be instances where they’ll be asked to simply hold up as much as they possibly can.