The Cleveland Browns are currently 1-1 heading into Week 3 of the NFL season, and are set to welcome Derek Carr and the Oakland Raiders to First Energy Stadium, who are also 1-1 and coming off of a win. Here are the keys to the game for the Browns.
Control the Clock, Run the Ball
These two things are usually one in the same, and have been done inconsistently by the Browns so far this year. In week one against the Jets, Cleveland won the time of possession battle (thanks in large part to the opening drive) but didn’t run well and lost the game. Last week against the Titans, the Browns ran well and won but only held the ball for 24:49 to the Titans 35:11. With Josh McCown back under center for the Browns after being cleared by the league from the concussion protocol, the offense should be in a better position to control the clock, especially if McCown’s only drive of the year is any indicator (17 plays for 90 yards, 9:59 off the clock).
The Browns should also focus on the run because the Raiders defense has been rather generous to opposing running backs. In Week 1, the Raiders allowed the Cincinnati Bengals duo of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard to rush for 126 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries (a 4.6 yard per carry average). The following week, Oakland allowed Baltimore’s Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro to rush for a combined 102 yards on 22 carries (4.6 yard per carry average) as well as a touchdown. Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson are coming off of a week they (combined) averaged 4.2 yards per carry, while the offensive line looked much improved in terms of sustaining blocks, so the opportunity should be available and the Browns should be able to cash in.
Set the Edge, Key on Latavius Murray
Despite being touted as improved, the Browns run defense has left a great deal to be desired thus far. Cleveland currently ranks last in the league against the run in total yards allowed (320), average yards per game (160) and longest rush allowed (44 yards to Dexter McCluster). They also rank 29th in average yards per attempt allowed at 4.8.
Cleveland has done a decent job stopping the run up the middle, but needs to do a much better job in setting the edge this week, especially this week against Murray. He is averaging 4.2 yards per carry for Oakland this season (26 carries, 109 yards and one TD) and, according to Pro Football Focus, 11 of those carries have gone towards the left tackle (five attempts) or to the left edge (six attempts). In total, nearly 70 percent of Murray’s rushing attempts (18 of his 26) have gone towards the left side of the line, and with one third of those being runs to the outside, the Browns defense will really have to set the edge this week. That means Barkevious Mingo, Armonty Bryant, Nate Orchard and, to a lesser extent, Paul Kruger will need to set the edge to keep Murray from bouncing outside for a big run.
To further emphasize the point on why stopping Murray is important, Pro Football Focus ranks him 4th among running backs (who have been on the field for at least 50 percent of their team’s offensive snaps, aka lead backs) in their Elusive Rating stat. This is a rating that attempts to quantify a running back’s success independent of his blockers and uses missed tackles forced as a base for this stat. Murray’s 82.3 Elusive Rating is higher than Bishop Sankey’s (53.8 Elusive Rating, 12 carries, 42 yards vs Cleveland), Chris Ivory’s (53.4 Elusive Rating, 20 carries, 91 yards, two TDs vs Cleveland) and Dexter McCluster’s (64.1 Elusive Rating, 10 carries, 98 yards vs Cleveland). It should also be noted that Murray is a talented receiver out of the backfield. This season, he has 10 receptions on 10 targets for 58 yards and is averaging 7.4 yards per reception for his career.
Look Downfield for a Big Play
Similar to last week against the Titans, the Oakland Raiders secondary is pretty bad.
Safety Charles Woodson is undoubtedly the anchor, but he will be playing injured as he dislocated his shoulder in Week 1. That, however, didn’t stop him from playing in 81 snaps for Oakland last week. There is no doubting his toughness, but at 38-years old the eight time Pro Bowler isn’t the lock down player he once was and even if he was, the remaining members of the Raiders secondary are not very good. That, coupled with the Browns recent success of hitting big plays downfield (thanks to Travis Benjamin) means that McCown should air it out a couple times in an attempt to hit on a big play. Consider this – in week one against the Bengals Tyler Eifert had a long reception for 31 yards, A.J. Green had a long reception for 30 yards and Mohamed Sanu had a long reception for 28 yards. In week two against Baltimore, Steve Smith Sr. had a long reception for 37 yards while Kamar Aiken and Crockett Gillmore each had a long reception for 38 yards. With Benjamin averaging a league leading 38 yards per reception and Taylor Gabriel possessing the ability to make plays downfield as well, the Browns should be looking for opportunities to hit home runs.
Pressure Derek Carr
The Oakland Raiders offensive line has proven to be pretty good this season, only allowing three sacks on Carr and ranking 5th in Pro Football Focus’ Pass Blocking Efficiency stat at 86.3. Carr has also been solid as a passer while under pressure, completing 64.3 percent of his passes (9/14) for 172 yards and a touchdown while under pressure (he has thrown one interception as well).
Despite that, the Browns should attempt to duplicate what they did last week against Marcus Mariota because Carr, similarly to Mariota entering last week’s game, hasn’t really been tested here. He’s only been pressured on 15 of his 60 dropbacks, and that 25 percent pressure percentage is 26th in the league (all of this according to Pro Football Focus). Partial credit here goes to Carr’s offensive line, but this is also partly due to the fact that Carr has only been blitzed 12 times this year. Surly this has something to do with Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree and Murray, but the Browns secondary should be able to contain Cooper and Crabtree and (as noted earlier) keying in on Murray could limit their big play ability.
Also, using last week as an example, Mariota only had an average of 3.34 seconds from snap to sack (obviously only on plays where he was actually sacked) so that gives some indication that the Browns pass rush was able to get after the quarterback in a hurry, which would help the Browns coverage defense in containing the Oakland playmakers.
Sunday’s game against the Raiders is a winnable contest for the Browns, but the Raiders shouldn’t be taken lightly. Cooper, Crabtree and Murray are reliable playmakers for Carr and the defense, while not all that good overall, is dotted with playmakers in Justin Tuck, Khalil Mack, Aldon Smith and Woodson. However, the Browns secondary should be able to neutralize, or at least contain, Cooper and Crabtree while the offense, now with McCown back under center, should be better suited to control the clock while still having the ability to hit a big play or two.
Prediction: Cleveland wins 20-17