With the Colts facing the Cleveland Browns this Sunday, Stampede Blue's Josh Wilson talked with Dawgs By Nature's Chris Pokorny about the Browns and this Sunday's matchup. The questions are in bold and then Chris's responses follow.
1. The big question to start off with is about the quarterback position. So Brian Hoyer will start over Johnny Manziel. Do you think this is the right move for them to make? And how short of a leash, so to speak, do you think Hoyer will be on against the Colts Sunday?
I would say that the fan base in Cleveland is split into three evenly dispersed groups: one that strongly wanted Manziel to start, one that strongly wanted Hoyer to start, and one that was content at this point of the season to simply support whatever decision head coach Mike Pettine decided to make. I am in that third grouping. Brian Hoyer's play over the past three games has been unsatisfactory, and Johnny Manziel showcased his mobility against the Bills for one drive. It's an enticing switch, but there are a lot of things playing into Hoyer's favor. First, the Browns are 7-5 and in the playoff hunt for the first time since the 2007 season. The veterans on the team believe that the issues this team has faced can be corrected for one, late-season push. What type of message does starting a rookie quarterback, who will no doubt have growing pains, send? Don't get me wrong -- people are excited about Manziel. But, how have Blake Bortles, Derek Carr, and Teddy Bridgewater looked this season? Rookie quarterbacks go through growing pains, but you don't want to go through those pains in the middle of a playoff push.
I think some judgment will be used on how short the leash is for Brian Hoyer. For fans who haven't watched Cleveland, know this: our offensive line has struggled against teams with physical / bulky defensive fronts. We've lost to all three opponents who have featured those type of defensive fronts -- Jacksonville, Houston, and Buffalo. Cleveland wasn't able to run the ball against those teams, and therefore, our offensive rhythm could never be established. Against other teams, the offense has looked quite good, including blowout victories over the Steelers and Bengals. The four teams that Cleveland faces to close out the season don't have dominant defensive fronts, which bodes well for Hoyer and the Browns' offense. Hoyer definitely needs to step up his game, but a lot of his perceived struggles have really been the offense not clicking as a whole against specific opponents who are bad matchups.
With all of that said, I expect Hoyer to play most of the game. Pettine made the decision to stick with Hoyer this week, and he's going to live or die by it. Even with a loss this week, Hoyer faces the Bengals next week, a team he played well against a month ago. As long as the Browns are still in the playoff hunt, Pettine won't go back on his decision.
2. What impact has the return of Josh Gordon had on the Browns?
It's been both good and bad. In Josh Gordon's first game back against the Falcons, Gordon no doubt showed why he is a dynamic threat. He can catch passes at the line of scrimmage and take off, he's a good run blocker, and he is a downfield threat on any given play. In that same game, Brian Hoyer threw two interceptions when targeting Gordon. One of those interceptions came when he threw a ridiculous, broken play jump ball in the red zone, while the other came when Gordon was open but there was an apparent miscommunication between the two. This past week against the Bills, when I reviewed the film, Gordon appeared to be running his routes wrong. Hoyer anticipated him doing something else, and it resulted in one interception and at least two third-down incompletions.
Over the past two weeks, Hoyer has targeted Gordon more than any quarterback has targeted a receiver in the NFL. I was hoping that any chemistry-related issues would be offset by all of the other positive plays Gordon would have. Against a good defense like Buffalo, that wasn't the case. Against the Colts? I'm hoping it's a different story.
3. The Colts have a lot of former Browns on their team right now. Starting safety Mike Adams, starting inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, starting running back Trent Richardson, kick returner Josh Cribbs, assistant coach Rob Chudzinski, and head coach Chuck Pagano have all spent time with Cleveland. How are they viewed by Browns fans - in particular longtime Browns like Jackson and Cribbs?
I'll start with the players. D'Qwell Jackson was well-liked by the fanbase and was a good leader for the defense. He might have had his best season in his final year as a member of the Browns, but one of the knocks on him was that he wasn't a difference maker most of the time. He would do his job and accumulate a lot of tackles, but the key stops behind the line of scrimmage or big plays in coverage were few and far between. Fans were sad to see him go because he represented a sense of stability in the middle of the defense, but Karlos Dansby (prior to his injury) has played at a higher level.
Joshua Cribbs is idolized by the majority of the fan base in Cleveland. While the Browns were terrible for many years, there was one element to the game we could look forward to each and every week -- kick returns and punt returns! Cribbs also had a couple of very unique situations regarding his contract. He wanted a lucrative payday for his production, and a lot of fans were vocal in supporting his demands for a lucrative contract, something he used as leverage. It's not often that you see a special teamer make his contract demands public, yet not come off as arrogant by the fans, but that's how beloved he was (note: that was a sizable group that was a bit irritated by Cribbs' contract negotiations). With the Browns being poor on kick and punt returns this season, a lot of fans were calling for the Browns to sign Cribbs for weeks. A few local reporters even asked our general manager about Cribbs at the team's midseason press conference. I wish he was back and I'll root for him any other week besides this Sunday.
Mike Adams spent less time in Cleveland but was also viewed as a high-character, reliable safety. I don't know how well he has played since leaving Cleveland, but I viewed him as a slightly above average safety during his tenure in Cleveland. He was also very involved in the media, and when he retires, I'm sure it's a field he'll want to get in to. When it comes to Trent Richardson, I don't think he has any fans left. It's not a feeling of hatred or anything like that -- it's just that he stutter-stepped behind the line of scrimmage so often that fans just got tired of him. Then, there was a feeling of validation when he was traded (for a first-round pick) and still never took off with Indianapolis.
Rob Chudzinski had two stints in Cleveland and fans felt he got a bit of a raw deal when he was fired after last season, but we're past that. Once the old regime was cleaned out (Joe Banner and Michael Lombardi), we put Chudzinski in the "do not care anymore" category, to be frank. Regarding Chuck Pagano, I had to do a Google search to see what his involvement was with the Browns (defensive backs coach, 2001-2004), so I really don't have any thoughts on him.
4. Knowing what you do about the Browns, how do you expect them to attack the Colts on Sunday?
Earlier, I said that the Browns struggled against three teams with similar defensive fronts. I expect the Browns to use the formula they've used in all of their other games, where they've had success. It starts with establishing the run play on pitches, either to the outside or a fake to the outside and then an immediate cutback to the other side of the field. The Browns also utilize the stretch play once defenses are committing to the run, but will have Brian Hoyer do a bootleg playaction off of that. The Browns' biggest pass plays this season have come off of those playaction bootlegs because we've featured small receivers (Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel) who are difficult for defensive backs to stay with in one-on-one matchups. Earlier this season, the Browns had some success with rolling out to one side of the field and then throwing the ball allllllllllll the way to the other sideline to an uncovered player. We did it for 2-3 weeks in a row with success, but haven't utilized it since. It could make a return this week.
5. How do you expect the Colts to attack the Browns on Sunday?
I'll assume we're talking about the Colts' offense attacking the Browns' defense, but I think it'll make for a very interesting matchup. Andrew Luck is awesome, and I think he can shred any secondary he goes up against. With that said, looking at the defenses that the Colts have faced this season, one could argue that the Browns' secondary is by far the best they have encountered. This is my optimistic side thinking, but what if Cleveland's secondary is able to contain the Colts' receivers more than they are used to? Is Indianapolis' running game effective enough to move the ball? If I'm the Browns' defense, I'd have them start the game not overly playing either the run or the pass, and see how trusting the secondary goes. If Luck starts picking apart the secondary, we can adjust to drop some more players in coverage. If the Colts then adapt to run the ball...we'll just hope it's Trent Richardson they are handing off to, because then it's bound to be a negative play!
Bonus: what's your prediction for the game?
High-scoring and competitive throughout the game. I think the Browns could surprise with an early lead, with Indianapolis storming back before the end of the first half, followed by more back-and-forth action in the second half. I'll hold off on my prediction until Saturday, though, to get a better gauge of both teams' injury situations.
Thanks again to Chris Pokorny of Dawgs By Nature for taking the time to answer these questions!
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