After an emotional 33-30 overtime win against their division rival Baltimore Ravens, the Cleveland Browns will welcome the undefeated Denver Broncos on Sunday at 1:00 PM ET. At 2-3 the Browns will look to keep pace in a tough AFC North division. Last week was seen as a must-win for the Browns to avoid falling to 1-4, and the team will look to build on the momentum they created. At the start of the season it was clear the Browns got no favors in their schedule draw, and the gauntlet continues this week.
The Browns were rolling on offense against Baltimore for sure. Quarterback Josh McCown’s performance in the game earned him NFL AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. McCown passed for a franchise regular-season record of 457 yards in the win at Baltimore. The game also marked the third straight 300-plus-yard performance for McCown which is also a franchise record. The 12-year veteran who has bounced around between several teams throughout his career is arguably playing his best football yet.
The coaching staff credits McCown’s pre-snap awareness and adjustments for much of the success of the offense. The staff is comfortable allowing McCown some freedom in changing protections and play calls, something they were not at ease with when Johnny Manziel was in at quarterback. In addition, McCown’s ability to take care of the football was a huge part of the decision. Many questioned the choice made by head coach Mike Pettine and the staff to go with McCown over Manziel. After some early-season injury struggles, McCown is proving the Browns made the right choice.
When examining McCown’s targets, there is not necessarily a star that jumps off the page. However, players have emerged that have put the league on notice. Travis Benjamin leads the team in yards with 411. Tight end Gary Barnidge, who leads the team with 24 receptions, made an unbelievable touchdown catch with his legs against Baltimore that is getting rave reviews across the league. Rookie running back Duke Johnson Jr. has emerged in the passing game as well with 21 receptions. On his receiving group, McCown told the media at his weekly press conference, “This group of guys they’re so fun to work with because they come out and they practice hard. If they catch one ball, great. . . . They’re just hungry, so I think for all of us collectively it just fits together and works well. There’s not one guy that you’re having to go babysit on the sideline like, ‘Hey we’re gonna get you some balls, we’re gonna get you some throws.’ All these guys, they’re in it all the time. They work hard, and I think that’s what makes this group special and it’s a fun group to be a part of.”
As for running the ball, the Browns continue to be just effective enough to keep teams honest. Isaiah Crowell leads the team with 240 yards so far this season, and Duke Johnson Jr continues to be utilized more in the running and passing game. Crowell is questionable for Sunday's game with a toe injury. Whether the Browns can keep things rolling on the offensive side of the ball will be an interesting storyline against a Broncos defense that has been downright dominating this season.
While things on the offensive side of the ball continue to be largely positive, the struggles on defense continued against Baltimore. This week the team did not receive any positive news that would indicate a turnaround is imminent as the struggles against the rush and pass continue. The Browns’ best defensive back, Joe Haden, will miss this Sunday’s game against Denver as he is in the NFL’s concussion protocol program. On Thursday the team announced that linebacker Scott Solomon would be placed on season-ending Injured Reserve. Solomon suffered knee and ankle injuries in the season-opener. The team was counting on Solomon to solidify a linebacking corp that was a big reason for the struggles against the run. Now the team is trying to shuffle their lineup in the front seven in response to Solomon’s injuries.
The Cleveland defense will face a Denver Broncos offense led by Peyton Manning. This season has not gone the way one might expect for a Peyton Manning-led team. The Broncos have been winning with a dominating defense and have largely struggled on offense. The team has not been able to establish any rhythm. Denver has the highest percentage in the NFL of points scored by defensive and special teams units. Despite the struggles, the Broncos offense is not short on playmakers with Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. Is a trip to Cleveland to face a struggling Browns defense just what the doctor ordered? This game may just be decided by which team’s weak unit is able to rise to the occasion.