The Dallas Cowboys try to create their first winning streak of the season against the 2-7 Cleveland Browns. On paper, it looks like this should be a winnable game for the Cowboys, as only two NFL teams have a worse record than the Browns, but there are some warning signs that Dallas had better not be looking past Cleveland.
The most important thing is that Cleveland is clearly playing better football as the season progresses. Their two wins were in week 6 and week 8, and they are coming off a bye last week. This is a 2-2 team in the most recent games they have played. While they are not any real threat to make the playoffs, the spoiler role is one they would not only enjoy playing and it is something that could give a young and struggling team something to build on for next year.
And this team is young, or at least new. The starting quarterback, the best running back, and the most dangerous receiver are all rookies. Indications are that the three are all improving as the season goes along.
Quarterback Brandon Weeden was a bit of a surprise pick when Cleveland took him in the first round out of Oklahoma State, because was already 28 years old (29 now). He had already been drafted once in 2002 - by the New York Yankees. After an unsuccessful stint in baseball as a pitcher, he enrolled at OSU in 2007. By the 2011 season he had become the starter and led the team to a 12-1 record, including a win over Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl.
He has had his struggles, with 12 interceptions and a 55.1 completion rate, but at least part of his problem is seen to be a lack of quality targets. The only real deep threat he has is Josh Gordon, picked up in the supplemental draft (and a player the Cowboys took a long look at). Gordon has a very impressive 21.9 yards per catch average. The problem is he only has 19 catches, for 417 yards, which puts him tied for 57th in the league. The next best receiver for the Browns is Greg Little, at 89 in the rankings and only averaging 11.1 yards a catch. As Johnathan Bales at the Dallas Morning News points out, the Cowboys may want to use a safe coverage scheme and force Weeden to try and beat them with his arm, which has not been much of a threat most of the season.
The running threat for Cleveland is clearly Trent Richardson, who was playing for Alabama last year when they weren't getting beat by the Aggies. He had injury issues early in the season, but put together back-to-back 100 yard games prior to the bye. With Weeden's limited success so far this year and Richardson starting to emerge, it is likely that the key to victory for Dallas is going to be the front seven. This makes the move to replace injured DE Kenyon Coleman with practice team player Ben Bass something that bears watching. Bass and Marcus Spears are going to have to step up to make sure Richardson does not exploit the issue. This also means that Dallas will again be depending on Bruce Carter, who has been nothing short of brilliant in filling in for Sean Lee.
A successful running game like Cleveland has been showing lately is usually a sign of a pretty good offensive line, and I also noticed that Weeden has only been sacked 13 times this year. The Browns look to be a mirror image of the Cowboys, where Tony Romo and his receivers have started to look more effective the past two games, but the running game is still iffy while DeMarco Murray heals and the offensive line makes us all cringe a bit.
The Cleveland defense has, at least from a statistical view, not been very effective this year. It is ranked 24th overall. However, the last three games showed some improvement. In particular, in the last three games the team has played, the defense did a good job of keeping the games close, particularly in overall yardage. In those games, the yardage difference for the Browns versus the opponent was -2 against the Colts, -15 against the Chargers, and + 8 against the Ravens.
The Browns are not getting blown out lately, which does indicate that the defense is doing a decent job to keep them competitive. But one of its best players, cornerback Joe Haden, pulled a muscle on Wednesday and missed practice on Thursday. His status is uncertain for the game. Dallas should be able to attack Cleveland effectively if they can continue the turnover-free performance of the last two games.
The biggest mistake the Cowboys could make would be to look ahead and consider this game in the bag. Coming off the bye, the Browns have had two weeks to prepare, and Dallas is playing at Cowboys Stadium with its unique home field disadvantage. Jason Garrett needs to keep his team focused and make sure they don't have a letdown after a somewhat emotional win last week.