Scouting the Schedule: Browns


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The Story of the Summer in Cleveland has most certainly been something else up until now, but that is a football city located in the cradle of the game. So once the Browns open camp, the healing begins and, even after another lackluster season by Lake Erie, there’s some optimism over the team’s season-ending four-game winning streak and a new front-office regime headed by Mike Holmgren.

Is a renaissance realistic? For that, and to check in on New England’s Nov. 7 foe, we turn to veteran Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Mary Kay Cabot (Check out her coverage of the club right here) …

WHERE THEY’RE GOOD: Anywhere Josh Cribbs is, which could be just about anywhere these days. His calling card, of course, is special teams, and he’s arguably the premier return and cover man in the NFL. Last season, Cribbs returned two kickoffs for touchdowns at Kansas City to become the NFL’s all-time leader with eight. He also finished tied for third all-time with four returns for TDs in 2009. A kamikaze on coverage teams, it’s almost as gratifying for Browns fans to witness his crushing blows. Cribbs is also coming on as a receiver, and coach Eric Mangini is convinced that Cribbs will prove his doubters wrong in this role. In minicamps and OTAs, Cribbs and quarterback Seneca Wallace provided a two-man highlight film with touchdowns and trick plays out of the “Flash” and “Cyclone” packages, both variations of the Wildcat. This promises to be the one of the most exciting aspects of the Browns offense.

If running back Jerome Harrison picks up where he left off last season, the running game promises to be good too. Harrison rushed for 561 yards over the past three games, including 286 against Kansas City — third most in NFL history behind Adrian Peterson and Jamal Lewis. Thanks to Harrison’s grand finale, the Browns led the league with 900 rushing yards over the final four games, all victories. Pushing Harrison is rookie Montario Hardesty, whom they traded up to draft in the second round out of Tennessee. Hardesty (6-0, 225)dazzled the coaches in minicamp with his burst and high motor. The Browns also acquired intriguing Peyton Hillis in the Brady Quinn trade with Denver.

Of course, Harrison received plenty of help during his late-season surge from a stout offensive line and fullback Lawrence Vickers. The line is anchored by three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, one of the best in the game. Rookie Alex Mack held his own at center and Mangini compares him to Nick Mangold. The Browns added eighth-year pro Tony Pashos to stabilize the right tackle position.


Defensively, the pass-rush should be a strength in 2010. Last season, the Browns recorded 17 sacks over their final five games to equal their season total from 2008. They finished with 40 overall, most since 2001. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan promises to keep the heat on.

CAMP QUESTIONS:
Does quarterback Jake Delhomme have anything left? He’s coming off the worst season of his career, one in which he went 4-7 with 18 interceptions and onlyl 8 TDs. The Browns seem confident that 2009 was an aberration and that he’ll return to Pro Bowl and Super Bowl form, but no one knows for sure. Minicamp ended with Mangini curiously declining to name him the starter heading into camp. The Browns have also been talking up Seneca Wallace, who was coached by new team president Mike Holmgren in Seattle. Wallace can run the Wildcat as well as the regular offense and promises to see playing time. Rookie Colt McCoy is a distant third heading into camp.

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Do they have a No. 1 receiver? Can second-year pro Mohammed Massaquoi be that guy? The 2009 second-round pick out of Georgia claims he can, but he’ll have to prove it early and often for this offense to be more successful.  Massaquoi tied for the team lead with only 34 receptions  for a team-best 624 yards and three TDs. Fellow 2009 second-round pick Brian Robiskie of Ohio State started only one game, catching seven passes for 106 yards. The Browns praised Robiskie all offseason and are convinced he’s due for a breakout year. They’ll also need more out of Chansi Stuckey, who came from the Jets in the Braylon Edwards trade. They recently signed 14-year vet Bobby Engram to lend some veteran leadership.

Are the rookie DBs ready for the big-time?
The Browns drafted Florida cornerback Joe Haden with the No. 7 overall pick, but it remains to be seen if he’ll beat out ninth-year pro Sheldon Brown, acquired in a trade with Philly, for a starting job. They came with hard-hitting Oregon safety T.J. Ward in the second round, but he’ll have to stay healthy and beat out veteran Mike Adams or Abe Elam for a top spot. Fifth-rounder Larry Asante, another box safety, also showed some promise in camp and could be in for some playing time.
 
WHAT THEY NEED TO WIN BIG: The Browns need Jake Delhomme to be the quarterback that he was during the regular season in 2008 and not the one who’s been on a downward spiral ever since. After going 12-4 in 2008, Delhomme melted down against the Cardinals in the divisional round that year, throwing five picks and losing a fumble in the loss. Next game out, in the 2009 opener, he threw four picks and lost another fumble. Delhomme never fully regained his confidence and ultimately spent the five games on IR with a broken finger. Matt Moore went 4-1 in his absence. The Browns are convinced they can get him back on track, and if they do, it could be the key to the season.

WHERE DO THEY STACK UP:
The Browns showed a lot of heart and talent in winning their final four games of 2009, but that won’t necessarily carry over into this year. They still have uncertainty at quarterback, growing pains in the secondary and at receiver, and an unorthodox marriage of Mangini and Holmgren. If the Browns don’t win early on, it will be tough to keep Holmgren on the sidelines. But if some of the younger players step up and Cribbs and Wallace can spark the offense, it’s a team that can surprise folks in 2010. But it’s still a tough division and the Browns will have to contend with the likes of Joe Flacco, Carson Palmer and Ben Roethlisberger — after he returns from his six-game suspension. The Browns finally beat Roethlisberger last season, and his suspension will definitely help the Browns. Still, much of 2010 will come down to Delhomme and what he has left. Pre-camp prediction: 8-8 and another year with no playoffs.

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SCOUTING THE SCHEDULE SERIES
Wednesday: Bengals
Thursday:
Jets
Friday:
Bills
Saturday:
Ravens
Sunday:
Chargers

Yesterday:
Vikings

Today: Browns
Tomorrow: Steelers

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