Stillers vs. Browns Preview (Game #8)
Misery loves company. The Stillers and Browns, both reeling from heartbreaking losses last week, face one another in one of the NFL's oldest and fiercest rivalries. The two towns, similar in stature, economics, and geography, have some respect for one another, yet at the same time the close proximity to one another makes this the intense rivalry that it is. In many Stiller fans circles, there are only two games that mean anything�.the two against the Browns. The teams have split their season series in the two years that Cleveland has returned to the NFL, which gives you an indication of how stats and numbers can get thrown out the window when these two engage each other on the gridiron.
* When the Browns have the ball, they�ll bring an offense that has the potential to round into a potent one, although, at least statistically, the Browns offense has struggled some this season. Young Tim Coach, now in his third season, is developing into the next Peyton Manning, and as Stiller fans saw last season up in Cleveland, is capable of getting the ball to his receivers for touchdown strikes. Aside from Mark Brunell, Couch -- in my opinion -- is the most dangerous QB we've faced thus far in '01. Couch possesses all of the qualities that I like to see in a pro QB -- smart; reads well; is willing to take chances downfield; can throw the touch pass and jam it in there when needed; and has good on-field presence and savvy. Couch has thrown 10 TDs this year, along with 5 INTs. He's taken his share of punishment, too, having been sacked 21 times. The Browns were hoping that this would be the year where they could turn to a running game and remove the burden from Couch. That has only partially worked. Rookie RB James Jackson, who had a stellar career at U. of Miami, has shouldered most of the ground chores. Jackson isn't particularly fast nor big, but he has a good knack and vision and is a capable back. At receiver, the Browns start Kevin Johsnon and Dennis Northcutt. KJ has carved up the Stillers in previous engagements, and he is becoming one of then AFC's top young receivers. Northcutt has seen his young career hampered by injury, so he remains a guy with great potential but relatively small production. Highly touted rookie Quincy Morgan has emerged as a dangerous threat for the Browns. Morgan is averaging nearly 18 YPC and has 2 TDs. JaJuan Dawson rounds out the receiving corps and gives the Browns 4 potent receivers to work with. But despite the presence of Couch and these 4 receivers, the Browns passing offense is ranked 27th, just ahead of the Stillers' 28th ranked passing offense. At TE, the Browns were hoping to get good production from former Raider Rickey Dudley, but Dud injured his ankle and is out for the season. The Browns are making due with former Falcon TE OJ Santiago, who is adequate but hardly the threat that Dudley was. The O-line was another area that the Browns were hoping to shore up for this season. Obviously, that's not been the case. There's a couple of solid vets, such as former Giant Romen Oben and former Packer Ross Verba, but overall this line is not capable enough to dominate in the trenches with any consistency. That's probably why the Cleveland running game, despite the addition of Jackson, is the 28th-ranked rushing offense. The key matchup will be Couch and the downfield passing game, against the Stillers secondary. Although Jackson is a solid back, the O-line of Cleve is simply not strong enough to open enough holes on the Stiller front-7. The onus is going to be on Couch to mix in some play-action and pump fakes, and takes some shots 15, 20, and 25 yards downfield against the Stiller secondary. Of course, if Couch's O-line fails to give him any kind of adequate protection, it could be a long, bruise-inducing day for Couch.
* When the Stillers have the ball, they'll look to get Bettis over the century mark again after a near-100 yard outing last week against the rugged Raven defense. Bettis had a strong game last week, gaining 91 yards and rushing for 4 yds/carry, which is no mean feat in facing the Ravens. The Stiller passing game has perked up recently, mostly due to pretty solid play by QB Kordell Stewart and the emergence of last year's #1 draft pick, Plexico Burress, who finally caught his first NFL TD last week. Vs. Balt. It appears that Burress is starting to "feel it", as the saying goes in the vernacular, and if so, the Stillers need to get him the ball as they did on his leaping 21-yard TD grab. Then again, Burress spent the 2nd half vs. Baltimore being frozen out of the offense, with exactly zero passes thrown his way in that 2nd half. The Browns front 7 will present some resistance on Sunday. Courtney Brown is back from injury, and despite trying to get back into game shape had a big game last week in Chicago. Stiller RT Marvelle Smith knows of Courtney�at least the back of Courtney, as the big DE abused and tooled Smith in the Fiasco at Cleveland last Sept. On the down side, the Browns lost their other starting DE, Keith McKenzie, to a season-ending ankle injury, so they gained with Brown coming back and then just as quickly, lost with McKenzie's injury. Ex-Stiller Orpheus Roye mans one DT, with Gerard Warren manning the other, with former Cardinal pouter Mark Smith serving as a backup. With McKenzie, this is a studly front four, but without him, the drop is noticeable. The LB crew is solid, with hard-hitting Jamir Miller manning one OLB spot, along with ILB Wali Rainer and Dwayne Rudd. However, Rainer got hurt last week, and he's questionable for this tilt, which could be big for the Stillers, as the Browns run-stuffing will be degraded if he's not able to go. As it is, the Browns' run defense is only 18th in the NFL, so they'll have their hands full trying to contain the Stiller ground attack. The Cleveland secondary is probably only a smidgen above average. Ex-Viking Corey Fuller mans one corner, with vertically-challenged Daylon McCutheon the other. Earl Little and Percy Ellsworth are marginal at safety. The key matchup will be the Stiller O-line versus the Browns front 7. This is not an easy test, but it's certainly a do-able test. With the loss of McKenzie and the possible loss of Rainer, the Browns defense is susceptible to having the ball jammed down their throats. After faring well (except in the red zone) last week, Mularkey will look to pound the ball on the ground and continue to attempt some modicum of downfield work for Burress.
* Spec Teams: Just thinking of the spec teams gives me a splitting headache. This season has been an abortion for spec teams, with blocked punts, blocked FGs, missed FGs, mediocre punting, penalties, and a few good returns allowed. The whole city of Pgh. Os abuzz with Kris Brown, the beleaguered kicker who missed 3 -- not 4 -- FGs last week. I fully believe that Brownie will be back in true form. As for the rest of the spec teams, I have no earthly idea what Gay Hayes, the spec teams coach, is up to. The Ravens nearly blocked the first FG last week, so Gay Hayes did exactly nothing and allowed them to block a later FG from the same side of the formation. That's what I call good coaching. Chris Gardocki is a solid, but hardly great, FG kicker. Phil Dawson does the punting work. KJ and Northcutt do the bulk of the PR chores, while White and Gay have done a solid job on KR chores. Given that both of the Stillers' losses this year have come about largely from spec teams lapses, I don't need to stress too much the importance of some sort of decency on spec teams.
* Synopsis: Few Stiller fans will ever forget The Fiasco in Cleveland last year, in which the Stillers stood around punch-drunk and allowed Cleveland's marginal offense to roll up a 14-0 lead, and then the Bettis INT, and then the Fiasco at the end of the game, in which a bumbling, incompetent 2-minute offense couldn't even get one stab at the end zone with a 1st & goal from the 8. Both teams are coming off bitter, hard-to-swallow losses in games that both deserved to win, but lost. I think the Stillers are emotionally better off to rebound from their tough loss, and the Browns will still be grappling with "what could have been". Further, I liked how well the Stillers performed the basic fundamentals of blocking, tackling, and hitting last week, and they give no indication that they cannot do that on a weekly basis. With that, the Stillers will pound out a 19-10 win over the Browns.