1.) The Browns are on a 3 game win streak. We know CLE is a decent team, but they beat the Charlie Batch Steelers, 3-win Raiders, and 2 win Chiefs in that stretch. Are the Browns really better or are people getting overly excited for beating poor teams?
It is true that the Browns' three-game winning streak doesn't look overly impressive when you consider the quality of the opponents, but I think it really is a sign of the Browns getting better. This is a Cleveland team that fielded rookies on offense at quarterback, wide receiver, running back, and right tackle. For a good portion of the first half of the season, three of Cleveland's top defenders missed a significant amount of time. Now, we're beginning to see all of those rookies getting comfortable and gaining confidence. All three defenders (CB Joe Haden, and both of our starting defensive tackles) are healthy. Everything is coming together.
Also, you can dig deeper into each of those wins the Browns had against "poor teams." For example, Cleveland has had a terrible record since Pittsburgh since 1999, but played very physical on defense in forcing a miraculous eight turnovers. Against the Raiders, the Browns jumped the hurdle of ending their 12-game road losing streak. Against the Chiefs, the Browns had their largest margin of victory in years. Unlike teams like Arizona, Detroit, Tennessee, and even a few of the contending teams, the Browns have not been "dominated" once this season. In fact, except for
maybe one game, I believe they've had the lead or been within a field goal of the lead in the fourth quarter of every game.
2.) What has worked well this season for other teams at stopping the Browns offense? Any weak links on the OLine?
I'm not sure if you would call it a "strategy," but opposing teams have been able to stop the Browns from scoring touchdowns in the red zone fairly often this year. A lot of the issues seem to stem from one mistake being made a first or second down (i.e. sack of penalty), and then on third down, a blitz with no hot read forces the team to settle for a field goal.
The offensive line has done a very good job in pass protection. Brandon Weeden has still been sacked a fair amount of times, but it's not because he's running for his life on every play. Most of the sacks come from him waiting just a tad too long (hopefully we can chalk that up to a rookie mistake), and then it's more like a coverage sack. The run blocking has been suspect, but teams have loaded the box quite a bit against Trent
Richardson. The Browns seem to struggle at getting a push in short yardage situations. If there is one weakness on the line, I would point to right guard Shawn Lauvao, who makes a couple of great plays and a couple of terrible plays. The consistency for him just isn't there.
3.) How would you grade Brandon Weeden's growth over this season? What has he done well and what does he need to improve on?
After the preseason and his awful opening-day performance against the Eagles, Brandon Weeden's growth was accelerated over the next couple of weeks. The biggest improvements were his comfort in the pocket, and even
his mobility. Granted, he isn't going to sit there and make any Tony Romo type of plays, but the little things -- like scrambling up the middle for a few yards once a game, or rolling out and throwing the ball away versus making a bad throw -- have added up and help cut down on the offensive turnovers. During our winning streak, Weeden's chemistry with his receivers has been much improved in terms of ball placement.
As far as improvements go, Weeden has a ton of his passes tipped. He hasn't perfected the art of pump faking defenders, and it's clear that linemen and blitzers have taken notice. A couple of tips have led to interceptions, and one against the Steelers a few weeks back even led to a pick six. One puzzling thing that Weeden has struggled with is that he hasn't been consistent when throwing the deep ball. Granted, he has hit a few big plays to Josh Gordon, but some of his other attempts haven't even been close. He also seems a little antsy on the first drive of games and overthrows simple routes. There is still a lot of fine-tuning to be had.
4.) The Browns have Trent Richarson but are the 24th ranked rushing offense? What's not working?
The thing that isn't working is...Trent Richardson. Don't take that the wrong way -- I'm not calling him a bust by any stretch of the imagination, but he is definitely missing some opportunities when it comes to looking like a top NFL running back. There are too many times where Richardson almost "dances" behind the line of scrimmage, rather than just hitting the hole hard and taking what he can get. That has caused him to be hit at the line of scrimmage too many times because he probably underestimates how quickly the defense is going to react to his change of direction. He still shows toughness by dragging those defenders a yard or two, but that forces Cleveland to throw the ball on more downs than they'd like to.
You can see the difference when our backup, Montario Hardesty, gets into the game -- he has hit the hole much quicker and has a higher yards-per-carry average. Richardson has been very good as a receiving back, though, where his "dancing" works more to his advantage when he's typically going up against just one defender.
5.) Do you have any big injury concerns going into this week? What key matchups do you see against the Redskins offense?
Last week against the Chiefs, the Browns were healthier than they've been all season -- all 53 players on the roster practiced all week with almost no limitations. The same holds true for this week. If the Browns lose this week, barring an in-game injury, no one can use that as an excuse. Washington is getting Cleveland at their peak.
The key matchup against the Redskins' offense is obviously Robert Griffin III. I've watched several of his games to this point, and he's made Washington one of my favorite offenses to watch in the NFL. I trust the coverage of Cleveland's cornerbacks, so I would say that our linebackers and defensive ends have to be key in trying to contain Griffin. Not many teams have been able to do it, so despite Cleveland's recent surge, I can't say I'm confident that they'll be able to get it done.
Either way, from the perspective of a football fan, I would hate to miss the opportunity of seeing Cleveland go up against Griffin, considering we'll only get to face him every four years.