3TFO: Browns @ Cowboys, Week 11
Two teams that have been looking forward to this part of their schedule since opening day will square off in Dallas on Sunday. The Browns, coming off their bye, will begin to see their young team come together and begin to judge the growth that has occurred during the season. The Cowboys will play five of their next six games in front of their home crowd and appear to be poised to make a run at the NFC East title.
At 2-7 the Browns are exactly where many people thought they would be, but the important part of their season is right now. They need to show that the core of young players has developed and can be a winning group in years to come. Cleveland has been competitive in almost every game this season and has played hard each week. Can they finish strong and gain some momentum for 2013.
The Cowboys got a big win on the road last week against rival Philadelphia and are nicely positioned for a run at the division. They are a game behind the Giants but have a significantly easier schedule the rest of the season and appear to be regaining some of their swagger. A let down this week at home against the Browns would be unacceptable, so Dallas needs to play well and start this stretch of home games strong. Here are the key battles that will dictate whether or not they do so.
Joe Thomas vs. DeMarcus Ware
All-pro against All-pro, it doesn’t get any better than this. Joe Thomas is one of the premier offensive tackles in football and DeMarcus Ware is one of the best pass rushers in the game, setting up a classic battle. Although Dallas moves Ware around a bit the bulk of his snaps still come as the outside linebacker on the right side. In fact, 69.1% of his pass rushing snaps are on the right side and that will put him head-to-head with Thomas more often than not. Ware continues to be one of the most feared pass rushers in the game and is second in the entire league in Pass Rush Productivity so far in 2012. He has accumulated 37 total pressures and 11 sacks in 233 pass rush snaps. Ware has also been stellar against the run this year, ranking fourth among 3-4 outside linebackers in Run Stop Percentage.
Trying to contain Ware is never an easy task, but if somebody can do it without the help of a double team, it isThomas. He is second in the league in pass-blocking efficiency and consistently eliminates top end pass rushers. In 357 pass blocking snaps he has allowed just one sack and 10 total pressures, meaning that on one out of every 35 snaps he allows a pressure. Even scarier is that he appears to be getting better — he hasn’t allowed a single pressure in the previous two games. If he can keep that streak going and shut out Ware, the Browns could pull off the upset.
Trent Richardson vs. Dallas Run Defense
Another path the Browns could take to pull off the upset could be to run Trent Richardson early and often to keep the Cowboys’ offense off the field and shorten the game. Richardson has shown flashes of brilliance and appears to be well worth the high first-round draft selection. With an extra week to heal his injured ribs and rest, Richardson hopes to finish the season strong. Despite playing most of the season banged up he ranks seventh in the NFL in PFF’s Elusive Rating for running backs and is in the Top 5 in missed tackles caused. To be successful this week Richardson will have to do damage against a Cowboys team that ranks fifth in total rush defense, with a team grade of +37.1. However, in recent weeks they have lost two of their highest rated run defenders for the season. The injuries to linebacker Sean Lee and defensive end Kenyon Coleman could start to take their toll this week against a rested Browns team. Helping to carry the load for the injured Cowboys has been Anthony Spencer who has been the best run stopping 3-4 outside linebacker in the league. In 153 run play snaps he has made 17 stops, he will need to continue that strong play this week to stop Richardson.
Cowboys WR’s vs. Browns DB’s
It is no coincidence that since Joe Haden returned from his suspension the Browns are 2-2. Although he hasn’t been amazing, the defense plays with a different level of confidence when Haden is in the lineup. Cleveland usually has their corners play sides, meaning that both Haden and right cornerback Sheldon Brown will have their chances covering both Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. Interestingly, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has shown almost no preference in which wide receiver he throws to. He has targeted Austin 71 times and Bryant 70 times. With those targets Bryant has two more receptions, but Austin has one more touchdown. However, half of Austin’s targets and more than half of his receptions have come when he lines up in the slot. Considering Austin’s production from the slot and the lofty amount of targets that tight end Jason Witten receives, it is obvious that Romo likes throwing to inside receivers. Often Cleveland turns to Buster Skrine to cover the slot and he is ranked last among cornerbacks in slot performance, allowing a reception every 5.7 times he is in coverage from the slot. If that holds up this week, Romo and Austin can have a big day utilizing him from the slot.