3TFO: Browns @ Packers, Week 7
Cleveland Browns’ quarterback Brandon Weeden took back control of the offense in Week 5, and finished with the highest grade of his career. He followed up that performance with his worst game of season against the Lions. The Browns started well, jumping out to a 17-7 lead at halftime. The second half proved to be a different game though, as the Lions were able to increase the pressure on Weeden and force some poor throws. On defense, the Browns were beat multiple times by Reggie Bush and Joe Fauria, which led to 24 unanswered points in the loss.
Meanwhile, the Packers continued their success on the ground and had another stout day on defense in the win against the Ravens. The Packers’ offense struggled to finish drives for the second straight week, but Mason Crosby hit four of five field goals to give them enough of a lead to hold on for the win. Injuries continue to mount though, with five players already ruled out for Sunday’s game and three others that have not practiced this week.
The Browns and Packers face each other for the first time in the regular season since 2009 as the Browns go on the road to Green Bay. Will the Packers’ be able to win without several key players? Or can the Browns take advantage by slowing down the Packers’ offense and win on the road? Here are three matchups within the game to focus on.
Jordy Nelson vs. Joe Haden
With Randall Cobb out at least eight weeks and James Jones also banged up, the Packers are thin at wide receiver. Even if Jones does suit up, he will not be at full health. That leaves the Packers with Jordy Nelson, Jarrett Boykin, and rookie Myles White, who was just activated from the practice squad. Boykin possesses a good skill set, but is largely unproven. He was targeted just six times as a rookie last year and he played only 10 snaps this season heading into last week. Meanwhile, Nelson has been one of the best receivers this year. Averaging 96.8 yards per game and 17.9 yards per reception, Nelson has earned his +8.7 pass grade. Nelson has been especially effective deep (20-plus yards) downfield, where he has been targeted 11 times and has caught eight for 277 yards.
Tasked with covering Nelson is the Browns’ Joe Haden. He is an excellent cover-corner and has had a notable start to the season. He is allowing 47.7% of passes thrown his way to be completed and just one completion every 12.6 snaps in coverage on average. When receivers are able to make the grab, Haden is holding them to just 2.2 yards after the catch. His 0.77 yards allowed per coverage snap ranks 10th in the league among cornerbacks. With Aaron Rodgers looking Nelson’s way often, it won’t be an easy day for Haden — however, Haden has proven he can cover any receiver in the league.
Tight End Mismatches
Jermichael Finley has shown flashes of being a dominant receiving threat over the years, but never seems to live up to the athleticism and size/speed combination he possesses. Going into last week, the Packers had used three or more receivers on 90.3% on their offensive plays, by far the highest in the league. They have lined Finley up in either slot or out wide on 98 of his 214 (45.8%) snaps this season. With the Packers now lacking depth at receiver, expect him to line up as a receiver and be utilized more frequently. Finley has not really stood out yet this season, but he is averaging 9.9 yards after the catch, best among all tight ends and wide receivers with at least 10 receptions. His six forced missed tackles on 20 receptions have led to 86.4% of his total yards coming after the catch — an incredible percentage for a tight end. He faces a favorable matchup against the Browns’ defense this week. They gave up seven catches on as many targets for 70 yards and three touchdowns against the Lions. Linebacker Craig Robertson’s weakness has shown to be in coverage as he’s allowed 29 completions on 34 passes on the year. Safety T.J. Ward has been a strength in the secondary. He has allowed 64.7% of passes to be completed while intercepting two, but has missed nine tackles in coverage. It remains to be seen how Ward can handle Finley’s size if matched up against him. If Finley can make the most of his opportunities, he has a chance to have that break-out game many have been waiting for.
On the other sideline is Jordan Cameron, who has been a surprise to many this year after a great start to the season. He leads all tight ends with 38 receptions and ranks third with 460 receiving yards. After scoring five touchdowns in the first four games, his production has slowed the last two weeks. That said, he is the second-most targeted tight end in the league and plays on an offense that lacks playmakers outside of Josh Gordon and himself. The Packers allowed 31 completions for 386 yards and four touchdowns to tight ends though five games. The weakest links have been at safety with Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings allowing three of the four scores. An impactful game could be forthcoming from Cameron as well.
Browns’ Running Backs vs. Packers’ Front Seven
The Browns need to take pressure off Weeden by effectively running the ball. With Trent Richardson now gone, Chris Ogbonnaya and Willis McGahee have taken the majority of snaps at running back. Ogbonnaya has played the most, but has not been a priority in the run game as evidenced by his 12 carries. Albeit a very small sample size, he has shown some success with an average of 6.2 yards per rush and 32 yards after contact. With 51 carries in the last three games, McGahee has established himself as the lead back. By no means is he having a terrible season, but he has not performed as well as in the past. His 2.8 yards per carry is a yard-and-a-half less than either of his two seasons in Denver. Even though he is known for his physical running-style, McGahee is averaging just 1.7 yards after contact. Over the years he has shown to be an effective running back, but coming off a significant knee injury at age 31, can he make a greater impact?
The Browns will have a tough challenge ahead though, as the Packers are allowing the third-lowest rushing yards per game at 78.2. B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett have played well against the run, as usual. A significant factor has also been the depth along the defensive line with the development of Mike Daniels and reemergence of Johnny Jolly. Although Daniels has played just over one-third of opponents’ run plays, he has earned the fifth-highest run defense grade (+8.0) for his position across the league. The return of safety Morgan Burnett has helped as well, with five run stops in two games. The only concern is the Packers’ linebacker depth. Clay Matthews is still out, Brad Jones did not play last week, and Nick Perry has already been ruled out this week. Jones and Mike Neal have yet to practice this week, which could leave the Packers with one healthy-starter, A.J. Hawk, while starting two rookies starting alongside him.
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