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Strategy And Personnel

The Sports Xchange

September 05, 2018 at 1:08 am.

GAME PLAN: Todd Haley, now the Browns offensive coordinator, had the same job with the Steelers the last six years. He’ll know where to attack the Pittsburgh defense, but the Steelers will also know his tendencies, so that’s a wash. Haley will use a balanced attack and could feature running back Duke Johnson Jr., who led the Browns with 74 catches last year, if the Steelers pay too much attention to wide receiver Jarvis Landry.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH

–Browns CB Denzel Ward vs. Steelers WR Antonio Brown. The Browns used the fourth pick in the draft on Ward because they need a shutdown corner. He has been excellent in man-to-man coverage, but he will have his hands full with one of the best receivers in the league.

–Browns LT Joel Bitonio vs. Steelers OLB T.J. Watt. Bitonio will be playing his first real game at left tackle after four seasons at left guard. He will be alone on an island and will need quick feet to keep Watt out of Tyrod Taylor’s face.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter – Tyrod Taylor. Backups – Baker Mayfield, Drew Stanton.

Taylor was knighted the starting quarterback on March 14 when he was acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Bills. He is careful with the ball, and that makes him invaluable to head coach Hue Jackson after what the Browns went through last year. He can run, but not as a first option. Mayfield is eager for the opportunity, but content to watch and learn. He has a strong arm and keeps his eyes downfield when protection breaks down. Quarterbacks coach Ken Zampeze says Stanton, in his 12th year, is “the secret sauce” in the quarterback room.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter – Carlos Hyde. Backups – Nick Chubb, Duke Johnson Jr.

Hyde and Chubb give the Browns a strong one-two punch. Hyde will get most of his yards between the tackles. Chubb, the rookie from Georgia, is patient waiting for his blocking to develop and can accelerate running outside. Johnson has excellent hands and can make tacklers miss when he catches the ball in space. He will line up in the slot in some formations.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter – David Njoku. Backups – Seth DeValve, Darren Fells, Orson Charles.

Njoku last year made some spectacular catches and dropped some passes he should have caught easily. He was steadier in training camp and preseason and will be a favorite target of Taylor as he looks to build on his 32 catches from last season. DeValve missed the entire season with a quadriceps injury, so he and Taylor will have to develop their chemistry gearing up for the Steelers. Fells has a well-earned reputation as a blocker on running plays. That will be his primary role with the Browns, but don’t be surprised if he also gets involved as more than a spot player in the passing game.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters – Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway, Rashard Higgins. Backups – Josh Gordon, Damian Ratley, Derrick Willies.

Gordon will eventually replace Higgins as a starter, but not right away because Gordon is still shaking off the rust from missing the entire preseason. Landry is a ball magnet as his 112 catches from a year ago attest, but this is a very thin, inexperienced position for the Browns except for Landry and Gordon. Callaway is fast, but he’s a rookie. So is Ratley and Willies. Higgins has speed and, now in his third year, has reliable hands. Taylor is developing trust in him. The Browns met with Dez Bryant during training camp, but the two sides didn’t come to an agreement. The Browns might want to revisit that situation.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LT Joel Bitonio, LG Austin Corbett, C JC Tretter, RG Kevin Zeitler, RT Chris Hubbard. Backups – T Gregg Robinson, T Desmond Harrison, G Earl Watford, C Aaron Neary.

Head coach Hue Jackson admits he is concerned about the left side of the line because Bitonio is new at tackle and Corbett is a rookie. It has to be disconcerting that he is contemplating making Harrison the starting left tackle, which would mean moving Bitonio back to guard, the week before the season starts, but that is where the Browns are. Watford could also replace Corbett, which would leave Bitonio at tackle. Except for Watford (or Corbett if he ends up being the backup guard) the Browns are thin behind the starters. Neary was claimed on waivers from the Rams on Sunday.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters – DLE Emmanuel Ogbah, DRE Myles Garrett, DT Devon Coley, DT Larry Ogunjobi. Backups — DE Chris Smith, DE Chad Thomas, DT Devaroe Lawrence, DT Carl Davis, DE Ifeadi Odenigbo.

A major goal of the defense this season is to put more pressure on the quarterback, and that starts up from with Garrett and Ogbah. Garrett is healthy after playing all last season on a tender ankle that forced him to miss four games. Ogunjobi has gotten stronger against the run and Coley is good at clogging the middle. Coordinator Gregg Williams is a firm believer in rotating his linemen to keep the starters fresh in the fourth quarter. Davis, Odenigbo and Smith will fill those roles. The Browns waived third-year defensive end Carl Nassib to make a roster spot for Odenigbo, a 2017 seventh-round draft pick who had 10 sacks at Northwestern in 2016.

LINEBACKERS: Starters – WLB Christian Kirksey, SLB Jamie Collins, MLB Joe Schobert. Backups – WLB Genard Avery, LB Tanner Vallejo, MLB James Burgess.

Collins has instincts that cannot be caught, says coordinator Gregg Williams. Collins will be part of the pass rush. Opponents will pay the price if the price for forgetting him is they pay too much attention to Garrett and Ogbah. Schobert and Kirksey will battle all season for the team lead in tackles. The improved defensive line should allow them to make more stops near the line of scrimmage. Williams says Schobert is one of the smartest players he has ever been around. Avery, a fourth-round draft choice, is going to be a player to watch as the season progresses. He has a hip injury now, but is quick to the quarterback when healthy. Burgess can play all three linebacker possessions.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters – LCB Denzel Ward, RCB Terrance Mitchell, SS Jabrill Peppers, FS Damarious Randall. Backups – LCB E.J. Gaines, RCB T.J. Carrie, FS Briean Boddy-Calhoun, S Derrick Kindred, CB Denzel Rice, CB Tavierre Thomas.

Seven of the 10 players in the secondary are new to the Browns, which is all that needs to be said about the defense a year ago. This group is faster, which will allow Williams to play more man-to-man defense and give the pass rushers more time to get to the quarterback. Peppers will line up closer to the line of scrimmage than he did last year, which should help in run support. Ward and Mitchell can both get their hands on the ball. The Browns intercepted only seven passes last season and are determined to increase that total. Boddy-Calhoun is one of the most versatile players on defense. He can play nickel or free safety. Randall had a minor knee injury in preseason but should be fine for the opener.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Zane Gonzalez, P Britton Colquitt, LS Charley Hughlett, KR Jabrill Peppers, PR Antonio Callaway.

Gonzalez is back for his second season as the kicker. He has a strong leg and is capable of routinely hitting from 50 yards. He has worked on kicking off higher and deeper. Colquitt won a tight battle with Justin Vogel in the preseason. Colquitt’s ability to nestle the ball inside the 20 was a clincher. Peppers is bold as a kickoff returner and elusive once he gets a head of steam going. Callaway doesn’t like to signal for a fair catch. Hughlett has been a machine since he became the Browns’ long snapper in 2015.

PRACTICE SQUAD: DL Daniel Ekuale, DL Zaycoven Henderson, RB Dontell Hilliard, OL Kyle Kalis, TE Pharaoh McKever, CB Jeremiah McKinnon, DB Montreal Meander, LB Brady Sheldon, DB Tigie Sankoh (international exemption), WR Da’Mari Scott.

 

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