After more than four months of hearing more about lawyers and jurisdiction instead of OTA’s and mini-camps, the craziest week of player movement ever seen in the NFL, and four weeks of preseason anticipation, the NFL finally, finally, kicks off the regular season this week! There were moments this past spring and summer when this week seemed like it might not even happen, but here we are, truly “ready for some football!”
Over the past decade it seems that, for the Browns, Week One has always been a big game. More often than not it has been the debut of either a new coach, new quarterback, or even both. In that way this year is no different, as Pat Shurmur prepares to walk the regular season sideline as the head coach for the first time. What makes 2011 any different? Simply put, this is not the first year of a new regime – instead, with Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert in place since late 2009, this year feels more like Year Two. The direction was already clear in the personnel decisions of 2010, and the change to an offensive-minded head coach was only a matter of time.
As the Browns prepare to meet the Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday, there are many questions on both sides of the ball. Both the offense and defense have changed schemes, and the roster underwent a dramatic metamorphosis from one of the league’s most senior-led squads to a group with only nine players over the age of 30.
The premiere of the West Coast offense – We’ve seen glimpses in the preseason, but now Shurmur & Co. will present a true gameplan. It’s likely we will see multiple formations and personnel packages shuttled in and out of the game with Colt McCoy distributing the ball to many receivers. It would not be surprising to see seven or more different players with receptions by the end of the game.
Greg Little’s regular season debut – Little has looked solid in the preseason, and it will be interesting to see how that translates to full game speed. The Bengals lost Jonathan Joseph to free agency, though Leon Hall is still a formidable cover man. Little and the rest of the Browns’ wide receivers are eager to disprove those that still feel this is the worst receiving corps in the league. I think they begin that proof this week.
Evan Moore vs. anyone that tries to cover him – When healthy, Moore presents a tremendous mismatch for any defender and could begin to build his case as a dangerous weapon this week. Last year, Cleveland was near the bottom of the league in red zone performance – Evan Moore will be a big reason that statistic improves greatly in 2011.
The Browns’ defensive line vs. the Bengals’ offensive line – Through much of the preseason, the new four-man front has looked very good. The young group has provided more pressure on opposing quarterbacks than Browns’ fans have seen in quite some time. How much they get to rookie QB Andy Dalton, and how well they handle the power rushing of Cedric Benson, will go a long way to determining the outcome of Sunday’s game.
Joe Haden vs. A.J. Green – Cleveland’s rising star, second-year cornerback Joe Haden, will likely spend the afternoon defending against the rookie that many assumed would be drafted by the Browns. While Green is certainly a special talent, I don’t expect that he will be able to muster a big stat line against the rapidly-developing Haden.
Though the Browns and Bengals were separated by only one game in last year’s standings, I believe that gap has widened significantly as we enter 2011. Cincinnati endured a tumultuous off-season in which they lost their veteran quarterback, top two receivers and top cover corner. Cleveland, meanwhile, continued to patiently build on their young core of talent, adding key pieces at several positions. It would appear that the Browns’ chances of winning the season opener for the first time since 2004 are pretty good – let’s hope they get the job done.