Just two weeks into the 2013 season, Browns fans have plenty of reasons for despair. Quarterback Brian Hoyer takes the reigns of a reeling offense that ranks 28th in the NFL for offensive yards (550), 30th in yards per offensive play (4.1), and 31st in total touchdowns scored (1). Literally during the writing of this article, Trent Richardson was traded to the Colts, drastically changing the look of the Browns offense. This is disappointing for fans hoping to see some sort of improvement over Pat Shurmur’s offense in 2012. With years of futility setting the table for this seasons rough start, Cleveland fans could use a shot in the arm to hope for a turnaround looking towards the upcoming game against the Minnesota Vikings. Here are five reasons to be optimistic about this weeks game.
1.) The Browns pass rush is as good as they were advertised to be.
The Browns are ranked 10th in the NFL in sacks (10) and 4th in interceptions (3). The pass rush is working and the pressure created is resulting in turnovers. All the major free agent pick ups this offseason have recorded sacks (Groves, Kruger and Bryant). First round linebacker Barkevious Mingo notched a sack, hurry and batted down pass in 12 pass rushes against the Ravens. Jabaal Sheard also had a sack on Sunday, as well as being involved in 8 tackles. While cornerbacks Chris Owens and Buster Skrine continue to struggle with coverage, the Browns have slowed the bleeding secondary with an effective front seven that are consistently getting through opposing offensive lines.
2.) The Minnesota Vikings have a Quarterback as bad as ours has been in Christian Ponder.
When Ponder has been protected well, he has performed decently. The Vikings offensive line allowed just 8 pressures on Ponder last week in their loss in Chicago, and that translated to a 75.3 quarterback rating. When Ponder has been pressured however, he has coughed up 4 interceptions and his accuracy has been less than impressive. Offseason pick up Greg Jennings will have trouble finding open looks against cornerback Joe Haden. While the offensive line of the Vikings should prove a challenge, pressures on Ponder should result in more success for the Browns defensive backs against the pass.
3.) Kicker Billy Cundiff has done an admirable job so far, taking the place of Phil Dawson.
Fan favourite Phil Dawson moved on this past offseason when the Browns were unwilling to give him a salary raise. Dawson, one of the few bright spots on past Browns offenses, was nearly automatic within 50 yards. Cundiff, a ten year NFL vet, stepped into that roll with a lot of pressure to perform and avoid mistakes this year. In his first two starts of the season, Cundiff has been reliable with a perfect 3 for 3 in field goals, including one this past Sunday from 51 yards out. If the Browns continue to struggle in the red zone, Cundiff gives the Browns the ability to keep games competitive and reward the offense with points on shorter drives.
4.) The Browns run defense has been surprisingly good.
The Browns defense has allowed a stingy 2 yards per rushing play so far this year. Inside linebacker Craig Robertson has been a pleasant surprise in his second season, racking up 12 tackles and a forced fumble. Together with the always reliable D’Qwell Jackson, the Browns have a strong presence between the hash marks. The Ravens struggled to get their run game going this last week, averaging 3 yards per carry. Ravens running back Ray Rice ran for 36 yards on 13 attempts, amounting to a non-factor in the game. While rookie Bernard Pierce had more success with 57 yards and a touchdown, it took him 19 attempts to get there. With nose tackle Phil Taylor injured, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen did a good job up front against the Ravens. The defensive line is deep and has been resilient against the run. They will need every shred of talent against Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.
5.) Wide receiver Josh Gordon finally returns from his suspension.
Boy, that felt like a long suspension. Gordon’s ability to stretch a defense and create big plays was badly missed in the first two games of the season. If Hoyer is able to get Gordon the ball, he should do damage against a Vikings defense that has already given up 5 passing touchdowns and 639 yards in two games. Greg Little has just been awful, continuing to drop balls, despite all the hard work he turned in this offseason. Moving Little to the 3rd spot and giving the Browns a true number 1 in Gordon should produce results. Gordon lining up opposite Davone Bess should give the Browns a much more potent passing attack. Can Josh Gordon stay out of trouble off the field? Who can know.
Questions remain. Can the Browns score more touchdowns than they rack up turnovers? Can Hoyer run this offense and get the ball to his receivers? Who will be running the ball? We will find out this Sunday in Minnesota. If the offensive line and quarterback positions continue to disappoint, the Browns could be in for a long day. An improved defense and the return of Josh Gordon allow the Browns to match up well against the Vikings. If the defense can turn Viking mistakes into points, and Hoyer can avoid turnovers, the Browns may be celebrating their first win of the season.