I asked five questions of Chris Pokorny, who runs Dawgs By Nature and is both a thoughtful writer and long-suffering Browns fan. His great answers follow.
Dave Choate: I've been happy to see the Browns competing this year. What's been the driving force behind the improvement, and who are the building blocks for future success?
Chris Pokorny: There are a lot of pieces to have contributed to the turnaround, but the driving force had to start with Browns owner Jimmy Haslam making the bold decision to fire GM Michael Lombardi and CEO Joe Banner in February (which was after head coach Mike Pettine was already hired). Although Banner did a lot of good on the business side of things, he and Lombardi reportedly had a pretty toxic reputation around the NFL. Those two were becoming the face of the team and not in a good way. Cleveland had the right front office people already in place under Lombardi and Banner, including assistant GM Ray Farmer, who had a reputation that can be deemed the complete opposite of toxic. Everything fell into place the right way, and finally, after over a decade of different regimes talking about culture changes, Cleveland seems to have finally established the right culture at their headquarters.
In terms of building blocks for the future, the three biggest pieces are LT Joe Thomas, WR Josh Gordon, and CB Joe Haden. Thomas is the best left tackle in the league, and Gordon and Haden will always at least be in the conversation for being the best players at their position. Thomas and Haden are still locked up long-term, and Gordon's deal expires after the 2015 season. C Alex Mack is a critical component, but he has a unique opt-out clause after 2015, which is why it's even more important for Cleveland to demonstrate it can contend for the playoffs. The roster is filled with other key players, but if I keep going, I'll be doing a breakdown of our whole team. One other player I will mention is QB Brian Hoyer. Even though he's not been overly impressive statistically, his leadership is the reason the Browns are as good as they are record-wise right now. That's what makes it tough when his contract expires -- should Cleveland re-sign the quarterback who finally delivered for them after all these years? If so, what about Johnny Manziel?
Dave Choate: Cutting Ben Tate was a mildly surprising move, all things considered, but Isiah Crowell and Terrance West look like quality backs. How do you expect the Browns to use them against the Falcons, and who is more dangerous at the moment?
Chris Pokorny: I've grown to be tired of Cleveland utilizing all three running backs in an unpredictable fashion. For over a month now, I've wanted the Browns to settle on two running backs. My original line of thinking was that one of those players would be Ben Tate, while the other would be either Terrance West or Isaiah Crowell. Over the past several games, Tate's role on the team has been reduced to a passing-down type of role with minimal carries and productivity. After this past weekend's game, when he had 2 carries for -9 yards against his former team and continued to act perturbed when talking to the media every week, I thought to myself, "the Browns should just release Tate already." My wish came true.
I expect the Browns to rotate series with Crowell and West against the Falcons. It would establish more of a rhythm at the position, giving each back a series to work with and not having to wonder during the game whether they are going to play or not. Crowell has more fans in Cleveland due to his running style, but I think both backs have shown to be equally productive.
Dave Choate: The return of Josh Gordon is on everyone's minds this week, and we expect our top corner Desmond Trufant to shadow him around the field. What kind of impact do you envision him having?
Chris Pokorny: Without having watched the Falcons very much, I see that they are tied for the second-least sacks in the NFL (13 sacks) and are ranked 32nd against the pass (281.2 yards per game). Last year, I watched Josh Gordon debut off of a two-game suspension in a dome against the Vikings and catch 10 passes for 146 yards and 1 touchdown on 19 targets from Brian Hoyer. Later in the season, I saw him have a four-game stretch in which he caught 36 passes for 774 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Yes, there is a Gordon could be completely out of sync with the offense and football in general since he had a 10-game suspension this year, but with all of the other factors I mentioned, I imagine he will have the type of impact that counteracts the blow of losing center Alex Mack earlier this season. Gordon will command more attention from the secondary and he'll still win a lot of those battles. If his mere threat takes one extra guy out of the box, Cleveland's running game opens up again. The level of play I saw from Gordon last year was superior to anything I've ever seen from an NFL receiver in size and speed, so my expectations are sky-high.
Dave Choate: I know you guys have been wracked by injuries in recent weeks, and Alfred Blue just ran all over the defense. If the Falcons are looking to attack the Cleveland defense in light of that, how would you go about doing so? Who are some of the names on defense we should watch out for?
Chris Pokorny: I think the Texans had a bit of an edge operating a zone-blocking scheme they were comfortable with, but there is no hiding it: Cleveland's 30th-ranked run defense hasn't been pretty, and we'll be without several of our better run defenders this week. I wouldn't say there is a particular way to attack Cleveland's run defense other than to stay committed to the running game and wear Cleveland down. Operating in a hurry-up offense would also be detrimental to the Browns due to their depth concerns.
The Browns will be relying more on OLB Barkevious Mingo and ILB Craig Robertson this week, who will likely be taking the spots of OLB Jabaal Sheard (foot injury) and ILB Karlos Dansby (knee injury). Mingo was known has a pass-rusher when he came into the league but has disappointed in that department. On the flip side, he's played pretty well against the run, all things considered. Robertson historically does well against the run, but has proven to be more of a rotational linebacker.
Prior to last week, I will say that Cleveland had been playing better against the run, and one of the reasons would be coming up big in key situations. They might allow a 6-yard run and a 7-yard run in a row for a first down, but then on 3rd-and-1, they would stuff the opposition and force a punt. That's why we saw statistical lines like these from opponents' lead backs:
12 carries, 59 yards
19 carries, 87 yards
12 carries, 55 yards
Having a good pass defense offsets some of the run productivity too. All it takes is one good play against the run, and if the pass defense forces an incompletion on 2nd-and-9, Cleveland faces a good situation to get off the field on third down.
Dave Choate: What are your expectations for the game and the rest of the season?
Chris Pokorny: The Browns couldn't get past the Texans' offensive line last week. My impression is that the Falcons' offensive line is considerably worse, which would allow our secondary to challenge Julio Jones and Roddy White with Joe Haden on one of them, and a corner with safety help on the other. Atlanta doesn't seem like a team that commits to the running game often, and they've not been able to close out games on their own accord. The Browns haven't had a two-game losing streak this season and are getting an uplifting charge this week with the return of Josh Gordon. I thought this would be a tough game at the beginning of the season, but now I'm heading into it with the mindset that the Browns should be favored.
The rest of the season will be incredibly difficult -- not because of Cleveland's schedule, but because of how crowded the AFC playoff race is right now. If the Browns lose this week, in the past, a 6-5 record would still put a team like Cleveland in the conversation for a playoff spot. Now, a loss would basically put us two games behind the No. 6 seed because the Browns don't have as good of a conference record as other teams (the Browns are 2-0 against the NFC, but 0-2 against the Jaguars and Texans).