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Andrew Luck the biggest challenge yet for Browns playmaking pass defense


Andrew Luck plays his home games in a dome, but there's little reason to believe he'd be affected by whatever the Cleveland weather machine throws his way Sunday.

Still, a man can wish.

"I'd love for it to be 40 mile-per-hour winds and raining and turn this into an old fashioned football game, but I don't think that's going to happen," Browns defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil said. "The forecast I've seen is it's going to be a nice day out there so whether we play them in a dome or we play them in a tornado, we're still going to have to play well on defense to stop this offense."

The sunny skies and 37-degree temperatures anticipated Sunday when the Browns host the Indianapolis Colts in a pivotal AFC showdown are barely a footnote. For the Browns' defense, which has played some of its best football in recent weeks, the challenge centers on stopping the NFL's hottest quarterback and his ever-growing artillery of weapons.

The Colts have been held below 400 yards of offense just three times this season and below 300 passing yards only twice. Luck, the reigning AFC Player of the Month, became the first quarterback to clear 4,000 yards when he completed 19-of-27 passes for 370 yards and five touchdowns in the Colts' 49-27 victory last week over the Washington Redskins.

The former Stanford star has added 213 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. In three seasons, he's put the Colts in the end zone with his arm or feet 91 times.

"He's obviously a (darn) good quarterback," O'Neil said. "If you give him the same look over and over again, he's going to dice you up. You've got to mix pressure with coverage and change coverages with him - zones, mans, middle-close mans, split-safety mans, split-safety zones, middle-close zones. You've got to roll it."

Since surrendering 311 passing yards to the Oakland Raiders and 252 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Browns have buckled down and limited their past four opponents to an average of 180.75 passing yards. A lot of that success can be attributed to the performance of cornerback Joe Haden, who has typically lined up against the opposition's best receiver and shut him down, thereby forcing the quarterback to make more throws to his second, third and fourth options.

The problem with the Colts? Much like Peyton Manning, Luck is comfortable incorporating whomever lines up to his left, right and back on a given play.

"He has all the weapons he needs," Haden said. "He's a smart guy, has arm strength. Like everybody always says, he's one of the good ones. He's one of the best in the league."

Last week's game was a prime example of everything Haden discussed.

Colts leading receiver T.Y. Hilton was relatively limited with five catches for 62 yards and a touchdown while veteran Reggie Wayne finished with four receptions for 31 yards. Meanwhile, rookie Donte Moncrief, who had all of 40 receiving yards in the Colts' previous three games, grabbed three big passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns while tight end Coby Fleener, a former teammate of Luck's at Stanford, had four catches for 127 yards and two scores.

Five of Luck's last six touchdown passes have gone for 30 or more yards. For his career, 30 percent of his touchdown throws have come from that distance.

"They've got more guys running free down the field than any offense I've ever seen on film," O'Neil said. "It's amazing. It's like three or four times a game they've got a guy wide open 30 yards deep down the field, so we've got to do a good job making sure that doesn't happen to us."

One week after rarely devoting coverage to more than a couple of receivers downfield at Buffalo, the Browns' secondary, which will be without interception leader Tashaun Gipson for a second straight week, will have its depth tested.

Safety Jim Leonhard stepped up against the Bills and nabbed his first interception of the season. The same will be required from some of the Browns' reserve cornerbacks this week.

"We're up for the challenge," safety Donte Whitner said. "We've been playing some good ball in the secondary, especially our corners, too. They've been playing some really good football. We're going to challenge him and hopefully make some plays on the ball when it's in the air."

If there's one weakness in Luck's game, it's interceptions. He's thrown 11 on the season and had at least one in all four of the Colts' losses. He's been sacked 21 times.

O'Neil brushed off both numbers while expressing confidence in a Browns defense that leads the NFL with 17 interceptions.

"I think the turnovers he has made … he does a great job creating plays. He extends the play. He buys time, buys time. He can throw the ball across his body. He can throw the ball off one foot. He can throw the ball in the air," O'Neil said. "He's done a nice job creating, but we always think we can get the quarterbacks. That's kind of what we are philosophically defensively.

"We're going to mix it, and we need to continue to get turnovers and make big plays to put ourselves in a position to win a football game."

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