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Browns-Falcons: 5 things to watch for


1)      Julio Jones vs. Joe Haden

Jones is arguably the best receiver the Browns have faced all season long -- his 67 catches and 912 yards are self-explanatory.The 6-foot-3, 220 pound 25-year-old will require extra safety over the top on passing downs. The problem for Jones is that he's running into Haden, who has been playing at an elite level since early October. In three straight weeks Haden was tasked with shutting down Vincent Jackson, A.J. Green and Andre Johnson – and he did so masterfully. If Haden is able to bring his hot streak down to Atlanta and limit Jones, the Falcons game plan will be disrupted.

Key stat: In three of the Falcons four wins, Jones has gone for over 100 yards. In five of Atlanta's six losses, Jones was held to under 100 yards.

What to watch for: Intermediate routes over the middle. The Falcons love to get Jones the ball in space and let the long-striding receiver rack up yards after the catch.

2)      Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell vs. Falcons front seven

There's really no dancing around this: the Falcons sub .500 record has almost everything to do with their defense, which ranks dead last in the NFL. There are talented players on the Falcons' defensive line – Tyson Jackson, Jonathan Babineaux – but they haven't been to consistently rush the passer or stop the run. Now that West and Crowell can comfortably share the load, Cleveland's formula of feeding their rookie running backs seems like it could work extremely well in the Georgia Dome.

Key stat: West has been a much better rusher on the road, averaging 4.3 yards per carry away from FirstEnergy Stadium, while 3.0 at home.

What to watch for: Left guard Joel Bitonio. Watch how often he pulls in the running game to the right side, often pummeling oncoming linebackers to the turf.

3)      Browns receivers vs. Falcons defensive backs

We touched on it a little on Wednesday: Falcons coach Mike Smith is concerned with the speed Cleveland's presents in the open field. There's a reason Brian Hoyer ranks third in the NFL in passing plays for 20 yards or more. Travis Benjamin, Taylor Gabriel, Andrew Hawkins and now Josh Gordon all have specific talents to give the Falcons nightmares, Gordon especially. Atlanta ranks 32nd in pass defense and they'll be without normal starting cornerback Robert Alford (broken wrist).

Key stat: Atlanta has given up at least 290 passing yards in six games.

What to watch for: Gordon. How much will he play? Where will he line up? Could he be used as a decoy to open up the running game? The possibilities are endless right now.

4)      Browns injuries

Who will suit up – or step up? As of Thursday morning, Jabaal Sheard (toe), Karlos Dansby (MCL), Jordan Cameron (concussion) all have not been ruled out for Sunday's game. If Sheard and Dansby are able to go, they still might be sharing their roles with Barkevious Mingo and Craig Robertson respectively. Players in the 'Next Man Up' situation earlier in the season – John Hughes, Ishmaa'ily Kitchen and Jim Dray – all stepped up admirably.

Key stat: Dansby leads the browns with 73 tackles.

5)      Devin Hester vs. the Browns special teams

Coach Mike Pettine called Hester a future Hall of Famer during his press conference on Wednesday.  "I know [coach] Tabor is going to have a couple sleepless nights this week," Pettine said to laughter. Even at 32 years old, Hester is as dangerous as they come. He's fourth in the league in punt return average (12.6 yards) and he has three total touchdowns – one punt, one receiving and one rushing. In a gridlock game, Hester's a player who could put the Falcons over the top.

Key stat: The Browns lead the NFL in opposing starting field position on kickoffs (19.5 yard line).

What to watch for: Glenn Winston. The Browns' third-string running back has been lauded as a special teams ace as a gunner covering returns. Winston's a physical specimen and should help out an already strong unit.

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