Browns offense faces a different challenge vs. Luke Kuechly-led Panthers


The Browns' loss to the Cincinnati Bengals has officially been buried in the backyard, the team has shifted its focus toward the Carolina Panthers and, more importantly, wants to fly back from Charlotte with a resilient effort from the offense.

On paper, Carolina's defensive scheme will be another unique and difficult challenge for Cleveland – an offense that has produced just two touchdowns in the last three games.

Carolina utilizes a heavy selection of underneath zone coverage looks from its three talented linebackers. Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly and A.J. Klein all hit hard and are even more revered in coverage.

In particular, it's Kuechly who is the game-wrecker. His 138 tackles lead the NFL and his intangibles make him one of the most valuable players in the NFC South.

"You can tell he's a great student of the game," Browns coach Mike Pettine said. "He knows things are coming. He's probably one of the best at gathering pre-snap info and sliding to where the play is going to go."

The key this week for quarterback Johnny Manziel will be the use of his eyes, Pettine said. If Manziel locks onto targets, Kuechly will make big plays for Carolina or help instruct his other teammates where to be. Manziel will have to look off receivers to manipulate defenders into thinking he's making one throw and then deliver the real strike down the field.

"One game doesn't define you as a player," Manziel said. "Really what defines you is how you bounce back from that."

Kuechly and Carolina coach Ron Rivera contended Wednesday that Manziel's performance, on film, didn't look as bad as the stat sheet indicated – 10-of-18, 93 total yards and two interceptions. Kuechly was more in tune to Manziel's worthy plays – a 10-yard scramble and a 32-yard strike to Josh Gordon.

"The one thing you kind of look for in a guy like him in his first start is if he shows flashes or sparks, and he showed a couple," Kuechly said. "You're like, 'there's the guy that I've seen at Texas A&M throwing all over the place and making plays everywhere.'"

Said Rivera: "When you watch him, you see some opportunities he had to make plays but they unfortunately didn't make them. It's a similar system Kyle Shanahan ran with (Robert Griffin III) in Washington. There's explosiveness there (with Manziel) … He's a playmaker. The guy has ability to extend plays. That's how we feel about him."

Rivera said the Panthers will attack what the Browns do well – play-action passing and running the football. Carolina has pulled up tape of Cleveland's offense from when Brian Hoyer operated it, and it's obviously studied Manziel. The Panthers have practiced defending the read-option and the pistol formation.

As we wrote on Sunday after the game, Manziel cannot resurrect the offense all by his lonesome. Running backs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell both are looking to bust out of respective slumps. West has averaged 36.3 yards per contest in his last three games, while Crowell is a shade below with 33.3 yards. That won't cut it to sustain success.

"If we're successful running the ball, hopefully they load the box and it opens it up for our receivers and makes life a little easier on the quarterback," said offensive lineman John Greco.

A big game from Gordon would help, too. Besides his 32-yard catch against the Bengals, Gordon posted four catches for 31 yards in the last two weeks. The game tape pointed to a couple of routes where Manziel missed seeing an open Gordon, but Cleveland truly needs the All-Pro to help deliver first downs. Scheming up shots down the field with Gordon could jumpstart Manziel's confidence.

And none of this is possible if the offensive line doesn't impose its will and come out of the gates with energy. Dictating the line of scrimmage against Kuechly and the Panthers is a must. Forming a pocket for Manziel will be the biggest key.

It doesn't matter what trials and tribulations the Browns face by playing a rookie quarterback. The bottom line on Sunday is that the NFL is a pass-fail league, and Cleveland has to do everything in its power to pass by chewing up the clock and scoring touchdowns.

Photos: and Andrew Hawkins donate Christmas gifts to local school

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