1) Control the clock
The Browns tried to implement this strategy against the Chiefs, but it came with mixed results. They basically split possession with the Chiefs, holding the ball just 102 seconds longer and running 12 more plays. But even that small advantage helped the Browns play close against a heavily favored opponent. If Kansas City hadn’t stolen field position on the blocked punt, the Browns’ final drive could've been for the tie.
The Falcons boast similar firepower. Earlier this week, Damarious Randall called Matt Ryan’s weapons better than the ones who surround Patrick Mahomes. Particularly with a wounded defense, the Browns need to limit Atlanta’s possessions. Considering Atlanta has turned over the ball just five times this season (fewest in the NFL), the best way for the Browns to limit its possessions is to extend their own.
“Offensively, you want to be able to control the clock, time of possession,” coach Gregg Williams said. “I have gone through lots of different people throughout the years where one of the best things in the world is to make sure certain quarterbacks are over on the sidelines for long periods of time, and that is what good offenses do.”
2) Overcome injuries
“Next man up” may be a tired cliché’, but it’s also the Browns’ reality. Without linebacker Christian Kirksey and cornerback E.J. Gaines (those are just the players who are out for sure), the Browns need players to excel in expanded roles.
Tanner Vallejo tied Jamie Collins with a team-high seven tackles last week in relief of Kirksey, so that’s a good start. But the injuries to the secondary are the main concern.
Even if Denzel Ward and Damarious Randall start, who’s to say they or any other member of the team finish? The Browns lack cornerback depth due to Terrance Mitchell and Gaines’ injuries, and they cut Denzel rice — the only corner behind T.J. Carrie intimately familiar with the playbook — this week. Phillip Gaines and Jermaine Whitehead have only lived in Cleveland for two days, but Williams said they’re learning quickly. Maybe they can pitch in on Sunday.
“(Gaines and Whitehead) are fine and they are smart enough and have impressed us on the time that we are spending with them,” Williams said. “We started meetings with the guys at 6 a.m. this morning – the new guys. Football is football, but it is a different language. What is the term we are using? How do we call this? Is there a different way we go about playing a particular concept of scheme, and how can we help you do that and get everybody on the same page as well as we can? Then now cut them loose and let them play.”
3) Stop the run
As Carrie said last week, to stop an offense with multiple weapons, you have to take one away.
One weapon the Browns have consistently failed to stop this season? Running backs. The Browns rank 25th in rushing yards allowed per attempt this season. And in the past two weeks, they allowed 353 yards and five touchdowns to James Conner and Kareem Hunt.
The Falcons are missing their starting running back Devonta Freeman, but Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith are capable as runners and receivers. As the numbers illustrate, the Browns have struggled against capable running backs, and they allowed those numbers with a mostly healthy front seven.
“I thought that (Smith and Coleman) were at their best last week,” Williams said. “We have to do a very good job of understanding what they want to do and not letting them do it.”
4) A full complement of receivers
Rashard Higgins is finally off the injury report and Antonio Callaway was a full participant in practice. Da’Mari Scott is participating again. In short, the Browns receivers are as healthy as they’ve been in weeks.
The last time the Browns sported a healthy receiving corps in consecutive weeks, they scored 42 points against the Raiders and beat the Ravens the following week. A lot has changed since then, including a few new faces in the receivers’ room. But in some sense, at least, normalcy has returned for the pass-catchers.
“It is going to give us more chance to spread the ball around,” wide receiver Jarvis Landry said. “Guys can make plays down the field, underneath or wherever it may be. When you have more options on the field, it is more field and more grass that the defense has to cover.”