Matchup to Watch

Matchup to Watch: Browns' front seven vs. Broncos running backs

The Cleveland Browns have been here before.

No, we’re not talking about the city of Denver, home of the Broncos. We all know they’ve been there before, as recently as last year.

We’re focused more on the matchup, and who comprises the key matchup for Sunday’s game.

In Week 1, the Browns faced a Tennessee Titans team that was focused on pounding the ball on the ground with big-bodied running back Derrick Henry and the much smaller, much quicker Dion Lewis. Surprisingly, though, it was Henry who made the game’s most important play in the passing game, taking a screen pass 75 yards for a score.

Denver’s Royce Freeman is also a bigger back and effective in the passing game, sure, but he’s not Henry. And the smaller Broncos back, Phillip Lindsay, is a bit different from Lewis, too, especially in the carries-per-game department (Lewis rarely touches the ball on the ground these days).

Plus, the Broncos’ offense is more in the style of another opponent the Browns have faced: the San Francisco 49ers.

So maybe they haven’t exactly been here before. But they’ve been close.

When the Browns traveled to the Bay Area to face the 49ers, they got too complicated and tried too hard to match the 49ers’ intentions up front instead of playing their own brand of football. Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks admitted as much in the days that followed Cleveland’s 31-3 loss, and his players echoed his sentiments.

Now that they’ll get a second opportunity to face a similarly styled offense, it’s safe to assume they’ll stick to what has been working for them. There’s reason for encouragement with that strategy, as it paid off nicely in their 27-13 loss to the New England Patriots. 

After rushing for more than 100 yards in two of their three most recent games, the Browns held the Patriots to just 79 yards in a cold, rain-soaked game that should have been dominated by the run. New England’s Sony Michel gained all but 5 of those yards on 21 carries, posting a 3.52 yards-per-carry average. The Browns bottled up the Patriots’ running attack.

It was another screen pass, though, that ultimately served as a deciding punch landed on the Browns. When facing third-and-10 and nursing a one-score lead, the Patriots dialed up a perfectly timed screen to James White, who took it 59 yards and put his team in position to eventually score a touchdown. 

The play took advantage of an aggressive pass rush that had caused Brady to fire the ball into the turf on multiple occasions, giving up on a play in order to preserve possession and field position. The quarterback rarely looked entirely comfortable in the game, and the conditions surely didn’t help.

Browns defensive end Olivier Vernon had arguably his best game since joining the team via offseason trade. Things were clicking up front, which Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels recognized as the perfect time for a screen.

All of this matters because it has the chance to directly relate to this week’s opponent. Much like how San Francisco relies on Kyle Juszczyk to open holes for big gains on the ground, the Broncos do the same with Andy Janovich, a recent recipient of a contract extension. Both players are integral blockers for each team’s running game, and both can do more than just block, too. Janovich will likely be used as a key blocker when the Broncos call zone runs and mix in some traditional gap schemes, and he’ll be a useful target out of the play action on plays that can look nearly identical to the aforementioned handoffs. 

This means the Browns should expect a heavy dose of runs with Lindsay and Freeman, but also play disciplined enough to stay home on the play-action passes, which are sure to come. It’ll be the basis of Denver’s offense from start to finish, especially as the team looks to make things as easy as possible on first-time starter Brandon Allen.

That discipline should also extend to those third-and-long situations, where the pass rush is very important of course, but so is maintaining assignment. As we’ve seen twice before, a timely screen can change a game, especially when it involves Lindsay.

The first order of business, though, should be stopping the run. That will include winning at the point of attack against an offensive line that mixes  youth on the left side (tackle Garret Bolles, rookie guard Dalton Risner) with reliable veterans (center Matt Paradis, guard Connor McGovern, tackle Ja’Wuan James). Even with James missing practice this week with a knee injury, this group cannot be taken lightly. 

“Lindsay, when you look at him, he is 5-7, 190, but he runs like he is 6-0, 215,” Wilks said. “Very explosive. Can run in between the tackles. Can take it to the outside. Freeman is not as explosive but just as powerful, and he is more of the passing back. I think both of those guys are dynamic in what they do. 

“Up front, they do a tremendous job of coming off the ball, pushing the double team and getting to the second level. I said it all week to the defense and to the team as a whole that we really have to control the line of scrimmage up front. Our defensive line has to play well.”

Limiting the effectiveness of Lindsay and Freeman will put a lot more of the burden on Allen and force the inexperienced signal-caller to make a difference through the air.

That is when the Browns’ pass rush can feast and create game-altering turnovers. And that will produce a much-needed win for those in brown and orange.

Check out photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Broncos Sunday by team photographer Matt Starkey

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