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NFL Team Report - Cleveland Browns - INSIDE SLANT
Three Cleveland Browns head coaches have tried to win a season opener since Butch Davis succeeded nine years ago and all three failed, so now it is Rob Chudzinski's turn.
As much as anything else, the regime of team owner Jimmy Haslam led by CEO Joe Banner and Chudzinski want to change the culture of Browns football, starting with the first game of the season against the Dolphins in FirstEnergy Stadium on Sept. 8.
"This is such a football town; it would be unbelievable if we won consistently," seventh-year left tackle Joe Thomas said. "I try to talk to the young guys about it and let them understand how important this team is to this city.
"We could be legends if we bring this organization back to where it was a couple decades ago. You'd never buy another drink. You'd never buy another dinner for the rest of your life if you won a Super Bowl here. Those are the things that make having Chud here awesome because he can help relate the passion and intensity of Cleveland Browns fans to this team."
Chudzinski grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and was such an ardent fan he would turn the television set in the living room around so the screen would be facing outside. He and his friends would sit in the front yard watching the game and pretend they were in old Cleveland Stadium.
"From Day One, I've tried to talk about the tradition that's been here," Chudzinski said. "We've talked a lot about the fans and how important this team is to this whole area. We want to bring a winner back to this area to create that type of excitement. That's one of the things that drive us on a daily basis.
"We have a lot of work to get to that point, but knowing that, I think you saw some of the things in training camp with the interactions of the fans and the players that is bringing everybody closer together. I know it's very important to me because of the background."
There are many examples of ineptitude since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, but one of the most glaring is their terrible starts. The only opener they won was 20-3 over Baltimore in 2004, and in that one the Ravens were without injured left tackle Jonathan Ogden, who on Aug. 3 was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Browns' stumbles are not limited to openers, either. They were 0-3 to start 2008, 0-4 in 2009, 0-3 in 2010, 2-1 in 2011 (then 2-11 the rest of the way) and 0-5 in 2012.
Chudzinski was very systematic in his first training camp as head coach, most notably with the way he handled Trent Richardson. Chudzinski went into spring practice with the mission of making sure Richardson got practice time and then game-time in preseason, but more importantly the plan was to make sure Richardson was fresh and healthy for the opener a week from Sunday, which he is.
Richardson, tight end Jordan Cameron and Weeden were the most improved players on offense this preseason, which gives reason for hope the drought in season openers might be coming to an end.
Depth could be a serious problem in the secondary if either starting safety, T.J. Ward or Tashaun Gipson, or left cornerback Joe Haden is injured.
Rookie third-round draft choice Leon McFadden looks like he'll be a project, just as Buster Skrine was as a rookie in 2011. McFadden was injured early in training camp and struggled in the preseason games against the Colts and Bears
There are other concerns; Chudzinski said he isn't fretting over Chris Owens sore foot, but Owens was unable to practice most of training camp and sat out the last two preseason games. Plus, he started only 12 games for the Falcons in four years and the Browns signed him for only one year.
SERIES HISTORY: 16th regular-season meeting. Browns lead series, 8-7. The Browns have not dominated many teams since 1999, but they have owned Miami. They have won four straight over the Dolphins since 2005. Three of the four victories were at home, most recently 17-16 at home two years ago.
NFL Team Report - Cleveland Browns - NOTES, QUOTES
--The Browns are playing their 15th season opener since returning to the NFL in 1999 and are opening at home for the 14th time. The only time they opened on the road in the expansion era was in 2010 when they lost, 17-14, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
--Brandon Weeden will start against the Dolphins, making him the first quarterback to start back to back openers for the Browns since Charlie Frye in 2006-2007.
Frye started against the Steelers in 2007 but was benched before the first half ended. He was traded to the Seahawks the next day. Derek Anderson finished the season and led the Browns to a 10-6 record.
--The Browns last played the Dolphins just two years ago, yet only three starters on offense from that game will be in the starting lineup Sept. 8 - left tackle Joe Thomas, center Alex Mack and wide receiver Greg Little. Six starters from the 2011 game, including running back Montario Hardesty on injured reserve, are not on the roster. Five from the 2011 starting defense are not on the roster.
--There is a story within the story for the first game of the season. Davone Bess was acquired from the Dolphins during the draft and will line up in the slot against his former team. Bess caught 321 passes with the Dolphins from 2008-12.
--As most coaches did, Rob Chudzinski rested his starters in the final preseason game. That plan did not include resting kicker Shayne Graham, but Graham's back tightened up in pregame warm-ups. Rookie Brandon Bogotay, who was competing with Graham, was back in Cleveland with a groin injury.
The kicking duties went to punter Spencer Lanning. Lanning kicked a 40-yard field goal with 3:12 left to lift the Browns to an 18-16 victory.
BY THE NUMBERS: 1 -- Number of season openers won by the Browns since 1999.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The team really responds to the energy he brings on a daily basis. He loves playing football." -- Head coach Rob Chudzinski on backup linebacker Quentin Groves.
NFL Team Report - Cleveland Browns - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Billy Cundiff signed with the Browns, filling the team's need for a kicker just five days before the regular-season opener against the Miami Dolphins.
The Browns cut veteran Shayne Graham and rookie Brandon Bogotay (injured) over the weekend. They had reportedly been interested in Dan Carpenter, the former Dolphins' Pro Bowl kicker who instead signed with Buffalo.
So the Browns turned to Cundiff, an eight-year veteran who appeared in five games for the Browns in 2009 as an injury replacement for Phil Dawson.
--K Billy Cundiff signed a one-year contract with the Browns after winning a tryout Tuesday. He is 1 of 13 from 50 yards and beyond on field-goal tries since 2009.
--G Jason Pinkston was placed on injured reserve; designated to return to make room for K Billy Cundiff. Pinkston has a high ankle sprain.
--WR Davone Bess will start vs. the Dolphins because Josh Gordon is suspended the first two games.
--WR Josh Gordon, though suspended, is allowed to be in the building and attend team meetings.
--G Shawn Lauvao (ankle) is out for the game against the Dolphins.
--LB Barkevious Mingo (lung) was limited in practice.
--DE Desmond Bryant (back) was limited.
GAME PLAN: The Browns showed in the preseason they will attack downfield and that is how they want to go after the Dolphins.
Brandon Weeden is not good pecking his way down the field. The Browns want to pick up yardage in chunks. Weeden will operate out of the shotgun much more this season than last year when he was in the shotgun less than 44 percent of the time.
Weeden threw three touchdown passes in the first two preseason games and was in the shotgun each time. He did not throw a touchdown pass against the Colts in the third week and did not play in the final preseason game.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Browns WR Davone Bess vs. Dolphins DB Dimitri Patterson. Bess is a former Dolphin and Patterson is a former Brown. Patterson is the nickel back and will line up against Bess when Bess is the slot receiver. Neither veteran is the fastest player on the field, but both rely on their experience to win their battles.
Browns LB Paul Kruger vs. Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill: Kruger was the Browns' big prize in free agency. They want him to defend the run, but his primary job is putting pressure on the quarterback. He got to Andrew Luck with a strong bull rush in the third preseason game and will try doing the same to Tannehill.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Brandon Weeden. Backups -- Jason Campbell, Brian Hoyer.
Weeden has a strong arm and should benefit from working from the shotgun in most passing situations in Nor Turner's offense. He did not play well in the third preseason game when he had to throw into tight windows. He needs a fast start to get the critics off his back and to have his teammates believe in him. Campbell provides experience off the bench with 70 starts between 2006 and 2011. He started one game for the Bears last year. Hoyer played behind Tom Brady three years in New England. He is decisive when he gets the chance to play.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Trent Richardson. Backups -- Bobby Rainey, Dennis Johnson, FB Chris Ogbonnaya.
Injuries decimated depth at running back before mid-August, but Richardson came through training camp and two preseason games unscathed. He weighs 225 pounds, 10 pounds lighter than a year ago, and his quicker and more elusive. He will get the ball in space more often in Turner's offense. Johnson is an undrafted rookie claimed on waivers Sept. 1. Rainey was with the Ravens last year but did not play in a regular season game. Season ending injuries to Montario Hardesty (knee) and Dion Lewis (fractured fibula). Ogbonnaya is undersized for a fullback, but he runs better and is more reliable as a receiver than Owen Marecic. Marecic was waived on the cut to 75.
TIGHT END: Starter -- Jordan Cameron. Backups -- Gary Barnidge, MarQuies Gray, Keavon Milton.
Cameron is fast and "can jump out of the stadium," to use Weeden's words. He fought for the ball in training camp and preseason better than he did in his first two years in the league. Staying healthy is a concern, though. He hasn't played 16 games yet and sustained a pulled groin muscle late in training camp but was practicing on Monday. Barnidge has injury issues, too. He missed all of 2011 with a broken ankle and was sidelined in training camp with a sprained shoulder. He has 18 career catches. Gray and Milton are undrafted rookies claimed on waivers. Gray was a wide receiver/quarterback at Minnesota. At 293 pounds Milton will be primarily a blocker.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Greg Little, Josh Gordon. Backups -- Davone Bess, Travis Benjamin, Josh Cooper.
Gordon is listed as a starter even though he has been suspended for the first two games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. He is deceptively fast on go routes, but he makes mistakes inside and doesn't always cut in front of the defender. That opens Weeden up to interceptions. Gordon likes the ball over his shoulder. Little can go up in a crowd for the ball and runs after the catch better than any other receiver on the roster. Bess can find the soft spot in the zone defense and will move the chains on third down. Benjamin can fly. He weighs only 175 pounds, but has the attitude if the defenders can't hit him, they can't hurt him. Cooper won't get many chances, but he is willing to do the dirty work as the fifth receiver and on kick coverage units.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Joe Thomas, LG John Greco, C Alex Mack, RG Shawn Lauvao, RT Mitchell Schwartz. Backups -- RG Oniel Cousins, LG Jason Pinkston, T Rashard Butler, G Garrett Gilkey, RT Martin Wallace, G/C Patrick Lewis.
Thomas has never missed a snap or a Pro Bowl since being picked as the third overall choice of the 2007 draft. He sets his feet quickly on pass blocking and rarely is beaten, especially around the corner. Greco won the starting left guard job in minicamp. The Browns rewarded him with a five-year contract. He is fast enough to pull and lead the way for Richardson on sweeps. Mack has made every offensive snap since being drafted in the first round in 2009. He locks on a defender after snapping the ball and gets a strong push inside. Right guard is in flux. Cousins will be a backup when Lauvao returns in midseason from ankle surgery, but Cousins will get the start in the opener vs. Miami. Pinkston can back up either guard spot and could replace Cousins if he recovers from his sprained ankle before Lauvao is ready. Butler has been in the league since 2006 but has played only two games in the past two seasons because of triceps injuries. Eleven offensive linemen are a lot to carry but three are rookies and Lauvao and Pinkston are limping. Lewis could be the odd man out when Gordon returns from his two-game suspension.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Ahtyba Rubin, NT Phil Taylor, RE Desmond Bryant. Backups -- LE John Hughes, NT Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, RE Billy Winn, RE Armonty Bryant.
Ends Rubin and Desmond Bryant will get the chance to rush the quarterback in coordinator Ray Horton's 3-4 defense. Rubin moves quickly for a 330-pound man and is strong enough to play nose tackle. He will chase ball carriers down field. Taylor is all the way back from a pectoral tear that cost him the first half of the 2012 season. He made only 14 tackles last year after making 59 as a rookie. He can crush the pocket, but his main job will be to occupy two blockers so the inside linebackers can make tackles. Back spasms hindered Desmond Bryant off and on in training camp. He will start at end and will play DT when Horton uses four-man fronts. He had nine sacks total the last two seasons in Oakland. The Browns envision him and right outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard putting pressure on a quarterback's blind side. Rotation will be important to keep the starters fresh in the fourth quarter. Winn can spell Rubin or Bryant and Kitchen plants his 330 pounds in the middle when Taylor gets a blow. Hughes will play tackle on third down when the Browns use a four-man front. Armonty Bryant is a project, Horton said.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - SLB Paul Kruger, ILB D'Qwell Jackson, ILB Craig Robertson, ROLB Jabaal Sheard. Backups -- ROLB Barkevious Mingo, ILB Tank Carder, LOLB Quentin Groves, ILB Brandon Magee, OLB Paul Hazel, OLB Eric Martin.
Kruger is a bull rusher who had nine sacks with the Ravens last year. He also has an inside move to beat the right tackle. Sheard uses power to win his battles and Mingo, when healthy is slippery and fast rushing outside. He was working on a spin move before a bruised lung set him back. Jackson, in his eighth season, is the surest tackler among the linebackers and still moves sideline to sideline. Robertson can cover running backs. He started only three games last year and still made 83 tackles. Groves can back up either outside linebacker spot. Hazel, Magee and Martin will play special teams primarily.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Joe Haden, RCB Buster Skrine, SS T.J. Ward, FS Tashaun Gipson. Backups -- CB Chris Owens, CB Leon McFadden, S Johnson Bademosi, S Josh Aubrey.
Haden will follow the opponent's top receiver to whichever side of the field the receiver goes to. Haden is the surest tackler on run support among the Browns cornerbacks. Skrine beat out Owens for the starting job at RCB. He will get his hand on a ball to break up a pass but has just one career interception in two years. Owens will play in nickel situations with Skrine moving over the slot. The Browns are inexperienced at safety after Ward, now in his fourth season. Second-year safety Gipson is starting for the first time, Aubrey is a rookie and Bademosi was a backup cornerback as a rookie last year. The secondary will be exposed if the pass rush doesn't constantly pressure the quarterback.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Billy Cundiff, P Spencer Lanning, LS Christian Yount, KOR Johnson Bademosi, PR Travis Benjamin.
The Browns cut rookie Brandon Bogotay and terminated the contract of Shayne Graham on the cutdown to 53 players. That left them without a kicker as practice began Monday for their game against the Dolphins on Sunday, but then Cundiff was signed Tuesday. Lanning won the punting job almost by default and carried a 46.7 average into the final preseason game. He punted twice against the Bears for 104 yards. Benjamin's sped makes him dangerous. He returned one punt 93 yards for a touchdown last year and one 91 yards for a TD in preseason. Dion Lewis would have been the kick returner had he not suffered a broken leg. Benjamin could return kicks but the Browns probably won't risk that until Gordon returns from his two-game suspension. Rainey and Johnson, the young running backs, will get auditions at kick returner but for now the job is Bademosi's. He does not have breakaway speed. Yount is automatic. The Browns signed him to a five-year extension last month.