Stillers-Brownies Preview(Game #2)
The Stillers stumble into Cleveland this weekend, in what is essentially a must-win game. No, not a must-win for the playoffs -- only a sheer collapse by the rest of the division will allow for that -- but simply a must-win for the pride and continuity of this ballclub. Last year's loss to Cleveland unquestionably sent this team into a tailspin that it never recovered from. While Cleve. has improved in nearly all facets of its roster, it will still be a major embarrassment to lose to Cleve. at this juncture of its current NFL tenure. A few years ago, both Jax and Carolina made great strides as 2nd-year teams, but the NFL has since then reduced the enormous draft advantages that were lavished on those 2 teams in the mid-to-late 90's.
* When the Brownies have the ball, they have added a few more options than the bare cupboard they had to work with last season. Tim Couch brings his skill and confidence into this game, after leading his team to a convincing whipping of Cinci last week. Unlike last year, Couch has a solid RB in Errict Rhett to tote the ball. Promising rookie Travis Prentice serves as the apprentice to Rhett. Kevin Johnson leads the receiving corps, which is nicked up with various injuries to Chiaverini and Dawson, along with David Patten and highly touted rookie WR Dennis Northcutt. Dawson has a broken clavicle and is out for the game. Rookie Aaron Shea mans the TE spot. For all the bellyaching Cowher does about "youth", when Rhett sits and Prentice is in the game, it's unlikely that ANY team fields as young a set of skill players as the Browns do, with none of them having more than 1 prior year of NFL experience. The Browns O-line is improved from its sieve-like status of '99, but is still a far cry from the league elite. It will be a bitter disappointment if the Stillers front 7 cannot manhandle the Browns offense, both in run-stuffing and in pass pressure. Hopefully Lewis, as he claimed he would do but mostly refused to, will use more aggressive blitzing to rattle Couch and limit the Browns ground game.
* When the Stillers have the ball, the key question will be whether Kevin Gaypride will roll out the same old Whaleshoit Formation for 2 or 3 quarters, as he is prone to do, or if he spent the bye week discovering that spreading the offense, using more than 2 WRs, and getting skill players involved at the expense of bootfooted clods like Jon Witman, might actually help this offense. The Browns D-line is no longer the tissue-thin group of laggards from '99, and will unquestionably be stingier than last year's NFL worst rush defense. Along with signing ex-Stiller O. Roye, the Browns drafted Courtney Brown and also added the quick Green Bay FA DE Keith McKenzie. The LB corps is fairly solid, with rangy soph Rahim Abdullah coming on after a decent rookie year, and veteran Jamir Miller leading the team in tackles. The secondary is spotty, with ex-Vike Corey Fuller and soph Daylon McCutcheon leading this mediocre crew. After playing a totally vanilla defense in the season opener last season, the Browns mimicked many of the tactics of other teams, and totally bottled up Gilbride's vaunted offense in the 16-15 defeat. Look for Cleveland to do more of the same, especially after looking at the tape of the Ravens' manhandling of the Stillers 2 weeks ago. Cleve's front 7 isn't as good as Baltimore's, but they'll use similar run-blitzes to try to hamper the Stiller ground game while trying to put pressure on Graham. Hopefully Graham has a bit better command of the offense, and hopefully Rick Huntley will see more PT than simply on 3rd down and 7. The Browns secondary is ripe for the beating, and Gaypride should go after them early and often with Troy, Plex, and Shaw.
I expect a low-scoring, sloppy affair, in which neither offense moves the ball with any consistency. It's plausible that some changes will be made in the Stiller offense, and perhaps even Cowher is hiding them with his "no new changes" comments from this past week. However, this team had 8 months to make changes -- which is staunchly refused to do -- so I'm not overly confident that the significant changes that should be made will be made after a period of 13 days.
Cowhead knows he must win this game; losing to Cleveland gives Rooney more ammunition to fire the Field Goal Monger. Cowhead and his boys pull out a close one, 19-13.
The Still Mill