By Eric Szczepinski
5-3. Off to one of the best starts in recent franchise history, the Browns have suddenly gone 4-1 in their past 5 games and have set up a showdown with the Bengals on Thursday night with mid-season playoff implications. Joe Thomas said Thursday would be the biggest game for him since his rookie year in 2007. Thursday’s highly anticipated game was set up by the Browns taking care of a weaker Tampa Bay team who has one win on the season.
In the Browns 22-17 victory over the Buccaneers not everything was pretty but they prevailed and got a victory. The Browns defense took advantage of an inexperienced offense and forced two Mike Glennon interceptions. The Browns also blocked a field goal and blocked a punt during the game, each being a huge momentum-changing play. Joe Haden continued to play at a high level and to make up for his early season woes. Haden made a spectacular play on a deep post route to Mike Evans where Haden played the ball in the air perfectly, tipping it to Donate Whitner for an interception. Haden was targeted 8 times and only gave up 2 completions for 13 yards. Haden also held Vincent Jackson to zero catches. Pro Football Focus graded Haden at a 4.2, his best performance of the season. He will look to continue his strong play with a big match up with A.J. Green looming on Thursday.
The Browns offense had its ups and downs. Most evident was the lack of a run game. Terrance West led the backs with 15 touches and 48 yards. Ben Tate rushed for 3 yards on 10 carries and Isaiah Crowell did not play. On a short week it will be hard to make major adjustments, but the Browns need to somehow re-establish the run game.
Brian Hoyer threw for 300 yards with 2 touchdowns and also 2 interceptions. For most of the first half it was hard to establish offensive consistency with a poor run game and lots of Tampa Bay pressure. Hoyer was extremely inaccurate. There were times his feet were not set and he threw too quickly, trying to beat a blitz instead of staying in the pocket and throwing a strike. Finally, in the second half, using play action and bootlegs, Hoyer was able to connect on big plays to get the offense going. Hoyer’s best throw of the day came two plays after the Browns blocked a punt in the 4th quarter. Hoyer bought time in the pocket and shifted to his left, keeping his eyes down field and finding a streaking Taylor Gabriel in stride in the end zone. Sure, Hoyer played an average game and the offense was stagnant most of the afternoon, but the Browns made plays when it counted. It is a bottom line business and Brain Hoyer is 8-3 as a starting quarterback for the Browns. Also Hoyer became the first Browns quarterback to throw for 200 yards in the first 8 games since Brian Sipe did it in 1983. Hoyer is winning football games and the Browns are in playoff contention at the halfway point.
The Browns have a playoff type game Thursday night with Ohio rival Cincinnati, and look to take a piece of first place in the tough AFC North. The Browns’ last road win in the AFC North came in Cincinnati in September of 2008. For the Browns to win the offense must establish a run game and score touchdowns off turnovers instead of converting field goals. The Bengals will be more polished than Tampa Bay and Oakland and the Browns need to convert on their opportunities.