Dallas Cowboys logoBy Matthew Postins

Opponent preview: Cleveland Browns

The Dallas Cowboys (4-5) will face the Cleveland Browns (2-7) this Sunday. Here’s a look at the Browns entering the contest.

On Offense: Statistically it’s not a great offense, ranked No. 28 overall and No. 27 running the football. That’s not Trent Richardson’s fault. The rookie back is one of the bright spots on this team, having rushed for nearly 600 yards and 5 touchdowns this season. He’s a three-down back who doesn’t mind contact and runs tough between the tackles. He’s also a capable receiver with 31 catches. The Browns appear to have identified two receivers for the future in second-year receiver Greg Little and rookie Josh Gordon. Both are getting plenty of playing time and taking some lumps. Little is coming off a 67-catch season and makes the tougher, inside catches. Gordon stretches defenses with his above-average vertical speed. He’s leading the Browns in receiving yards, yards per catch and receiving touchdowns. Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden is learning on the job and playing in a significantly different system than the spread he played in at Oklahoma State. The west coast offense the Browns run requires more use of play action and quicker recognition of pass coverage. Weeden has taken some lumps as well. The offensive line is anchored by the respected left tackle Joe Thomas. Bob Frantz, who covers the Browns for the News-Herald in northern Ohio, rated the offensive line as the team’s best position group at the season’s midway point. Frantz cited the play of Thomas and the improvement of guards Shawn Lauvao and John Greco. Rookie right tackle Benjamin Schwartz is also getting high marks. Weeden has only been sacked 15 times. The Browns struggle because they have five rookie or second-year players in the starting lineup and because they don’t score many points. Cleveland scores 18.8 points per game, the same amount as the Dallas Cowboys.

On Defense: Statistically the unit is No. 24 in total defense and in reality the unit is banged up. Defensive backs Dimitri Patterson and Tashaun Gipson, along with defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin, missed the Browns’ last game two weeks ago. But the injured reserve is filled with players the Browns hoped would contribute. Most notably, veteran linebacker Scott Fujita and rookie linebacker Emmanuel Acho are on IR. So the Browns are already a few men down. That means the Browns have had to rely on some younger players in bigger roles than they expected. This Browns team is especially weak up front, and the evidence is that the team’s leading tackler is cornerback Buster Skrine. He happens to be a backup cornerback. The most dangerous player on this defense is middle linebacker D’Quell Jackson, a seventh-year player who would probably get more attention on a better team. The secondary lost cornerback Joe Haden for four games and it showed in how they were unable to defend the pass. This is a defense that didn’t have many playmakers to begin with and has lost most of them to injury. They don’t get much pressure on the quarterback and they’re susceptible to giving up big plays.

On Special Teams: The bloom has come off the rose that is Josh Cribbs, who isn’t making consistent impact plays on kick and punt returns of late. He’s still gaining consistent yards on punts (12.9 yards) and kicks (29.7 yards), but he hasn’t scored on one all year. In fact he’s had just one return touchdown since the start of the 2010 season. The ageless wonder that is Phil Dawson hasn’t missed a field goal all year and punter Reggie Hodges is averaging 42.7 yards per punt. The punt coverage unit is susceptible. It’s given up more than 13 yards a return this season and a touchdown.

Overall: This franchise is biding its time. The Browns hired former Eagles CEO Joe Banner to take over the football operation for Mike Holmgren, who will leave Cleveland at the end of the season. Head coach Pat Shurmur has been given no assurances that he’ll return in 2012. This franchise has some talent on offense, but it’s young. The defense is inconsistent. This team does just enough to stay with teams that are clearly better than them. This team hasn’t quit. But based on talent and track record, the Browns are a team that the majority of the NFL should be able to beat.