Cleveland is breaking in its old new quarterback for a second go-round this season in Brandon Weeden. Detroit is hoping its offensive catalyst, Calvin Johnson, can return after only the fifth missed game of his career.
So on Sunday, there will be two teams that have surprised some opponents this season, hoping for either a continuation of that play or to have the player who contributed to that success return.
All of that starts, though, with Cleveland's quarterback situation as ESPN Cleveland Browns reporter Pat McManamon and ESPN Detroit Lions reporter Michael Rothstein break down the key issues to Sunday's game.
The obvious place to start with Cleveland is the quarterback situation. Brian Hoyer looked good. Now he's hurt. Can Brandon Weeden recover from the benching to be a capable quarterback at this point?
McManamon: Yes, it is the obvious place to start. And with the Browns it might be the only place to continue. Weeden struggled in two games but had his moments in relief of Brian Hoyer in his third. If Weeden learned anything from watching Hoyer it had to be to get rid of the ball on time and to not wait for a receiver to get open but throw to a spot. Hoyer showed he grasped that from Tom Brady, and it energized the Browns' offense. Weeden, though, tends to hold on to the ball too long -- thus his 16 sacks. If he holds on to the ball too long against Detroit's defensive front, he might be holding on to the bench before the game ends.
Mike, what is the latest with Calvin Johnson? Will he play? If he does, will the injury that kept him out of this past Sunday's game affect him this coming Sunday? And if he doesn't play can the Lions find some offense elsewhere?
Rothstein: Johnson said he was close to playing Sunday against Green Bay, so another week of rest should be enough to get him on the field against Cleveland. The Lions better hope that's true as well, because the offense was barely able to move without the NFL's top wide receiver. Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said he wouldn't use Johnson as a decoy and I can respect that decision, because if you put him out there and someone hits the knee, then you might lose him for a longer period of time. If for some reason he doesn't play, Detroit has to figure out a way to keep teams from stacking too much on Reggie Bush, the Lions' other dynamic playmaker.
Working under the assumption both Johnson and Bush play, how does Cleveland go about stopping that? When those two are healthy, that's when opponents have been flustered this season.
McManamon: The easy answer is say "duck and cover." But that won’t please the home fans. The approach is first based on Joe Haden. The Browns want him to be an elite corner. He generally will stay with a receiver as talented as Johnson. Haden has excellent coverage skills and tremendous closing speed. But Johnson is pretty special, so if Haden does to him what he did to A.J. Green it will be significant. The second element is pressure. The Browns' defense is based on getting up the field, pressuring and disrupting the quarterback. They feel that is the key to any defense.
Speaking of pressure, Weeden has a bad habit of holding on to the ball too long. He’s been sacked 16 times in just less than three games. What does that mean against this defensive front?
Rothstein: Not good things, Pat. Not good things. If Weeden can't figure out a way to get rid of the ball quickly and with accuracy, Detroit's front four will likely decimate Cleveland's offense. Ndamukong Suh commands double-teams by himself and that opens up Nick Fairley on the inside and ends Willie Young and Ziggy Ansah to make plays off the edge. They have been really good in pressure in every game this season except against Green Bay, and a lot of that had to do with Aaron Rodgers and a good offensive line. Weeden isn't in the same galaxy as Rodgers, so if he can't significantly improve his time in the pocket and release time, he could be doing a lot of running.
With Weeden, Pat, I'll ask you this: Is this Cleveland team really getting it done with a lot of smoke and mirrors that will eventually get exposed or is it still a potential contender here? Or is that still too early to tell in the Weeden reign, Part Deux?
McManamon: Would that be Part Deux or Part Doo? Because Part Uno was ugly. Weeden and the Browns scored one touchdown in two games, and he was sacked 11 times. When Hoyer played, the Browns utilized the short passing game. Snap, drop, throw. He was efficient. Weeden isn’t that kind of player, so it seems like Norv Turner junks the short throws and relies on intermediate-to-long routes, increasing the likelihood of a sack, especially against a team like the Lions that can pressure with the defensive front. Weeden was asked at one point what he learned from watching Hoyer. His answer: To get rid of the ball. We’ll see.
Mike, the Lions chose Ziggy Ansah one pick ahead of the Browns taking Barkevious Mingo. So far, the Browns are happy with Mingo's play and reckless abandon getting after people. Are the Lions just as happy with Ansah?
Rothstein: They are. He’s provided a strong complement to Suh and Fairley and Young -- some of his production, of course, comes from defenses focusing on those three guys. But he has 3.5 sacks in his first five games, leading Mingo by a half-sack among rookies. He’s also tied for the lead among rookies with two forced fumbles. He has been a disruptive force who is still learning the game. The Lions have to be happy with what they are getting from him so early in his career.