Perhaps most impressive about the Cleveland Browns' 24-3 win against Cincinnati was they won with this crew of pass-catchers: Miles Austin, Taylor Gabriel, Travis Benjamin, Jim Dray and Gary Barnidge.
Brian Hoyer deserves credit for keeping the passing game respectable with no Andrew Hawkins, no Jordan Cameron, no Josh Gordon and no Alex Mack. Of course, running the ball 52 times helps ease the challenge. But Hoyer’s possibilities as a quarterback should mushroom when at least three-fourths of that missing arsenal returns.
Hawkins should be back this week against Houston. So should Cameron, with whom the Browns had to be cautious because of his concussion history. They sat him two games after his latest bout. My guess is he plays.
Gordon, probably the best receiver in the league last season, will be ready to practice Monday.
Specifically, here’s what their return will do for the offense and how the Browns should capitalize on the new weapons.
Let Hawkins do damage in the slot: The Browns can play Gordon and Austin on the outside, mix in some Gabriel, a little Benjamin, but can let Hawkins do his work inside. He will probably still play some outside some, too, but he’ll thrive finding soft spots in zone and darting for inside yards.
More third-and-long bailouts: The Browns’ offense thrives off running on first and second down, which sets up a potential third-and-short play-action. When Cleveland has struggled running the ball, the results on third-and-long passing have varied (bad against Jacksonville, good against Tampa Bay). Gordon will be a nifty lob option when you need 9 yards.
Use Gordon early and often: GM Ray Farmer said Gordon needs to find his place in this year’s team -- working within the frame of the team concept. That sounds great on paper, but there is no way Gordon will be a role player. He’s too good. He’s been sitting 10 games, so burn those tires for the next six. Use him.
Look for Cameron in the end zone: Cameron has 13 catches in a contract year, due in large part to missed time from various injuries. Tight ends, in today’s game, are judged largely by touchdowns. No one knows this more than Cameron, who will be eager to score in red-zone opportunities.
Go to more empty sets: Hoyer likes no-huddle offense and specifically looked comfortable in empty sets in midseason games. The Browns could use their new-found depth to spread out while keeping the running backs fresh.
Keep playing Gabriel: The Browns are high on the undrafted rookie. If one receiver gets muscled out of the rotation after Gordon’s return, my guess is Gabriel would win over Benjamin.