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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — A historic AFC rivalry is coming back to Denver on Sunday.
The Cleveland Browns (7-3) will travel to Denver to take on the Denver Broncos (5-5) at Empower Field on Sunday. Kickoff is scheduled for 2:05 p.m. on FOX.
The Broncos and Browns have faced off 31 times since their first meeting in 1970, and the Broncos hold a 24-7 advantage in the series. Recently, the tides have swung, with the Browns taking two of the last three meetings.
Prior to those last three meetings, the Broncos had won 22 of 24 meetings from 1975 to 2015, a stretch that included three wins in AFC Championship Games with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
The stakes won’t be as high this time, but they’re much higher than the Broncos could have expected a month ago. Denver enters this week on a four-game winning streak that carried it back to .500. With a win on Sunday, the Broncos could find themselves holding onto a Wild Card slot in the AFC.
Here’s how the Broncos can take home the win…
If there was ever a time for Jerry Jeudy to get going, it’s this week.
That might sound crazy since the Cleveland defense leads the NFL in both passing yards allowed and passer rating allowed, but the Broncos caught the Browns at a good time: Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward won’t play this week as he recovers from a shoulder injury.
Cleveland runs the most man-coverage-heavy defensive scheme in the NFL, and the system is working. Cleveland is the NFL’s leader in total defense and is sixth in points allowed. But with their top cornerback missing, the Browns might play more conservatively with more zone coverage.
“Just common sense would tell you that they’ll probably play a little more zone,” Broncos offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said.
If the Browns choose to change up their scheme and play more zone, they’ll be giving a gift to the Broncos by taking the teeth out of their defense.
If the Browns stick with their man coverage, the Broncos should be able to exploit them in two ways.
First, the Broncos can put more receivers on the field to force the Browns to play their depth cornerbacks. Cleveland’s replacement for Ward, either Cameron Mitchell or Mike Ford, will be on the field whenever the Broncos have three receivers in the game. Denver should have a favorable matchup.
Second, the Broncos have one of the best man-coverage beaters in the league in Jerry Jeudy. Last season, Jeudy averaged 1.92 yards per route run against zone coverage and 3.43 yards per route run against man coverage, which was the second-best mark of any receiver in the NFL. If the Browns play man, Jeudy’s route-running should get him open.
And Russell Wilson averaged 8.4 yards per attempt against man coverage last season, which was the second-best mark of any quarterback.
Either the Browns will change up their defense, which has been one of the best in the league, and play more zone coverage, or they’ll stick with their man-heavy scheme and the Broncos should have some advantages.
“It’ll be interesting, something that we’ll have to watch early,” Lombardi said. “We’ll definitely be watching early to see if his (the defensive coordinator’s) tendencies are changing.”
Help Garett stop Garrett
The Browns’ defense is led by NFL Defensive Player of the Year favorite Myles Garrett.
Through 10 games, the 27-year-old defensive end has produced an NFL-leading 13 sacks. He is easily on pace for his third consecutive 16-sack season, and his name has been floated in MVP conversations.
“He’s having a season where—I don’t pay attention to awards—but I’ve not seen a defensive player as impactful this season on tape,” Broncos head coach Sean Payton said. “He’s changing games. You have to have a protection plan. You have to know where he is.”
So far, Garrett has lined up on the right side of the field—or the Broncos’ left side—on 87% of the defensive plays when he’s been on the field. Assuming that trend continues this week, he’ll be playing the majority of the game against Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles.
The Broncos have typically built the strength of their offense on the right side this year. Tight ends have lined up in-line 517 times this season, and 67% of those snaps have come on the right side of the formation. The split skews even further for Chris Manhertz, who has been the go-to helper for Mike McGlinchey.
This week, the Broncos need to find ways to get help to the other side of the formation.
Flipping the tight ends to that side of the field sounds easy, but it isn’t. The Broncos have built their running game on the right side of their line, heading that way on 64% of their designed runs to running backs. Denver’s favorite gap has been the outside shoulder of the tight end on the right side, hitting that hole 51 times, which is nearly double the 27 times they hit their second-most-popular gap, the A-gap on the right side.
The Broncos could flip their strength to the left side this week, and that would help them get more hands on Garrett… but it would also mean Denver would be running Garrett’s way often, which is a bad idea.
On passing downs, bringing Manhertz or Samaje Perine over to chip Garrett is the easy answer, but the Broncos will need to get creative during the rest of the game.
Load the box
Despite losing All-Pro running back Nick Chubb in Week 2, the Browns are third in the NFL in rushing yards.
Part of the reason for their success is their dedication to the running game. No team in the NFL has run the ball more times than the Browns and they only rank 15th in yards per carry. Keeping average efficiency while running more than anybody else isn’t easy to do.
But that isn’t why the Broncos need to load the box.
The Browns passing attack is led by a rookie quarterback who put together a clean game-winning drive last week but hasn’t done much else in his time in the NFL. Dorian Thompson-Robinson has completed 55% of his passes, posted a passer rating of 42.4, and thrown zero touchdowns and four interceptions this season. He has started two games in place of Deshaun Watson, who will miss the rest of the year with a shoulder injury.
Combine the lack of a passing threat with Denver’s last-place run defense by total yards and yards per carry, and loading up to stop the run is the obvious decision.
While Dorian Thompson-Robinson hasn’t proven that he can throw the ball efficiently for 60 minutes, he’s more than capable of creating big plays with his legs.
The five-year starter ran for 1,826 yards for Chip Kelly at UCLA, including 645 yards and 12 touchdowns in his senior year. He’s only carried the ball seven times for 44 yards in the pros, but his 4.56-second 40-yard dash is proof that he’s a capable runner.
When Thompson-Robinson drops back to throw, the Broncos need to defend the run almost as much as the pass.
Keeping a linebacker around to spy the quarterback is a good idea. Dropping out an edge rusher to spy occasionally might be a good idea too, especially if the Broncos’ young rushers struggle to get into the backfield.
Put Pat on Amari
The final step is simple: put your best defender on their best skill-position player.
Despite the Browns’ struggles at quarterback this season, 29-year-old wide receiver Amari Cooper ranks 12th in the NFL with 741 receiving yards. He’s on track for his seventh 1,000-yard season during his nine years in the NFL.
Elijah Moore is the only other Browns wide receiver with more than 100 receiving yards this season, and he’s sitting at 374. In other words, Cooper is the only significant threat.
Having a cornerback follow a receiver for 60 minutes is unrealistic in the modern NFL because of the prevalence of zone coverage on the defensive side and pre-snap motion on the offensive side. But the Broncos should do whatever they can to keep Pat Surtain II on Cooper for as many plays as possible.
If the Broncos shut Cooper down, there’s virtually no chance the Browns’ passing attack will have a presence on Sunday.