Each week, I’ll post a pair of cheat sheets to get you ready for the Eagles’ upcoming opponent. The first part will focus on the Eagles’ offense against the opponent’s defense, and vice versa for the second installment.
1. The Eagles are still a big-play offense, but picking up chunks of yardage could be difficult against the Browns. According to stats kept by the league, Michael Vick’s average pass attempt traveled 9.17 yards last season, seventh-highest in the NFL. When the Birds are at their best, Vick is hitting DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin downfield.
But that doesn’t exactly play into the Browns’ weakness. Cleveland allowed just 43 pass plays of 20+ yards last season. Only the Steelers allowed fewer. And opponents averaged just 6.7 yards per attempt against the Browns in 2011, the fifth-best mark of any defense.
2. The Browns finished 24th and 25th, respectively, in covering tight ends and running backs last season, per Football Outsiders. Brent Celek, Clay Harbor and LeSean McCoy should all be factors in the passing game. Riley Cooper won’t play, and Damaris Johnson will be the Eagles’ fourth wide receiver. Vick may have to settle for a more methodical approach in the opener.
3. You’re familiar with some of the Browns’ personnel. Sheldon Brown started 16 games last year and will hold down the right cornerback position. There was talk of moving the 33-year-old to safety this offseason, but that has not happened. Former Eagle Dimitri Patterson played well as the Browns’ nickel corner in 2011, signing a three-year, $16M deal with $6M guaranteed in the offseason. He suffered an ankle injury in the Browns’ first preseason game, but practiced fully on Thursday.
4. Marty Mornhinweg called Cleveland’s No. 1 corner, Joe Haden, “one of the very best corners in the league.” Haden faces a four-game suspension for testing positive for Adderall, but it looks like that won’t kick in this week. A first-round pick in 2010, Haden was targeted 67 times as a rookie (according to Football Outsiders) and came away with six interceptions. Teams didn’t shy away from throwing at him last year, though, targeting Haden 80 times, compared to 72 for Brown. As a team, Cleveland had just nine interceptions last season, tied for third-fewest in the league.
5. The Browns have some talented players on the defensive line, but pressuring opposing quarterbacks was not a strength in 2011, as they finished with just 32 sacks (tied for 23rd). The Eagles get a bit of a break in that Cleveland’s best pass-rusher, Jabaal Sheard, lines up at left defensive end and will go against Todd Herremans instead of King Dunlap. Sheard had 8.5 sacks as a rookie, third-most among first-year players, behind only San Francisco’s Aldon Smith and Denver’s Von Miller.
6. Dunlap will match up against veteran Frostee Rucker, who went to the Browns from the Bengals in the offseason. Rucker had a career-high four sacks a year ago. It’ll be interesting to see how much the Eagles use Celek to help Dunlap on the left side. In the first five games last year, Celek was used as a blocker on 29.9 percent of the Eagles’ pass plays, per Pro Football Focus. But in the final 11 games, when he averaged 67.1 yards receiving, Celek was used as a blocker just 23 percent of the time.
7. The other player to watch on the Browns’ defensive line is tackle Ahtyba Rubin. Rubin (6-2, 330) had five sacks in 2011 and is very active. The interior of the Eagles’ line should be ready for stunts, loops and blitzes. Cleveland sent extra pressure about 36.4 percent of the time last season, per Football Outsiders. Most commonly, it was just one extra rusher (27.4 percent of the time). The Eagles won’t have to face defensive tackle Phil Taylor, who started 16 games last season, but suffered a chest injury and is on PUP. And don’t forget that Cleveland signed Juqua Parker in the offseason.
8. The Browns had the third-best red-zone defense in the NFL last year, limiting opponents to a touchdown rate of just 40.82 percent. The Eagles’ offense was 14th, scoring TDs 51.52 percent of the time. One player to keep an eye on is Harbor. He had a strong summer and could be used in the red zone more this season. Harbor had two touchdowns in the preseason.
9. Opponents averaged 4.4 yards per carry against the Browns in 2011, tying them for 19th in the league with the Eagles. But Cleveland allowed 16 runs of 20+ yards, fourth-most in the NFL. The Browns have one of the better middle linebackers in the league in D’Qwell Jackson. He finished second with 158 tackles last season, behind only Washington’s London Fletcher. Cleveland will use him in a variety of ways, including as a blitzer. Jackson went after the quarterback 136 times last year, per Pro Football Focus, and had a career-high 3.5 sacks. The Browns are banged-up at the other linebacker spots. Fourth-round pick James Michael-Johnson did not practice Thursday because of a rib/oblique injury. And former Eagle Chris Gocong is out for the year with an Achilles injury.
10. According to Football Outsiders, the Browns were one of the best tackling teams in the league last season. The numbers show that Cleveland missed a tackle on just 4.2 percent of its defensive plays, tied for third-lowest in the league, behind only the Giants and 49ers. As a point of reference, the Eagles missed tackles on 8.1 percent of their defensive plays, second-highest.
Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.