Cheat Sheet: Eagles Defense Vs. Browns Offense

Eagles cornerback Brandon BoykinEach 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. Chemistry on the offensive line is important, and four of the Browns’ five starters played all 16 games together last season. Left tackle Joe Thomas, the third overall pick in 2007, has started every game since entering the league and has made the Pro Bowl five years in a row. He’s been an All-Pro each of the last three years. Trent Cole will have his hands full, but is up for the challenge. Darryl Tapp beat Thomas for a sack in the preseason. As a team, Cleveland allowed 39 sacks last year and ranked 16th in adjusted sack rate.

2. As for the rest of the line, center Alex Mack, a first-round pick in 2009, has also started every game since entering the league. Guards Jason Pinkston (left) and Shawn Lauvao (right) started every game last season. Lauvao allowed six sacks and was called for 11 penalties in 2011. Cullen Jenkins should have an advantage in that matchup. Pinkston also had his share of struggles on the left side. The only newcomer is second-round pick Mitchell Schwartz, who will line up opposite Jason Babin at right tackle. Babin, coming off an 18.5-sack season, missed all of the preseason with a calf strain, but has practiced fully this week. He could see fewer snaps than normal, though, and will be spelled by Phillip Hunt and Brandon Graham.

3. At quarterback, 28-year-old rookie Brandon Weeden will make his first start. Weeden (6-4, 221) did not have a great preseason, completing 24 of 49 passes for 297 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. He was also sacked four times. The Browns averaged just 5.8 yards per pass attempt as a team last season, 31st in the NFL. Cleveland had just 32 pass plays of 20+ yards (30th), half as many as the Eagles. Here’s Marty Mornhinweg on Weeden:

“He was one of the just pure passers coming out. I thought he just throws the ball effortlessly. He’s got a big arm. He’s just a natural passer and I can understand why Cleveland took him.”

4. The Browns have worked to revamp the skill positions on offense, but still have plenty of question marks. Last year, they went to rookie Greg Little constantly as he piled up 121 targets, tops on the team, producing mixed results. Little’s 61 catches ranked second among rookies, but his catch rate (catches per targets) of 51 percent was way too low for someone who averaged just 11.6 yards per catch and totaled six receptions of 20+ yards. Little also had 14 drops, according to Pro Football Focus, tied for second-most in the NFL. As a team, the Browns had 43 drops, most in the league.

5. On the other side, the Browns have Mohamed Massaquoi, who was a second-round pick in 2009. As a rookie, Massaquoi showed big-play ability, averaging 18.4 yards per catch. But he’s seen that number drop in each of his three NFL seasons. The same can be said for his receiving yards per game. Massaquoi started 13 games last season, but finished with just 31 catches for 384 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

6. The Browns used a second-round pick in the supplemental draft on wide receiver Josh Gordon (6-3, 224). Gordon has not played since 2010 after being dismissed from Baylor. He had six catches for 105 yards in three preseason games. Against the Eagles, Gordon made a good play on the ball, beating Nnamdi Asomugha for a 28-yard gain. Cleveland also selected speedster Travis Benjamin out of Miami in the fourth round. Benjamin (5-10, 172) ran a 4.36 at the combine. And finally, Joshua Cribbs, who has made his name on special teams, had 41 catches for 518 yards last season and led the team with 10 catches of 20+ yards.

7. In terms of matchups, the one to watch is rookie Brandon Boykin against Little in the slot. According to PFF, 65 of Little’s targets and 35.6 percent of his snaps last year were in the slot. Boykin impressed the coaches with his smarts and athleticism in the preseason, beating Joselio Hanson for the first-team nickel spot. Last year, the Browns played with three wide receivers or more 52 percent of the time, per Football Outsiders. Boykin will be expected to perform at a high level right away.

8. Probably the biggest wild card in this one is running back Trent Richardson. The third overall pick had arthroscopic knee surgery last month and has been a limited participant at practice, although he’s expected to play. The questions are: How much will he be on the field? And will he be 100 percent? At full strength, there’s little doubt that Richardson (5-9, 228) can contribute right away. The Browns’ running game was one of the worst in the league last year, averaging 3.7 yards per carry, ahead of only the Giants. If Richardson is limited, the Browns will lean on Montario Hardesty. Hardesty averaged just 3.0 yards per carry last season and did not have a single run of 20+ yards in 88 rushes.

9. DeMeco Ryans (MIKE), Mychal Kendricks (SAM) and Akeem Jordan (WILL) will be the Eagles’ starting linebackers. Kendricks is expected to stay on the field in nickel. It’s unclear whether Ryans, Jamar Chaney or someone else will join him. On the defensive line, Fletcher Cox was limited at practice Thursday because of knee inflammation. That could mean more snaps for Jenkins, Derek Landri and Cedric Thornton, who had a good summer, but has never played in an NFL game.

10. Don’t expect to see a lot of Nnamdi Asomugha lining up inside in this one. Tight end Benjamin Watson is not a big weapon at tight end, having caught 37 balls for 410 yards last season. I don’t think the Eagles gain much by putting Asomugha inside against Little.

Extra points: This will be a matchup between a terrible red-zone offense and a terrible red-zone defense. The Browns ranked 28th last year, scoring touchdowns 41.94 percent of the time. The Eagles’ D ranked 29th, allowing TDs 59.57 percent of the time. …Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman will start at safety. Jaiquawn Jarrett is likely the first backup. …Curtis Marsh is probably the first backup at cornerback should Asomugha or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie go down. …Look for rookie second-round pick Vinny Curry to be inactive.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.