This is the second of 16 articles that I will post throughout the season, previewing the Colts' upcoming matchup. I'll attempt to analyze some strengths and weaknesses of both teams, a few areas to focus on, and a couple of key individual matchups. Overview: Both teams enter Sunday's matchup coming off of a disappointing week 1 loss. The Colts were blown out by the Houston Texans, 34 – 7, in the franchise's first game sans Peyton Manning in 14 years. The Cleveland Browns squandered a fourth-quarter lead to the Cincinnati Bengals, losing by a score of 27-17. Both teams have a lot to prove – the Colts must show that they can win without Manning; while the Browns are trying to establish Colt McCoy as their franchise QB. A win for each of these teams would go a long way towards silencing their critics, while another loss could be a devastating, early-season blow.
- Running Game – Although the Browns finished the 2010 season with an average rushing attack, Peyton Hillis established himself as an elite RB – tallying over 1,600 total yards and 13 TD's. The Browns struggled to run in the 2011 opener against the Bengals (26 carries, 83 yards), but the Colts should expect a heavy dose of Peyton Hillis – early and often in Sunday's game.
- Passing Defense – Last season, the Browns finished 15th in the league against the pass – which qualifies as a relative strength for the team. Joe Haden is one of the league's most talented young CB's, and should only improve upon a solid rookie season (64 tackles, 6 INT's). Opposite Haden is veteran Sheldon Brown, who's in his 2nd season with the Browns after spending 8 seasons as a physical CB for the Philadelphia Eagles. The Browns lack playmakers up front, and will rely heavily on their CB tandem to limit big plays in the passing game.
- Special Teams - Josh Cribbs is one of the few difference makers on special teams in the NFL. He had a disappointing 2010 season, but is still considered a lethal returner – Cribbs has 10 career return touchdowns (2nd among active players – D. Hester), and will be salivating over a matchup against the Colts' poor coverage team.
- Passing Attack – The Browns started 3 different QB's in 2010 – Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, and Seneca Wallace. The team released Delhomme in the offseason, and it appears that they've turned the franchise keys over to 2nd year player Colt McCoy. While McCoy may be a player on the rise, he has few weapons to throw to – their leading WR in 2010 caught just 40 passes, and the team's 2nd round draft pick – wide receiver Greg Little – was the only offseason acquisition.
- Run Defense - Last year, the Browns gave up the 6th most rushing yards in the NFL. Although the team spent their first-round draft pick on defensive tackle Phil Taylor (who had an impressive debut with 6 tackles, 2 for a loss), their defensive front was outmatched by the Bengals' rushing attack – surrendering 139 rushing yards on 33 attempts.
- Offensive Line Turnover – Eric Steinbach – the team's starting LG – was placed on IR just before the start of the season, and was replaced by 4th round rookie Jason Pinkston – who was pulled after a few series because of poor play. Starting RT Tony Pashos missed the Browns opener with an ankle injury, and appears unlikely to play against the Colts. The Browns also lost FB Lawrence Vickers in the offseason, and replaced him with rookie Owen Marecic, who represents a significant downgrade as a lead-blocker.
- Pass Defense – It's worth noting that the Colts' secondary is rarely tested, in large part because opponents know they can run all over the Colts' front seven. But the defense does deserve some credit – despite an injury depleted secondary, the Colts finished 2010 as the league's 13th best unit against the pass. Although the Colts surrendered 220 passing yards on just 24 attempts against the Texans in week 1, the team also forced 2 INT's.
- Skill Position Players - Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie must step up their play in Peyton Manning's absence. Wayne showed why he's one of the league's best WR's – with 7 catches for 106 yards, and this highlight-reel touchdown. But Garcon, Collie, and Clark were all quiet against the Texans – tallying just 7 total catches for 78 yards. In order for this offense to score points, Kerry Collins will need tremendous contributions from the Colts' play-makers.
- Stopping the Run – Stop me if you've heard this before: The Indianapolis Colts cannot stop the run. The Arian Foster-less Texans ran for 167 yards against the Colts' defense in week 1, which is simply unacceptable. We've belabored this point enough, but just one more statistic: Teams that rushed for more yards than their opponents in week 1 were 12-4.
- Quarterback Play - Kerry Collins doesn't deserve all of the blame for the Colts' 34-7 opening day loss, but he does deserve some of it. Collins displayed no pocket awareness, and was careless with the football (3 fumbles, 2 lost). With a solid running game and decent pass protection, Collins can be a solid QB; but he doesn't have those luxuries in Indianapolis. He needs to be more aware of the defensive pressure, and always know where his safety outlets are. Turning the ball over simply isn't an option.
- Mindset - Not only are the Colts' players (and coaches) adjusting to life without Peyton Manning, but they are coming off an embarrassing loss to a division rival. I'm sure the team was well aware of what the critics were saying leading into the start of the regular season: that the Colts can't stop the run, and won't have an efficient offense without Peyton Manning. Week 1 proved the critics right. It's too early in the season to write this team off, but early indications are not good.
- Battle of the Trenches – Both teams will look to establish the running game to take some pressure off of their quarterbacks. The numbers favor the Browns rushing attack against the Colts porous defensive line, but the Colts flashed an improved ability to run the ball against the Texans (15 carries for 64 yards, 4.3 ypa); while the Browns struggled against the Bengals (26 carries for 83 yards, 3.2 ypa). Ball control, time of possession, and running the football will be top priorities for both of these teams on Sunday.
- Special Teams - As I mentioned earlier, the Browns have one of the best returners in the league in Josh Cribbs. The Colts annually have one of the worst special teams in the league, and did nothing to dispel that thought against the Texans – surrendering a 46-yard kick return on the opening kickoff, and a 79-yard punt return for a touchdown. If the Browns can get a few big returns, it should produce some precious points.
- Dwight Freeney vs. Joe Thomas - Freeney was non-existent against the Texans (zero tackles), and will undoubtedly look to redeem himself against the Browns' low-powered offense. He'll be matched up against the league's premier Left Tackle - Joe Thomas, but must find a way to apply pressure in the Browns' passing game.
- Down and Distance for the Browns Offense - The Colts' defense will look to force obvious passing situations; the Browns will look to avoid obvious passing situations. If the Colts' front seven can find a way to minimize early-down gains, then Freeney and Mathis will have a field day against Colt McCoy. But if the Colts can't win the early-down situations, it will be another long day for this defense.
- How Will the Colts Respond? - As I mentioned earlier, the Colts' mindset is very fragile just a week into the 2011 season. Can they find away to regain their confidence? Or have they bought into the belief that 2011 is a wasted season for the Colts? A couple of key plays – sustained drives by the offense, or quick stops/turnovers by the defense – could help repair the players' state of mind. The Colts look like they need a shot of life with Manning's absence, and one big play could provide an early spark on the sidelines.
- Quick screens - As I wrote last week, I expected the Colts to run a lot of quick screens, primarily to Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon. I counted 3 such plays against the Texans, which resulted in 30 yards. Considering the constant pass rush, I was surprised that the team didn't run these screens more often. Expect the Colts to run a plethora of WR screens until the Browns prove they can stop it.