With the first game of the year that actually matters now less than 24 hours away, I took a few minutes to swap some questions with Chris Pokorny, the head blogger at SBNation's outstanding Cleveland Browns' blog, Dawgs by Nature. My responses to the questions that Chris sent my way can be found in this post right here, and here are the questions that I sent his direction that he was kind enough to answer for us.
1) Eric Mangini has done his best this week to try to keep his starting quarterback a secret. To the untrained eye, such as mine, this seems a little strange, since Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson don't strike me as being terribly different quarterbacks. So, let's pretend that Terrell Owens doesn't know what he's talking about. . .huge stretch, I know. . .and that we still don't know who's starting at QB for Cleveland. How does the Browns' offense differ when Brady Quinn is running it as opposed to when Derek Anderson is running it?
There are two ways to look at this situation. The first way is the way that I think most Vikings fans are looking at it -- neither quarterback has a reputation of being one of the league's top quarterbacks, so "who cares?"
The second way addresses your question, and the reason why Mangini has pulled this stunt in the first place. Derek Anderson's game is built purely on staying in the pocket and throwing ropes down the field, consistently in the 15-25 yard range. His throws are sometimes erratic, but on his better days it works out because a receiver like Braylon Edwards can jump in the air and grab a pass that was thrown behind him. Where Anderson fails is that he has absolutely no touch. Screen plays are thrown like a bullet. A simple pass to a running back over the middle will be thrown with such unnecessary velocity, often resulting in a tipped pass that a defender can intercept.
Quinn, on the other hand, relies on the short passing game. Off of playaction, he's not incapable of getting the ball down the field, but the fact that he doesn't do it as often as Anderson has created a reputation that it's not his strong point. With Quinn in the game, the Browns will dink and dunk a lot more but the passes will be accurate. If teams think they can just play the short routes all the time then, a deep pass can be mixed in. Quinn also has more mobility if a play breaks down. He still stays in the pocket more times than not though.
Due to the varying strengths and weaknesses of the quarterbacks, the playcalling in the preseason was much different for each player. When Anderson was in the game, there was a lot of shotgun and passes down the field. When Quinn was in the game, there was more playaction and a focus on shorter routes designed to gain yardage after the catch. It's not like it's impossible for the Vikings' defense to prepare for both players, but even if they had to put a tiny bit more (or less) preparation in this week per quarterback, it's at least something. Regardless, I think the media has made Mangini's decision more of an issue than it really is.
2) The Browns' defense wasn't terribly good in 2008, finishing 26th in the NFL in yards allowed. Despite that, the Browns felt that their first three draft picks would be best spent on the offensive side of the ball. Do you feel that the Browns have made the necessary changes on the defensive side to make themselves a better team in 2009, and what are some of those changes? Do you think last year's shortcomings were due to the personnel, or was it more of a schematic thing?
Heading into the draft, most Browns fans expected the team to take a linebacker with one of their first two picks. With that said, we did address the defense very early on in the draft. When we traded the fifth overall pick to the New York Jets, we acquired DE Kenyon Coleman and S Abram Elam. Both of them will be in the team's starting lineup this Sunday. Coleman seems like a slight upgrade, while Elam is a "let's hope it works out" type of player, since he doesn't have experience as a starter. The Browns did have three second-round picks, and we took a linebacker with the last one. However, he won't be expected to make too many contributions early on this season.
Our defensive shortcomings the past few years has stemmed from the same issues -- not being able to stop the run, and having zero pass rush. Last year, Shaun Rogers was the only good (he was great) player on our defensive line. DE Robaire Smith was also a solid player, and DE Corey Williams had high potential coming over from the Green Bay Packers. Smith suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1 though, and Williams failed to adjust to the 3-4 defense. This year, we have Smith back to go along with Rogers and Coleman. It's no where near an elite line, but it might be approaching the "average" category as opposed to "below average".
Our linebackers also have two new starters -- ILB Eric Barton and OLB David Bowens -- both of whom are coming over from the Jets as well. That makes four new starters on the Browns' defense, all from Mangini's Jets. Rob Ryan is our new defensive coordinator, and during the preseason, I saw more blitzes than Romeo Crennel ran in a whole season. Overall, our team has made the changes to get better defensively, but it's still very much a project.
3) Do you think that the team has a different feel or has carried themselves differently this off-season with the coaching change from Romeo Crennel to Eric Mangini?
It really has been confusing. At first, we heard from the media that so many Jets players hated playing for Mangini. Then, during the offseason, we kept on seeing so many of last year's Jets -- S Abram Elam, LB Eric Barton, LB David Bowens, DE Kenyon Coleman, CB Hank Poteat, and QB Brett Ratliff -- join the Browns' roster. I guess he wasn't so bad to play for after all. There have been rumblings that Mangini has worked the players too hard in camp, but I say "thank goodness". The Browns were such a soft team with a lack of good tacklers the past few years under Crennel. In Mangini's first training camp session with the Browns, there was more contact than Crennel would have in an entire week of camp. Players have to run laps whenever they make a mistake too. I've seen some progression in the preseason too. Players aren't missing nearly as many tackles. The number of penalties -- both regular ones and the dumb ones -- are still a tad high, but afterwards Mangini is at least stressing the fact that more discipline in necessary. Crennel seemed way too lenient with the players in that respect.
CONCLUSION: How do you see this Sunday's game going?
I don't think it's going to be a pretty first game for Brett Favre. Our defensive backs have a knack for intercepting passes, and based on the receivers I've seen our secondary face in the past, none of the Viking receivers should present a match-up problem. The bread and butter of the Vikings remains their running game though, and Adrian Peterson shouldn't have too many problems setting up Minnesota's offense for a couple of scores.
The gameplan should be the opposite for the Browns. None of our running backs should have an effective game on the ground, but they'll be important in the passing game. I give our passing game a lot more respect than Vikings receivers do. Jared Allen is a fantastic pass rusher, but if our new offensive coordinator hasn't designed our gameplan with his abilities in mind, I'll be very discouraged for how the rest of the season will go. The biggest issue for the Vikings could be our X-factor: Joshua Cribbs. If the Browns' defense can hold a few of Peterson's dominant drives to a short field goal, Cribbs is the type of player who can give the Browns a short field to work with on every possession. Even if we have to punt, that benefits the Browns in the field position game until hopefully something right goes our way. Regretfully, since the Vikings are the much better team defensively, I'll take the Vikings to win 24-17.
Big thanks to Chris for answering these questions for us. We'll have more on tomorrow's game in the 21 hours and 45 minutes. . .not that I'm counting. . .between now and kickoff.