We continue our game preview of Sunday's season opener with a look at the some of the storylines that will make a difference in the game's outcome.
When The Eagles Have The Ball
Don't be fooled by last year's record. The Cleveland Browns might have finished 4-12 in 2011, but their defense kept them in almost every game. Cleveland ranked fifth in points allowed and had the second-best pass defense in the league.
The Eagles, however, will catch a break due to injury and suspension. Stout defensive tackle Phil Taylor, the Browns' first-round pick in 2011, is sidelined with a pectoral injury. Rookie John Hughes, a fourth-round pick out of Cincinnati, starts in his place alongside veteran Ahtyba Rubin, who generated 83 tackles and 5.0 sacks last season. The 330-pound Rubin will be a good test for center Jason Kelce.
At linebacker, a familiar face in former Eagle Chris Gocong is sidelined for the season with an Achilles injury. The player who replaced him might also be out. Rookie James Michael-Johnson could miss the season opener with an oblique injury. Rookie free agent L.J. Fort could be the starter on the strong side. Fort led the Browns in tackles during the preseason. The Browns are also without Scott Fujita, who is serving a three-game suspension for his role in bountygate.
The Browns' most talented player in the secondary is cornerback Joe Haden, who intercepted a Nick Foles pass in the preseason meeting two weeks ago. However, Haden was suspended for violating the league's policy against performance-enhancing substances, but he appealed and the league did not notify him to stop playing. Longtime Eagle Sheldon Brown is the starter opposite of Haden. If Haden is suspended, another former Eagle in Dimitri Patterson could start with Brown.
|Eagles Projected Starting Lineup|
|QB Michael Vick||LDE Jason Babin|
|RB LeSean McCoy||LDT Cullen Jenkins|
|FB Stanley Havili||RDT Derek Landri|
|WR Jeremy Maclin||RDE Trent Cole|
|LT King Dunlap||WILL LB Akeem Jordan|
|LG Evan Mathis||MIKE LB DeMeco Ryans|
|C Jason Kelce||SAM LB Mychal Kendricks|
|RG Danny Watkins||LCB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie|
|RT Todd Herremans||RCB Nnamdi Asomugha|
|TE Brent Celek||SS Nate Allen|
|WR DeSean Jackson||FS Kurt Coleman|
When The Browns Have The Ball
The Browns offense was anemic in 2011. On a per play basis, the Browns ranked 31st in rushing and 30th in passing. So it's no wonder, then, that management turned the page to promising rookies at quarterback and running back. Richardson is as talented a running back to come into the league in some time, and if he's fully healthy, he'll certainly test an Eagles run defense that was below standard at times last season. The addition of Ryans and Kendricks to the linebacking corps should help improve that run defense this season. Meanwhile, the expectations for the pass rush from the defensive line are through the roof. After leading the league in sacks a year ago, the Eagles added first-round pick Fletcher Cox, a healthy Brandon Graham and figures to get improved play from the other members of a 10-man crew in Jim Washburn's second season in charge. Browns left tackle Joe Thomas is among the best in the game, though he was victimized by Tapp for a sack/forced fumble during the preseason, while rookie Mitchell Schwartz holds down the right side.
In the secondary, it's a new era at two positions. Gone is Asante Samuel at left cornerback, where the talented Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is primed to introduce himself to Eagles nation as a dynamic outside cornerback. In the slot, rookie fourth-round pick Brandon Boykin is the man after the team parted ways with veteran Joselio Hanson during roster cutdowns. In Boykin's first regular season game, he'll be playing what is essentially a starting position while also handling kickoff return duties.
Importantly, this game will also mark the beginning of the second season in charge for defensive coordinator Juan Castillo. With a year of experience under his belt, Castillo figures to be more comfortable in calling the defense, something that bore out towards the end of the 2011 season when the Eagles allowed a paltry 11.5 points per game over the final four games.
|Browns Projected Starting Lineup|
|QB Brandon Weeden||LDE Jabaal Sheard|
|RB Trent Richardson||LDT Ahtyba Rubin|
|FB Owen Marecic||RDT Billy Winn|
|WR Greg Little||RDE Frostee Rucker|
|LT Joe Thomas||WILL LB Kaluka Maiava|
|LG Jason Pinkston||MLB D'Qwell Jackson|
|C Alex Mack||SAM LB L.J. Fort|
|RG Shawn Lauvao||LCB Joe Haden|
|RT Mitchell Schwartz||RCB Sheldon Brown|
|TE Ben Watson||SS T.J. Ward|
|WR Mohamed Massaquoi||FS Eric Hagg|
Browns Players to Watch
RT Mitchell Schwartz
Rookie tackle Mitchell Schwartz will receive an abrupt welcome to the NFL this week. In his first regular season start Sunday, Schwartz will be matched up against sack artist Jason Babin and the Eagles' ferocious pass rush. But Schwartz is no slouch himself. At 6-5 and 318 pounds, the second-round pick from Cal is part of a talented young Cleveland offense that also features a rookie quarterback and running back. Schwartz has already earned praise from his teammates, as left tackle Joe Thomas praised his hard work and football smarts. Schwartz will need every edge he can get against an Eagles defense that was tied for the league lead in sacks last season with 50. For the Browns to win Sunday, they'll need to give rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden time to throw. And to do that, Schwartz will have to hold his own against the pass rush of Babin and the Eagles.
CB Sheldon Brown
Sheldon Brown was a fan favorite in Philadelphia, and for good reason. In eight years with the Eagles, Brown accumulated 351 tackles and 19 interceptions while being a mainstay on the defense. Though Brown, 33, is in the twilight of his career, he is still showing that he can play. Last year Brown was targeted 76 times, allowing 35 completions, according to ProFootballFocus.com. However, Brown's deep speed is on the decline. In their Week 2 preseason matchup, rookie wide receiver Damaris Johnson soundly outran Brown for a 45 yard completion. And with speedsters DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin on the outside, it could be a long Sunday for Brown if he can't regain the shutdown ability he displayed with the Eagles.
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