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NFL Preview - Green Bay (3-2) at Cleveland (1-5)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The infamous "trap game" is the buzz word around Green Bay this week as the Packers prepare for a road test against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday afternoon.
The Packers are aware of their big showdown with former savior Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field on November 1, but business must be handled in order, starting with Cleveland. Green Bay came out of a bye week well rested and improved to 3-2 on the season -- and 2-1 in the NFC North -- with a 26-0 win over the lowly Detroit Lions this past Sunday. Green Bay trails the division-leading Vikings by 2 1/2 games.
Aaron Rodgers, fifth in the NFL with an average of 291.2 passing yards per game, notched his third straight game with a rating of 100 or better by completing 29-of-37 passes for 358 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Rodgers has six touchdown passes over his last three games and would probably love nothing more than to save his right arm for Favre and the Vikings. The Packers, though, must not get caught up in the inevitable hype and take it one game at a time.
Rodgers has to be concerned with the current state of his team's offensive line after he was sacked five times on Sunday and a total of 25 this year. Rodgers has been sacked 13 times over the last two weeks and four times or more in four of five contests this season. Left tackle Chad Clifton aggravated a previous right ankle injury and left the game late in the third quarter. Left guard Daryn Colledge was moved to left tackle after Clifton hurt his ankle against Cincinnati back in Week 2, but the switch didn't help. Rookie T.J. Lang got the nod against Detroit and didn't give up a sack, although the Packers didn't have to throw with a big lead.
Green Bay's defense has played rather well under first year coordinator Dom Capers, whose 3-4 scheme has the club sixth in points allowed, eighth in total yards and 10th against the pass. The Packers limited the Lions to 149 total yards, 71 of which were passing, while Detroit was without starting quarterback Matt Stafford and top wideout Calvin Johnson. Not that any of the two would have made much of a difference against the Packers, who also notched five sacks on the afternoon and did a solid job with what the Lions rolled out.
Eric Mangini's first season as Browns head coach has been a rocky one so far, as evidenced by a 1-5 record. Whether it's his players crying about fines levied for unusual reasons or famed music magazine Rolling Stone taking shots, Mangini has been public enemy No. 1 on the shores of Lake Erie.
One week after beating the Buffalo Bills by an ugly 6-3 score for their first win in the Mangini era, the flu-stricken Browns suffered their 12th straight loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers with this past Sunday's 27-14 decision. The highlight of the day for Cleveland was Joshua Cribbs' 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, while the low point was quarterback Derek Anderson's ineptitude under center.
Embroiled in a quarterback controversy with Brady Quinn for more than a year now, Anderson was given the reigns after an embarrassing loss to Baltimore on September 27 and has yet to solidify Mangini's decision. Anderson passed for 122 yards with a touchdown, an interception and two fumbles last week for the Browns, who have just four touchdowns in their past 12 games dating back to last season.
Cleveland's defense is just as bad and surrendered 543 yards to the Steelers. The Browns have allowed at least 375 yards in four of the last five games and is last in total defense, allowing 407.3 yards per game this season. Rob Ryan's first year as defensive coordinator has gone as planned in the minds of many, since this unit was pegged to struggle even before the season started. The defensive guru got a tiny glimpse of what this defense could do against a tough Steelers offense, as Cleveland recovered three fumbles, picked off a pass and sacked Ben Roethlisberger three times. Giving up 11 plays of 20-plus yards will hurt, however.
Ryan's 23rd-ranked pass defense will be in for another long day if it allows Rogers enough time to pick apart the secondary. For Cleveland's sake, it hopes Green Bay still has some issues on the offensive line this week.
Green Bay has a 9-7 edge in the all-time regular season series with Cleveland, but was a 26-24 home loser when the clubs last met, in Week 2 of the 2005 season. The Packers won the previous meeting, a 30-7 decision at Lambeau Field in 2001. Green Bay was a 31-20 winner when it last visited C-Town in 2005, and the Browns' most recent home win in the series took place in 1992.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams met once in the postseason, with Green Bay winning a 23-12 decision at Lambeau Field for the 1965 NFL Championship.
Mangini is 1-0 in his career against the Packers, with the win coming for his Jets team during the 2006 campaign. Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 0-1 against Mangini, and will be meeting Cleveland for the first time.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Protection is key for allowing Rodgers to get going for the Packers. Surprisingly, Rodgers (1,456 passing yards, 8 TD, 2 INT) is one of the top passers this season despite getting put on his back 25 times. The University of California product is coming off back-to-back 300-yard passing games and is aiming for fourth straight game with a rating of 100 or higher. Green Bay committed 13 penalties for 130 yards last week, including five pre-snap infractions on the offense totaling 25 yards. Clifton was responsible for four of those penalties. The banged-up tackle is in his 10th season and has only played an entire game once in 2009. He may be nearing the end of his career, and will most likely rest until Vikings All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen comes knocking in another week. Lang would likely get the start against the Browns if Clifton can't shake his balky ankle. Wideout Donald Driver (25 receptions, 395 yards, 2 TD) has caught a pass in each of his last 116 games and passed Sterling Sharpe to become the Packers' all-time leader in receptions. He had seven for 107 yards in the win over Detroit and leads the team in catches and receiving yards. Fellow receiver Greg Jennings (17 receptions, 1 TD) has cooled off after his hot start, but is still a playmaking threat every Sunday.
Cleveland gave up a ton of yards in Pittsburgh and could be in for another long afternoon if it doesn't make the proper adjustments. Rodgers is one of the best young passers in the game and knows that the Browns are 23rd against the pass, surrendering 242.0 yards per game. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was intercepted once by the Browns last week, but still scorched the Cleveland secondary for 417 yards. Safety Brodney Pool (27 tackles, sack, 2 INT) had the lone interception last Sunday for a Browns defense that surrendered 11 plays of 20 yards or more. Pool owns two interceptions in his last three games. Two Steelers receivers went over the 100-yard receiving mark for the day, and that should be a wake-up call for Cleveland cornerbacks Brandon McDonald (28 tackles, 1 sack) and Eric Wright (17 tackles, 1 INT), since the Packers have two stud wideouts in Driver and Jennings.
While Green Bay is 10th in passing under offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, its ground attack is rated just 19th with 101.2 yards per game. Ryan Grant (347 rushing yards, 2 TD) is 18th in the NFL with an average 69.4 rushing yards per contest, and just missed the 100-yard mark for the second time this season last week. Grant, who had 99 yards on 26 carries in a win over St. Louis in late September, posted 90 yards on 24 touches versus Detroit and put up 62 yards on 11 attempts in the fourth quarter. Grant hasn't seen the end zone in three weeks, though. Green Bay brought back Ahman Green this week and placed running back DeShawn Wynn on injured reserve. Green played seven seasons (2000-06) in Green Bay, which included four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. Center Jason Spitz missed last week's game due to back spasms and veteran Scott Wells got the start. Wells will get the nod again if Spitz isn't ready to go. While Clifton is out indefinitely, Spitz is listed as questionable for the Cleveland matchup. Perhaps right tackle Mark Tauscher will be in game shape for this Sunday, after the Packers brought him back last week. Tauscher played his first nine seasons with the Packers, who selected him in the seventh round of the 2000 draft. He tore the ACL in his left knee last December and was recently brought in for a workout. Tauscher has started 120 of 122 career games played.
Cleveland hasn't been able to stop the run at all this season, ranking 30th against the rush and allowing 165.3 yards per game. News couldn't get any worse from the Browns' facility, as starting linebacker and leading tackler D'Qwell Jackson (59 tackles) was placed on injured reserve this week after a shoulder injury he sustained in last Sunday's game at Pittsburgh. Jackson started all six games this season and his absence will most likely shake up the linebackers. Inside linebacker Eric Barton (49 tackles) is second on the team in stops, while outside linebackers Kamerion Wimbley (32 tackles, 4 sacks) and David Bowens (21 tackles, 1 sack) will have a more prominent role on the defense. The Browns didn't do so well against the pass, but kept Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall to 62 yards and a score on 11 carries. Bowens and backup linebacker Jason Trusnik (7 tackles, 1 sack) each had a sack last week, with Bowens posting his seventh career fumble recovery. Bowens had 24 tackles and 3 1/2 sacks during the 2000 season with the Packers. Trusnik earned his first career start at outside linebacker in place of Wimbley, who missed the first game of his career with the flu. Tackle Shaun Rogers (24 tackles, 1 sack) is the leader of a Browns defense that owns 12 sacks and will face the most-sacked quarterback in the league Sunday.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
The Cleveland offense has been dreadful this season, as it is 30th in scoring (11.5 ppg), 31st in both passing (136.2 ypg) and yards earned (239.8) and 18th in rushing (103.7). Anderson (506 passing yards, 2 TD, 6 INT) hasn't helped the cause either, as he threw for 122 yards with a touchdown pass and an interception last week in Pittsburgh. Anderson, who recorded 23 yards on just 2-of-17 passing the week before at Buffalo, needs to get into a groove early if the Browns want even a slight chance at making this a respectable outcome. He's only been sacked six times this season, but that means nothing when the Browns are just 1-5. Anderson has the talent to get the job done, and it's been a mystery as to why he hasn't regained his Pro Bowl form from 2007. He can only do so much with inexperienced receivers Mohamed Massaquoi (16 receptions), Cribbs (9 receptions) and Mike Furrey (13 receptions). The rookie Massaquoi has taken over as the No. 1 wideout with Braylon Edwards now in New York, and ended with 83 yards on five catches last week. Mangini is trying to give Cribbs, who had a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Steelers, a more extended role other than return man. Rookie Brian Robiskie caught his first NFL pass last week. No matter who plays more of an extensive role at wideout, the Browns could still be in trouble.
The Packers can't feel too full of themselves for shutting down lowly Detroit's passing game this past week. The Lions were without their top receiving threat in Johnson and were held to just 71 yards through the air. Cornerback Al Harris (23 tackles, 2 INT) and safety Atari Bigby (8 tackles, 1 INT) came away with interceptions, while lineman Cullen Jenkins (12 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) recorded the other turnover. Bigby was back in action after missing three weeks because of an injury sustained in Week 1. The Packers are 10th against the pass this season, having yielded an average of 192.6 yards per game, and didn't allow the Lions a third-down conversion on 10 tries. Culpepper threw for 48 yards before leaving with a hamstring injury and backup Drew Stanton did no better, passing for just 57 yards. Expect the Browns to experience similar difficulties on Sunday. Packers All-Pro cornerback Charles Woodson (23 tackles, 3 INT) leads the team with three picks this year and owns 22 since 2006, the third-most in the NFL. Free safety Nick Collins (17 tackles, 1 INT) has to feel more comfortable with his sidekick Bigby back on the field.
Cleveland will most likely struggle once again to establish the pass game, so it will have to rely on veteran running back Jamal Lewis (233 rushing yards), who has yet to score a touchdown this season and was held to 21 yards on 11 carries last week. Lewis is nearing the end of his career and his production level has dropped significantly for the Browns, who are 18th in rushing at 103.7 yards per game. It's hard to imagine Lewis struggling for yards when he runs behind such players as guard Eric Steinbach, who's slated to play in his 100th career game on Sunday and has played and started in at least 14 games every year since being selected in the 2003 Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. Lewis and the line may find success Sunday, since Green Bay is 16th against the run.
Packers rookie Clay Matthews (12 tackles, 3 sacks) got his first career start at outside linebacker against the Lions and finished second on the team with five tackles, including two sacks, and had another stop for a loss on a key fourth down. Matthews, who was drafted 26th overall in April out of USC, became the first Packers rookie to have two sacks in a game since Vonnie Holliday on November 15, 1998. Matthews took some time away from Brady Poppinga (11 tackles), but still has a lot to learn at the position. He will pay a visit to Cleveland, where his dad, Clay, starred at linebacker in the 1980's. This matchup with Cleveland will be another good test. Leading tackler Nick Barnett (31 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and fellow linebackers A.J. Hawk (23 tackles) and Brandon Chillar (29 tackles, sack) helped Green Bay hold the Lions to 149 yards of offense. It was the least amount of yardage allowed by a Green Bay defense since December 21, 2006, when Minnesota was limited to just 104 total yards. Jenkins had an interception last week and outside linebacker Aaron Kampman (24 tackles, 2 sacks) had one of five sacks on the afternoon. Kampman continues to thrive under Capers' new 3-4 scheme and is in line for another productive week.
Fantasy owners who have Browns players on their roster understand the struggles this team has gone through in 2009. Lewis is on the decline, but still garners attention in most leagues due to the lack of productive free agents at his position. Massaquoi is not the answer for Edwards, but then again, who is? Taking Cribbs is a risky option, since he barely gets balls his way, but gambling on his return yards is worth it if you're desperate. Kicker Phil Dawson wouldn't hurt either, especially if your starter is on a bye. As for Green Bay, there are a series of options to choose from starting with Rodgers. Besides the sacks, Rodgers has backed up his first-round hype with a strong start to the season. Driver, Jennings, Grant and the Green Bay defense are all starters for this week. The same goes for placekicker Mason Crosby, whose four field goals last week tied a career high.
McCarthy doesn't always have his players equipped on a weekly basis, but this is the week being cognizant is key. Instead of paying attention to the elephant in the room (i.e. Favre), the Packers will not overlook flu-stricken Cleveland this week in anticipation of the looming return of perhaps the greatest quarterback in team history on November 1. Green Bay has a few days to shore up its offensive line to keep Rodgers off the grass at Cleveland Browns Stadium, but that may be too much to ask right now. At least Grant has a strong opportunity on Sunday for a breakout performance against a Browns run defense rated near the bottom of the pack. For a fourth straight week, Anderson will be out to show Mangini made the right choice at quarterback instead of Quinn. Unfortunately for Anderson, this won't be the best week to do that.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 23, Browns 10
10/22 18:21:12 ET