1. It looks like the bulk of Browns fans aren't too happy about Josh McCown getting the start over Johnny Manziel. Why is that? And why would Pettine go back to McCown?
We ran a two-part poll on our site, and the results turned out like this: only 17% of fans wanted Josh McCown to start against the Raiders this week, but 75% of fans felt that Mike Pettine was going to go back to the veteran quarterback. Therefore, it's safe to say that Cleveland fans weren't surprised by the news.
All offseason, I think the majority of fans had accepted McCown as the team's starting quarterback and didn't mind him being under center to open the season. Fans were tired of the negative drama associated with Manziel last year and didn't know what to expect after he got out of rehab. I think Cleveland fans didn't want to set themselves up for failure by getting all hyped up over Manziel again, only to suffer a massive letdown. That attitude slowly started to change when Manziel performed "like a professional" in training camp. By that, I mean the off-the-field issues disappeared, his commitment to learning the offense improved, and his performance in training camp was an upgrade over what fans saw a year ago. Now that he's picked up his first career victory and did not look completely out-of-his-element in 2014, fans are ready to accelerate the timetable and hand the reigns over to Manziel now.
The issue is that for however much progress Manziel has made, the coaching staff still wants him to make more progress in a backup role, and then hand him the reigns when he is as close to 100% prepared as he can get. I think they are doing their best to not set Manziel up for failure, and right now they believe Manziel will still turn the ball over too much for their liking. McCown will not light the world on fire, but this team is supposed to be built on a good defense and winning the field position battle. The coaching staff has to believe that McCown is presently less likely to commit a turnover that can hurt that strategy.
2. Travis Benjamin had a couple big games with Johnny Manziel at QB. What do you expect to see from him?
Last year, Benjamin had 3 touchdowns in his first 4 games, but did not have one the rest of the season. This year seems a bit different. Since the Browns drafted him in the 4th round in 2011, he has been considered a home run threat who could stretch the field. The problem is that we never had a quarterback who could time him up, so nobody had to respect the deep throw to Benjamin. He also a one-dimensional receiver earlier in his career -- he would go deep, and that was pretty much it.
In 2014, Benjamin was returning from a torn ACL suffered in 2013. He started becoming a much more polished receiver with his route versatility, such as catching passes over the middle or doing comeback routes on the sideline. Brian Hoyer couldn't time anyone up on the deep ball last year, though, which was frustrating given Benjamin's speed and the suspension of Josh Gordon. This year, Benjamin had a very good camp and it has translated to the regular season. He's been targeted 3 times on deep passes by Manziel, and all 3 attempts went for touchdowns. Being two years removed from ACL surgery has helped him re-gain a little bit more of his burst, which could also make him a threat if the Browns decide to work in an end-around call this week.
It's unprecedented to think that a receiver can catch 50-yard touchdown bombs every week, but no matter how good a cornerback is, Benjamin's pure speed will get him past defensive backs. Even if a defense starts shading a safety his way a little more, they aren't going to do it every snap, so Cleveland would be foolish to not at least attempt one deep ball to Benjamin per game. Josh McCown threw a nice deep ball in training camp, but he needs to show he can hit Benjamin in stride during a regular season game.
3. The Browns have one of the better defenses in the NFL. What is their bread and butter?
I can tell you that it is definitely not their run defense. Last year, by the end of the season, our defensive line was being blown off the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball. This year, thanks to a re-tooled defensive line, that isn't happening. However, when teams take runs to the outside, Cleveland has had issues with either setting the edge, or the safeties not tackling well enough, turning a "we'll-live-with-it" 8-yard gain into a painstaking 25-yard gain.
The bread and butter of the defense is the secondary. It was very surprising to see the secondary struggle in Week 1 against the Jets, stemming mostly from Joe Haden being targeted left-and-right and failing to come up with even one positive play in the game. This past week against the Titans, the cornerback play was much-improved, locking down Tennessee's receivers and forcing Marcus Mariota to hold on to the ball too long, which helped lead to 7 sacks and 3 forced fumbles on him. The safeties were still a bit shaky at defending tight ends last week, though. Talent-wise, we know the Browns have the potential to be the second-best secondary in the AFC, just behind the Jets' secondary. We're attributing the slow start to a good chunk of the secondary having sat out training camp to heal from minor injuries, but when everybody is back into a rhythm, receivers are going to have a tough time getting open.
4. What area of this Browns team most concerns you coming into this game?
The inability to run the ball consistently. Cleveland doesn't have a great passing game, but the passing game can work effectively in spots because our offensive line offers such good pass protection. Last year, the Browns were running the ball very well in the zone-blocking scheme prior to center Alex Mack breaking his leg. Everything was getting blown up the rest of the season. With Mack healthy for 2015, the optimism was there the team's running game would take off again. It hasn't.
The linemen aren't doing well with their zone blocking, and there is no clear frontrunner for who the lead tailback should be between Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson. The productivity was better in Week 2 than it was in Week 1, but still not consistent enough. With a lack of playmakers on offense, Cleveland needs to be a team that methodically drains clock via the running game. If that doesn't happen and Oakland is able to score effectively like they did against the Ravens last week, the Browns aren't built to be a come-from-behind offense.
5. What lesser known Browns player should we know more about?
It sounds like the cat is out of the bag when it comes to Travis Benjamin, so I will go with second-year cornerback K'Waun Williams. Williams is the team's nickelback and was an undrafted free agent in 2014 who impressed the coaching staff and took on that role as a rookie. He gives the Browns a formidable trio at the cornerback position and has made it difficult for 1st- and 4th-round picks Justin Gilbert and Pierre Desir, both taken in 2014, to crack anything higher than the fourth cornerback spot. Williams will also be used as a nickel blitzer several times each week, and he's been effective in doing so. He had a sack+forced fumble last week on Marcus Mariota.
To see my answers to his questions, click here.