1. Who's filling in for Alex Mack on Sunday, and how do you think they'll perform?
John Greco will take over at center for Alex Mack. Greco was the team's starting left guard last season, but he made the switch to right guard in 2014. Heading into the season, he was thought of as the standard of an "average" offensive lineman in the NFL -- not a liability, but not a strength. He must have taken to Kyle Shanahan's zone blocking scheme very well, though, because he's been playing like a Pro Bowler this season. Prior to last week's game, I think Pro Football Focus had him ranked as the second best right guard or something to that effect. The results are evident when watching the game too -- he is not allowing a pass rush, and he's consistently blocking downfield on run plays.
The switch to center will be an interesting one. For several years, Greco has taken snaps during training camp as the backup center, but he had never played the position during a regular season NFL game until mid-way through last week's game against the Steelers. On his first snap at center, the Steelers brought a run blitz right up the middle and he picked it up fine.
The Browns' running game and pass protection did not suffer after Mack's departure, which is why I gave Greco the game ball for the week. With all of that in mind, I think Greco will not be a liability at center, but it wouldn't surprise me if there are some communication snafus that arise across the line here and there. That's bound to happen when anyone's center goes down.
2. Brian Hoyer has performed better than many expected. Are Browns fans still clamoring for Johnny to start, or has Hoyer and the running game done a good job of keeping y'all content?
My understanding is that the perception prior to the season outside of Cleveland is that most Browns fans wanted Johnny Manziel to start. To the contrary, I think the majority of fans wanted Hoyer to start (maybe about 65%). With the way Hoyer has played during the team's 3-2 start, I think he has won a lot of fans over. Even when I listen to local talk radio stations, I notice a difference -- before the season, a lot of fans would say that Manziel should be starting. Now, whenever Manziel is brought up, all of the callers defend Hoyer. The talk has shifted to, "how do we keep Hoyer after this season," instead of, "what week will Manziel be named the starter?"
So, yes, we are more than content with Hoyer as our starter right now. He seems like a perfect fit for offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's offense. One thing you'll notice is that he sells the fakes for the running game very well, which helps open things up downfield for our receivers. He also isn't forcing the ball into coverage, having just one interception through five games. Barring an injury, Hoyer should start the rest of the season.
3. Your defensive line has struggled against the run this season. The Jaguars have struggled to run the ball. Who do you think wins this matchup?
I'd have to go with the Browns in a landslide, but that has more to do with my perception that the Jaguars have no faith in their running game. The Jaguars are averaging less than 20 carries per game and none of their running backs can get past 3.4 yards per carry.
To compare, the Browns are averaging 33 carries per game, with a team average of 4.4 yards per carry. The Browns' base run defense has actually made some steady improvements since their bye week, which would be over the past two games. Cleveland held Tennessee's running backs to 3.4 yards per carry two weeks ago, and last week, they held the Steelers' running backs to 4.3 yards per carry.
The Browns have struggled this season in two other areas related to the rushing attack: the jet sweep (wide receiver gets the quick handoff from the quarterback while at motion), and quarterback scrambles. Before Jake Locker got hurt in the second quarter of Week 5, he had 4 rushes for 34 yards and 1 touchdown against the Browns. Blake Bortles seems to have good mobility, so I'm a bit worried about him beating Cleveland on the ground.
4. Speaking of the defense, if you were the Jaguars, where would you attack the Browns pass defense?
Without question, I would go after cornerback Justin Gilbert, the No. 8 overall pick of the draft. His role was to enter the game as an outside cornerback in nickel situations. Early this season, he was repeatedly being picked on by opposing quarterbacks. He was getting fooled by average receivers left and right, and he looked awful on his tackling. It got to the point where after our bye week, head coach Mike Pettine benched Gilbert in favor of undrafted rookie free agent K'Waun Williams. Williams played pretty well over the past two weeks, but suffered a concussion near the end of last week's game against Pittsburgh.
That means Gilbert will probably be thrown back into the fire again, and Jacksonville would be foolish if they didn't try to test him like others have.
5. Of all the Browns who are missing practice this week -- center Alex Mack, defensive lineman Phil Taylor, safety Tashaun Gipson -- whose presence do you think will be missed the most on Sunday?
My explanation is going to sound a bit unusual, but stay with me. Alex Mack and Phil Taylor are both very important pieces to this team, but I'd say the presence we'll miss the most is that of free safety Tashaun Gipson. As I explained earlier, Greco looked competent filling in for Mack last week, so we might be able to get by with him there.
Although the Browns' defensive line has struggled a bit this season, I also viewed it as the deepest unit on the team heading into the season, with seven players who could start for other teams around the NFL. Now, we're down two of those guys -- Taylor and Armonty Bryant -- but the rest of the depth can still pick up the slack.
When it comes to Gipson, he plays the center field role well enough to where I don't feel like I have to worry about the position. His backups are veteran Jim Leonhard and youngster Jordan Poyer. If Gipson can't play (he is battling a thigh injury), I would expect both safeties to rotate in to the starting position, and I don't know how well either one can command the role. Leonhard has more experience in Mike Pettine's defense (he played for him as a starter with other teams), but I imagine the Jaguars being a pass-happy team again this week.
If Bortles uses his mobility, will the potential fill-in for Gipson read the plays well enough to prevent a big gain? It's hard to say.