Early look at Browns’ keys vs. Colts

Posted by Vic Carucci on September 14, 2011 – 9:17 pm

By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor

The most immediate conclusion from the Indianapolis’ 34-7, season-opening loss to the Houston Texans is that the Colts simply aren’t the Colts without Peyton Manning.

If we didn’t know it before, we certainly know it now: Manning’s brilliance not only did plenty to carry the Colts during their amazing string of success over the last dozen years; he also managed to overshadow some of the flaws that the team has had.

Manning didn’t get sacked a whole lot, but that had less to do with his offensive line than it did with the incredible decisiveness and ultra-quick release that usually allowed him to get the ball out of his hand before defenders could get to him.

Not so much with Manning’s replacement, Kerry Collins, who pretty much was a statue in the pocket behind a porous offensive line that allowed the Texans’ pass rush to pound him throughout the game, forcing him to fumble twice.

The Colts’ greatest pass protection problems came from the struggles of their tackles and general communication issues that went a long way toward their inability to handle the Texans’ aggressive blitzing. Collins also wasn’t helped by the Colts’ non-existent running game.

Meanwhile, the Colts also struggled in two familiar areas: run defense and special teams. And I think that has to be the starting point in discussing how the Browns can rebound from their opening-day loss.

The foundation for their success in their first road trip of the season figures to begin with their ability to pound the ball on the ground with Peyton Hillis and change things up with Montarrio Hardesty, who continues to be eased back into the offense.

And then there is Joshua Cribbs, who promptly showed that, even with new rules designed to minimize the number of kickoff returns, he can still make a major impact in that department as well as on punt returns.

Colts vice chairman Bill Polian calls Cribbs the “best return man in the NFL,” while also giving a tip of the hat to Chicago’s Devon Hester.

 “Most return men have two of three qualities: great allusiveness, the ability to make you miss and make you miss at high speed,” Polian told me on “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford.” “They have world-class speed or they have the ability and balance to run through tackles. Very few return men have all three, (but) Cribbs does. So he’s a threat any time he touches the ball in the kicking game, and we were awful in the kicking game last week. There’s no hiding that fact.”

Another way the Browns have a chance to rebound in week two is with the ability to put some strong pressure on Collins. D’Qwell Jackson and the rest of the pass rushers must be every bit as effective as they were in Week One.

The Colts have a pair of exceptional pass-rushers of their own in ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Freeney will primarily face Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas while Mathis likely to face Oniel Cousins and Artis Hicks, who are expected to again rotate at right tackle in place of injured Tony Pashos.

Freeney sounds confident in the duo’s ability to put some heat on Colt McCoy.

“I think me and Robert go into the game thinking we can take over any game, to be honest with you,” Freeney said during a conference call with Browns media. “But you know what? Sometimes teams understand that and they prepare for that. So it’s not like the Cleveland Browns are going to sit there and say, ‘Well, whoever’s going to go in, we’re just going to leave him on an island and it’s up to him to block Robert.’ They’re going to definitely help out, especially if a guy’s in there that hasn’t been there in a while and started. They’re going to help (him). They’re going to bring the tight end, they’re going to bring the guard, they’re going to slide protection.

“It’s not the right tackle by himself. You rarely see those days anymore.”

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