The Cleveland Browns host the Las Vegas Raiders ahead of their bye week. The Raiders lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in brutal fashion in part because of COVID-19 keeping players from participating, which may have them more rested as they travel to Cleveland.
Of the second tier teams, which the Browns and Raiders both inhabit with teams like the Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills, the Raiders have the most losses but they also have the most impressive wins. They were able to take down the Kansas City Chiefs and they've played a difficult schedule, so while the Browns do have advantage, playing at home, the Raiders are a dangerous football team that can't be taken lightly.
When the Browns have the ball.
The Raiders are pretty sound up the middle. Johnthan Hankins is an effective, run stopping nose while Maurice Hurst is pretty good all around and Nick Kwiatkowski is having an excellent season as the team's middle linebacker. Seemingly odd, the Raiders play Maliek Collins more at the three-tech than Hurst and he's less effective.
The Browns shouldn't hesitate to run the ball at Collins when he's in, but the best bet may be attacking off tackle and trying to get to the perimeter. As good of a signing as Kwiatkowski has been, the early returns on Corey Littleton have been awful early. Nick Morrow isn't good either.
The Raiders are set to get Carl Nassib back, which might help them in the running game up front. Clelin Ferrell is getting better, but the Browns have the advantage with Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills on the outside. Still likely relying on Chris Hubbard at right guard, it's more incentive to work toward the outside and allow Kareem Hunt get going with outside zone.
Counter is another great way to wash down a primary threat up front, ideally driving them back to the linebackers and creating a running lane with a two-way go for the back, potentially cutting back into the middle of the field or working up the sideline.
That naturally sets up Baker Mayfield to roll back the other way off of play-action, taking advantage of linebackers that will likely need to focus plenty of their attention on the Browns running game. That should allow them to get the offense going not unlike they did against the Cincinnati Bengals. In that game, Harrison Bryant just found holes in the intermediate area of the field.
With Austin Hooper likely still out recovering from the appendectomy, Bryant and David Njoku will have more opportunities. The Raiders don't have a good answer for either one and this could build on the success they experienced last week.
Adjusting to live without Odell Beckham won't be easy, but the Raiders are a relatively soft landing in the secondary. Save for LaMarcus Joyner who isn't playing particularly well, the Raiders have a ton of young players that are trying to tread water at this point.
The good news is the Browns should have KhaDarel Hodge back, which could provide them some speed down the field. That could open up additional opportunities for Rashard Higgins, who was fantastic against the Bengals, in terms of spacing.
This is the type of matchup where Jarvis Landry should thrive, but it's a question of health. Hopefully his ribs are improving, but he's also battling the hip. Nevertheless, his understanding of how to find holes in the defense could provide Mayfield some plays that can extend drives and get him into a rhythm.
Each of the past two weeks, getting Kareem Hunt the ball as a receiver was regarded as a priority here. Against the Bengals, they did it. Sadly, he dropped a screen that looked like it could've gone a long way, but they utilized him well throughout the game and he was able to make plays that looked easy, including a touchdown pass for which the Bengals simply didn't account.
He forces defense to cover wider, which can mitigate some of the loss of track speed with this group, creating bigger passing windows for Mayfield.
Hodge, Njoku and Donovan Peoples-Jones can help make up for the loss of some speed, but look for the Browns to take advantage of deep crossers. This has been a concept the Browns have gone with off of play-action, especially early in the season. It's often referred to as a sail route and Landry has been a target with it. There's no reason Higgins or a tight end couldn't also operate with this, attacking different levels of the defense.
Njoku offers the ability to attack down the seam and stretch a defense to create space. They only pressed vertically with him on the touchdown pass, but they should look to expand on that, trying to get him down the seam or off a wheel type look to isolate him on a defender. He's faster than linebackers and he's too big for corners and most safeties.
When the Raiders have the ball.
The strength of the Raiders offense is their ability to force opponents to defend every inch of the field. They have a quarterback in Derek Carr who is having an outstanding season with the ability to drive the ball anywhere on the field and weapons that allow him to do just that, which puts pressure on individual members of a defense.
The Browns defensive gameplan starts with finding ways to try to limit the impact of Darren Waller. There aren't many great answers for a 6'6" 255 pound receiver as light on their feet as Waller is.
Seemingly, the Browns answer will start with Ronnie Harrison and Karl Joseph, but include multiple methods to try to frustrate him as well as discourage Carr from throwing to him. That could include trying to jam him at the line and at least limit his momentum, so that Harrison or Joseph can cover him. They may simply have a linebacker play under him with Harrison or Joseph over him.
With so much attention paid to Waller, rightly, it puts added stress on the rest of the defense to contain their other offensive threats without help. Nelson Agholor, whose hands were so bad with the Philadelphia Eagles that after a man caught a child, rescuing them from a fire, he took a shot at the receiver.
With the Raiders, Agholor has experienced a renaissance, where he has become a valuable weapon as a field stretcher. Through six games, he has just one drop while averaging 19.5 yards per reception. Agholor has been targeted 20 times this season, catching 15 of them for 292 yards and four touchdowns.
That's before getting to Henry Ruggs III, who is even faster. Ruggs hasn't exactly taken the league by storm. He's missed a pair of games and he's caught eight passes in the games he has played. The problem is that one of them went 72 yards and a touchdown.
The Browns base Cover-3 scheme is pretty well suited to ensure they don't allow opposing receivers to simply get behind them. Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson have the speed to keep up with Agholor at least. The problem is the Raiders can flood a zone, which has often been done at the expense of Andrew Sendejo. It also could allow the Browns to give up a lot of underneath passes.
If the Browns are ensuring they don't get beat deep and are expending extra resources to stop Waller, that leaves multiple Raiders weapons that are going to find a ton of space in the flats or over the middle.
Hunter Renfrow is good at finding space in the middle of the field as the Raiders primary possession receiver. He's not big, strong or particularly fast, but he's quick and understands how to get open.
In the flats, Josh Jacobs is a real problem. He's been a more threatening receiving threat than he has been a runner this season. They will also leak out their fullback Jalen Richard for some easy yards.
Malcolm Smith can cover one of these threats. He can't deal with all of them, so whether it's Mack Wilson, Sione Takitaki or someone else, they are going to need one of them to step up and be effective enough the Raiders can't keep drives going indefinitely.
Carr has been fantastic this season, but as great as he has been and can be, he still makes a few head scratching decisions per game and the Browns need to find a way to generate them and take advantage. When Carr makes a mistake, the Browns have to cash in for a turnover. The Browns are currently leading the league with 14 takeaways, most of which have been caused by Myles Garrett.
The Raiders offensive line is massive. Other than Rodney Hudson, their entire front takes up a ton of space. And this is smaller than it normally would be since Trent Brown has been out. The team is hoping to have him back this week. He is 6'8" and between 350 and 360 pounds. Kolton Miller is a giant at 6'7" and all of their guards are at least 320 pounds.
The Raiders aren't doing much to move the ball in the running game, but it can be difficult to generate pressure simply because they are wide enough, it can be difficult to get around them.
Myles Garrett is going to do what he does, but the Browns need to get production from someone else. It seems like the rest of the defensive line is in some state of disrepair with their health, but hopefully with the bye week coming, they can get a great effort against the Raiders.
The Raiders running game isn't overly threatening, but the Browns need to shut it down so they can put themselves in the best position to defend their dynamic passing attack.
The worry is between the size of Jacobs and their offensive front, they can simply lean on the Browns late in the game, limiting the ability to get stops and allow the Raiders salt away the clock if they have a lead.
Despite a missed extra point to ensure a dramatic ending, Cody Parkey continues to be great on field goals while the coverage units for the Browns have been better.
The return game is still pretty mediocre at this point, but perhaps confidence gained in the passing game will help Donovan Peoples-Jones get more confident in picking a lane and going when it comes to returns.
The Raiders don't force many punts, when they do, Hunter Renfrow is dangerous. He's averaging a formidable 14.5 yards per return, but has only returned four. Jalen Richard is the team's best kick return option, but none of them are particularly dangerous.
Given the way these two teams have been playing of late, it might be notable to see either punter in this game.