Many fans point to the Browns 2006 schedule as the main reason that they don't feel the team can finish at or above .500 this season. I look at things a little differently. I like the way this schedule starts for the Browns, and I feel getting off to a good start will be paramount to this team playing meaningful games in December. Three of the teams first four games are against teams that I feel will occupy the basements of their respective divisions this season. And two of those games are at home, including this one.
In the opener, the New Orleans Saints travel to Cleveland for a 1:00 PM tilt this Sunday. I see this an ideal opening matchup for our beloved Brownies this weekend. Just like last year, the Saints will be one of the worst teams in the league, and I see them struggling just to match last years three wins. They have a young new head coach in Sean Payton, who has instilled a new offensive system with new skill position players. They've had a perennially terrible defense that figures to be even worse this year than last ... when teams ran all over them.
The Saints strengths lie in two areas. Running back and defensive end. They sport a potent two headed monster at each position, with Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush in their offensive backfield, and former Buckeye Will Smith and Charles Grant as their bookends defensively. Provided the Browns can keep this quartet from singlehandedly beating them with big plays, the Browns should win this game, and win it relatively easy in my view.
After breaking an amazing 44 yard run in the preseason opener where he reversed field and made several defenders look silly ... Bush was pretty much held in check for the remainder of the preseason. McAllister is coming off ACL surgery this off-season, but appears to be close to 100%. How the Saints will use this duo is still a mystery, as the preseason offered no clues. Stopping the pair will be the primary focus of Browns defensive coordinator Todd Grantham this week.
The rest of the offense is nothing to write home about. They upgraded the quarterback position by signing Drew Brees, but he has a suspect line in front of him, and possibly the worst set of recievers in football to throw to. 33 year old Joe Horn is back, healthy, and still productive when on the field ... but that's about where it ends for New Orleans when it comes to reliable pass catching options. The team was forced to deal fellow starting WR Donte Stallworth to Philadelphia for Mark Simoneau to help repair an absolutely terrible linebacking unit. 2004 second round pick Devery Henderson steps in as a starter, and their third and fourth recievers are now Lance Moore (from Toledo) and Marques Colston, who have a combined zero NFL pass receptions to their credit. The offensive line sports two decent tackles in Jamaal Brown and Jon Stinchcomb, but is weak in the middle ... centered by our old friend Jeff Faine.
Defensively, the Saints have been one of the worst teams in the league against the run for going on forever, and figure to be equally as miserable in that area this season. While Smith and Grant are talented defensive ends, the team has a host of cast offs and no names at the defensive tackle and linebacker positions. No team in the league is weaker up the middle defensively. One decent off-season addition was Scott Fujita, who will play the storngside linebacker spot for them. In time, he will likely be joined in the starting lineup by Simoneau and Danny Clark, who they just plucked off the waiver wire.
The Saints pass defense ranked highly last year, but that's one of those miselading statistics. Teams perpetually had leads against them and ran the ball against them moreso than against any other defense last year. Mike McKenzie, he of the dreadlocks, is their best defensive back and Omar Stoutmire starts at the other corner. Josh Bullocks and Fred Thomas start at safety.
On special teams, you would have to assume Bush will be taking back punts, and maybe even kicks ... which is an area of concern for this weekend. They have a rookie punter in Steve Weatherford, and a seventeen year veteran kicker in John Carney.
As far as prognostications go, I love the Browns laying the field goal this weekend. I feel they will be able to put together some scoring drives at home against this defense, and with a raucous crowd loudly supporting them. Reuben Droughns and Jerome Harrison should have good days running the football, keeping the Browns and Charlie Frye out of 2nd and 3rd and longs ... and taking pressure off the offense as a whole. Provided the Browns can prevent Reggie Bush and the Saints special teams from beating them with big plays, I think the Browns stand a pretty good chance of not allowing the Saints in the end zone more than one time. The Browns injury situation at cornerback is concerning, but again ... the Saints pass offense hradly strikes fear in the heart of this fan.