It figures to be a bit of a "Desperation Bowl" in the Land of 10,000 Lakes this week when the 0-2 Cleveland Browns face off with the wildly disappointing and winless Minnesota Vikings
The Browns will welcome speedy wide receiver Josh Gordon back from suspension but will be without starting quarterback Brandon Weeden, who injured the thumb on his throwing hand in the team's 14-6 loss at Baltimore in Week 2, and running back Trent Richardson, who was dealt in a surprise blockbuster trade with the Indianapolis Colts on Wednesday.
Browns coach Rob Chudzinski has already named Brian Hoyer, who leapfrogged veteran Jason Campbell on the depth chart, the starter at QB in Minneapolis.
Richardson, meanwhile, was selected by the Browns in the 2012 draft and was viewed as the centerpiece of a rebuilding process for a team that has not made the playoffs since 2002. But, that thought process came from the old regime in Cleveland not Chudzinski, CEO Joe Banner or first-year general manager Mike Lombardi.
Richardson did have injury issues in a rookie campaign that saw him total 1,317 yards and 12 touchdowns and he has struggled out of the gate this year with just 105 rushing yards in the first two games.
"Trent's a great player and we expect him to have success in this league," said Banner. "Right now, based on how we're building this team for sustainable success, we're going to be aggressive and do what it takes to assemble a team that consistently wins."
The Browns are expected to bring in veteran free agent Willis McGahee to fill their vacant starting running back spot. The 31-year-old McGahee ran for 731 yards with the Broncos last year. Chris Ogbonnaya and Bobby Rainey are also available in the backfield.
Campbell took over for Weeden on Cleveland's final possession against the Ravens in Week 2 and threw three incompletions in a row. His fourth pass, an underhand scoop, left Jordan Cameron well short of a first down.
Reigning Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco, just hours after his wife gave birth to the couple's second child, passed for 211 yards and a touchdown against Cleveland while moving to 11-0 all-time as a starter against the Browns.
"He came up big. That's the player he's shown he is," said Chudzinski.
The Ravens scored 14 unanswered points in the second half on Bernard Pierce's 5-yard touchdown run and Marlon Brown's 5-yard catch to secure the victory.
Weeden threw for 227 yards for the Browns before being injured.
Things aren't going much better for the Vikings, who have been one of the NFL's worst teams in the early going due to the continued poor play from quarterback Christian Ponder as well as an extremely porous pass defense.
Martellus Bennett's touchdown catch with 10 seconds to play gave the Chicago Bears a 31-30 win over Minnesota on a rainy day at Soldier Field last week.
Jay Cutler was picked off twice and lost a fumble, but finished the game 28- for-39 with 290 yards and three touchdowns for the Bears.
Adrian Peterson rushed for 100 yards on 26 carries, while Ponder went 16- for-30 for 227 yards, one touchdown and one pick-six for the Vikings, who have lost two straight division games to open the season after falling in Detroit last week.
"This was a very difficult loss because I thought our guys played extremely hard," said Minnesota head coach Leslie Frazier. "We just constantly battled in a tough place to play on the road. I told the players and staff after the game that I don't think I could have asked for better preparation and better fighting."
Chicago began the game-winning drive at its own 34 trailing by six with 3:15 to play.
On 3rd-and-4, Cutler got the ball to Brandon Marshall for a 12-yard gain, and the two got together for a 10-yard catch on 3rd-and-1 to again move the chains.
Facing a 1st-and-20 after a holding call, Bennett caught a pass for 23 yards to get the ball to the 16. After a spike and an incompletion, Cutler sent a pass to the left and Bennett reached out for it before crossing the goal line inside the left pylon. The extra-point was good and it was a 31-30 game with 10 seconds left.
A squib kick on the ensuing kickoff was fumbled by Minnesota's John Carlson, with Chicago recovering and Cutler taking a knee to run out the clock.
The Vikings hold a 11-3-0 advantage over the Browns in the all-time series between the two franchises. The last time Minnesota and Cleveland met was on Sept. 13, 2009, a 30-20 Vikings victory.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Hoyer played in two games (one start) with the Cardinals last season, passing for 330 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He's clearly not an NFL- ready quarterback at this stage but the Browns may be able to use "Joe Schmo" against a Vikings defense allowing 440 yards per game (28th in the NFL) and 32.5 points (30th).
Minnesota's reliance on the antiquated cover-2 as its base defense is really starting to be exploited in a league skewed toward offense. Rule changes and increased emphasis on flagging big hits in the secondary have made "playing coverage" in the NFL a non-starter but Frazier seems years behind the curve on the subject.
On paper the Vikings have two very good pass rushing ends in Jared Allen and Brian Robison along with plenty of talent in the back seven. Harrison Smith was a Pro Bowl-level safety as a rookie in 2012, and cornerbacks Chris Cook, Josh Robinson and first-round draft pick Xavier Rhodes have the talent and athleticism to excel in a more aggressive scheme.
"When you look at numbers, you have to sometimes look behind the numbers," Frazier said. "When you look at (Sunday's) situation, when it comes to points, and you never want to make excuses, but there are some factors that go into some of those numbers that you have to look at beyond just the raw data. Our defense, they're doing some good things. I really believe they're headed in the right direction. From my perspective, I have to be able to see the bigger picture and sometimes numbers can lie."
Refusing to admit you have a problem is hardly the way to go about solving it.
The biggest issue in pass coverage has been the zone drops from the nickel linebackers. It seems like Chad Greenway has lost a step and middle linebacker Erin Henderson doesn't have the natural instincts a cover-2 linebacker needs when in the zone so Minnesota has been exploited again and again by both Reggie Bush and Matt Forte on underneath stuff, passes in the flat and screens.
Right now Frazier is pounding the square peg in the round hold and even his effective players are starting to lose confidence as they watch the opposition move up and down the field with relative ease.
It's a shame for Cleveland that Weeden got hurt because this is the kind of a game which could have buoyed his confidence moving forward, an almost guaranteed 300-yard effort for a second-year player trying to find his way. Hoyer will make a few plays downfield but the consistency probably won't be there.
Offensively things may be even worse for the Vikings, who have inexplicably married themselves to a QB who simply can't play at the NFL level.
At some point this season you may see the first 11-man front in defensive football history as teams devise ways to stop Adrian Peterson with nary a worry over Ponder's ability to beat them with a downfield throw.
A mechanical mess, Ponder is still staring down receivers like a raw rookie 28 starts into his NFL career. He continues to slide out of the pocket at the first sign of trouble instead of stepping up into it and he needs receivers to run virtually perfect routes, otherwise he's always a threat to throw a pick-six as he did against Chicago when Jerome Simpson ran a poor pattern.
Despite all of that Frazier and general manager Rock Spielman fall on their swords week after week defending Ponder, hoping against hope that the light will finally go on for the Florida State product.
Instead of pointing at the obvious problem Frazier even threw his offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave under the bus a bit this week for not playing Cordarrelle Patterson.
"We're going to get that rectified," Frazier said. "(Patterson) definitely deserves to be on the field more. He's shown that in the few snaps he's gotten in the first two ball games. Hopefully, everything being equal, that should not be a part of the conversation next week. We want to get him on the field."
Problem is the explosive rookie receiver isn't a very skilled route runner at this stage. So, when playing him Musgrave is more jittery than a cat in a room filled with rocking chairs, taking the cautious approach to everything in an attempt to limit Ponder's game-changing mistakes.
And Musgrave's concerns are more than valid. He's already scaled things back to the point that the Vikings offense is more conservative than Jerry Falwell yet Ponder continues to give it away like he's Heidi Fleiss.
The one unit in this contest heading in a positive direction is the Browns' 3-4 attacking defense under coordinator Ray Horton, who is everything Frazier and Williams isn't.
The Browns allowed just 0.9 yards per rush in Week 1 against the Dolphins, and sacked Ryan Tannehill four times. Against the Ravens Cleveland gave up 2.8 yards per rush and got to Flacco twice.
The front seven has a chance to be special with nose tackle Phil Taylor anchoring things between free agent acquisition Desmond Bryant, a good 5- technique rusher, and Ahtyba Rubin, who is stout against the run. First-round pick Barkevious Mingo is back and teams with Paul Kruger on the edges while veteran D'Qwell Jackson is rock solid at inside linebacker.
If the Vikings can't find a way to win their home opener against a team taking an NBA-tanking approach, it's time to raise the white flag and start thinking about Teddy Bridgewater or Jadeveon Clowney come April.
In fact this one comes down to the fact that Cleveland is actively trying to put itself in a position to get one of college football's top stars by inserting its third option at QB and giving Minnesota plenty of notice he would be under center, while also trading what was supposed to be its offensive bell cow in the middle of the week.
All that said, it still won't be all that easy for Ponder and Co.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vikings 27, Browns 20
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