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Pre-Game Recon: Five Questions With Dawgs By Nature

Chris Pokorny of our sister site, Dawgs By Nature, checks in to update us on his beloved Cleveland Browns in advance of their showdown with the Houston Texans.

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1. The Browns are somehow in the lead in the AFC North. What witchcraft is this, and how do I get it to rub off on the Texans?

It has to be the magic of Brian Hoyer, because all he does he win. Maybe that's why Bill O'Brien is trying to channel some similar witchcraft by starting the other former backup to Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett. In all seriousness, besides Cleveland being a generally good football team, Cleveland has the advantage of facing the two worst divisions in football: the AFC South and the NFC South. By finishing in last place last year, and the Texans should know this too since they've already beaten both teams, we also get two softer opponents in Oakland and Buffalo. With the exception of a loss to the Jaguars, Cleveland has taken advantage of their schedule. That would be good enough to put them in a similar boat as the Texans, hovering around .500. The statement wins that show the rest of the NFL that the Browns could be for real are the team's past two divisional games, a 31-10 win over the Steelers and a 24-3 win over the Bengals.

Cleveland's defense has been improving since Week 6, a stretch in which they are only allowing 13.4 points per game. Offensively, the formula is so simple, yet teams haven't been able to stop it: whether it works or not, commit to the run repeatedly, and then hit the opposition with the bootleg playaction once defenders start creeping up. Last week, Hoyer ran a playaction fake, followed by a fake end around, that only had one receiver running a deep comeback route. The receiver ended up being wide open for a gain of 18 yards. The Browns pick up chunks when they pass the ball, evidenced by the fact that they rank 5th in the NFL in passing yards per play. Hoyer has maintained the balance of keeping the turnovers to a minimum while still being aggressive down the field, something that is made possible by the brilliant scheming that Kyle Shanahan has been doing.

2. How has Justin Gilbert looked thus far? In hindsight, do you still thinking passing on Sammy Watkins in favor of a first rounder and Gilbert was the right move?

If the Browns had straight up passed on Sammy Watkins for Justin Gilbert, I'd certainly be a bit upset. However, picking up that extra first round pick in 2015 is huge, especially if Cleveland continues to do well and believes they are only one piece away from taking the next step toward being the new leaders of the AFC North. Also, the fact that the Browns are atop the AFC North heading into Week 11 and will be getting Josh Gordon back next week softens the blow of not having Watkins. Cleveland's receivers have also overachieved more than anyone could have anticipated.

Gilbert had a rough start to the season, but as a credit to the coaching staff, they recognized that and reduced his playing time significantly. Undrafted free agent K'Waun Williams became the team's new nickel back for a stretch, but Gilbert's snaps have been incrementally increasing week-by-week, and we've seen the progress unfold from a guy who had poor tackling form and very little confidence to a player who is tackling fine and has started challenging receivers. There is still a lot of polishing to go, but that's the advantage of having capable cornerbacks in place already (Joe Haden and Buster Skrine) -- you don't have to throw your youngster to the wolves and let him get eaten alive. If Gilbert ends up maturing into a starting cornerback in 2015, then I'd say the Browns are the clear winners in the trade. If he remains an average player, then we'll have to see how the team's 2015 pick turns out. Right now, though, fans aren't kicking themselves over the pick. It's amazing what the taste of winning does, eh?

3. If Cleveland makes the playoffs, would you be in favor of re-signing Brian Hoyer after this season or turning the keys over to Johnny Manziel in 2015?

I've been a Brian Hoyer fan from the get-go, so I'd be in favor of re-signing him for a couple more years. Hoyer is going to want a fair amount of guaranteed money I'm sure, but there are probably ways that the contract can be structured to give him a lot of that cash up front so he could potentially be used as a trade chip should the team decide to switch to Johnny Manziel at a later time. Because Manziel was a first-round pick, a lot of people seem to think a decision needs to be made on him as soon as possible, but that's not the case. We've seen how well Blake Bortles, Derek Carr, and Teddy Bridgewater have done this season, and it hasn't been pretty. Out of all the teams with promising young quarterbacks, the Browns have the best foundation in place. Hoyer is the more polished quarterback right now to give Cleveland the best chance to win. If Manziel is able to improve his craft and take notes on how to study film, etc. over the next couple of years, his athleticism will be what gives him the edge over Hoyer in terms of a starter.

4. What is your perception of Mike Pettine thus far as the Browns' head coach? Is he the right man for the job?

Mike Pettine preaches toughness with a no-excuses type of attitude, but he also doesn't come off as a hard ass like a Greg Schiano, which I think is a good combination to gain the respect of the locker room. In terms of in-game coaching, the only blunder I believe he had was against the Jaguars, when he opted to go for it on 4th down rather than kicking a field goal at the end of the first half. It was a game in which I feel the Browns could have "won ugly" with the field goal, and choosing not to kick probably cost Cleveland the game. Other than that, there have been no complaints about his in-game coaching.

The offense has the benefit of Kyle Shanahan's brilliant scheming. In that sense, it feels like we have two head coaches -- one who specializes in offense, and one who specializes in defense (Pettine). At the same time, the harmony appears great among the staff. Through all of the Browns' failed coaches since 1999, I've often wondered, "why can't the Browns just get lucky and find that next gem of a head coach?" I don't know if Pettine is a "gem" per se, but he is certainly on the path to being a competent head coach.

5. Just how good can the Browns be when Josh Gordon returns? Are they serious contenders?

The Browns should be considered serious contenders. I'm not saying they are as good as Denver, New England, and Indianapolis, but because of how the rest of their schedule looks, if they go on a Carolina-like-run from 2013, they could wield the advantage of having a home playoff game. Once you're in the postseason, all bets are off in terms of who makes it to the promised land.

We're definitely excited about the return of Josh Gordon -- the respect he commands from a defense and then the run-after-the-catch ability he has for his size is almost unprecedented. Last year, Gordon stepped in and was productive right away after a two-game suspension. This year, it's been much lengthier -- a ten-game suspension -- which does create a little bit of trepidation regarding whether his chemistry with Brian Hoyer will be there. For example, Hoyer has been calling a lot of audibles this season. What if in his first game back, Hoyer makes an adjustment he's been doing all season, but Gordon streaks down the field instead of running a dig, leading to an interception? You don't want to think about those things, but Shanahan's system, although effective, is supposed to be complex in terminology. A few miscommunications could be the difference between winning and losing, and ultimately between making and missing the postseason.

Optimistically, Gordon will help the Browns pick up a few more wins. We rarely see Hoyer take a shot to a receiver down the sideline, but he'll have that luxury now with a player like Gordon who can shield off defensive backs or simply out-run them for a big play.

A big thank you to Chris for stopping by. For more of his fantastic work on all things Browns, go check out Dawgs By Nature.

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