Broncos' defense to test McCown, Browns**
When asked about what McCown does best, Browns head coach Mike Pettine began with the AFC Offensive Player of the Week's weekly preparation.
"He understands when a play gets called -- the play from A to Z," Pettine said. "He understands it well, the formation, who needs to be where, the timing of any particular motion, the spacing of the wide receivers and then what the read is. If the route is built to where we have a blitz-beater on one side and a zone-beater on the other, he can recognize a defense."
McCown's preparation and reads will certainly be tested by this Broncos defense, which prides itself on bringing heat from any direction it pleases. Whether bringing many or few to rush the passer, the defense presents a brain-freezing challenge for the opposition.
"I'll probably study the same as I do every week," McCown said, "but it causes that to intensify, for sure, just because some weeks you play teams that their front, what they do with their scheme, is not as dynamic as other teams.
"With this group, if they just lined up and rushed four, they could get home a lot of times because they're that good. Then you add in the pressures and what they can do like you're talking about and you certainly have your hands full. Obviously that adds some intensity, some focus to those film studies, for sure, to make sure that we're all over it."
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Pettine is confident that it's no task McCown can't handle, even if the Broncos lead the league with 22 sacks already (which would have been good for 30th for the 2014 regular-season team totals).
"I just think he has a knack; he has an aptitude for it," Pettine said. "Even the time that he spent out of football that he spent coaching certainly has helped him, as well. We're a big believer in confidence through preparation and that's why our guys from Monday through Wednesday are tasked with doing a lot of research on the opponent and having some information when they come in here on Wednesdays."
The Broncos' pass rush doesn't just end with the starters, either. The Browns will have to do their due diligence from top to bottom against a team that has 11 different players registering at least one sack.
"Outside of the top two, [OLB] Shane Ray was a guy that we thought a lot of in the draft," Pettine said. "[OLB Shaquil] Barrett is another guy that is playing well and fits right in. That's tough on an offense when those tackles that are playing every snap are playing against a position that can constantly be rolling.
"We were watching a cut-up the other day," Pettine added during the Browns' pre-practice press conference. "I asked [offensive coordinator John] Flip [DeFilippo], 'Is this the sack cut-up?' He goes, 'No, this is just a normal 11-personnel cut-up that we're watching.'"
Finding success on the ground and preventing long-yardage situations will be of utmost import to avoid putting McCown and the offensive line in uncomfortable predicaments against the pass rush, Pettine concluded.
"Not only do they sack the quarterback, they're hitting him, too, and that has an effect over time," Pettine said. "We're aware of that. [...] Any time you can rush the passer the way they do, you have to be able to establish some type of run. That will be important to us. Part of it, too, is to get ahead of the sticks — to not be in those situations. Any time you can tell a Von Miller that it's second-and-10 or it's third-and-11, they are playing the run on the way to the quarterback. We have to be in as few situations like that as possible."
Browns balancing passing attack with speed, size
Tight end Gary Barnidge made one of the more bizarre highlight grabs against the Ravens when a deflected pass ended up cradled between his knees, but his consistency in making plays has made him a major part of the Browns' offense.
An eight-year veteran, Barnidge has emerged to lead the team in receptions. His total receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns through five games also surpass any single-season mark in his career to date.
"I think his size obviously helps him because it gives him a range and a catch radius that allows him to really body up defenders and gives you a reception area that you can put the ball away from a guy and he can go get it," McCown said. "So, I definitely feel like that part of Gary helps. I think his speed is deceptive and he's able to run away from guys, too, and he understands leverage. He understands leverage and technique and I think all those things come together to make Gary who he is and allows him to catch the ball and make the plays that he does."
Size matters for the 6-foot-6-inch Barnidge and the Browns offense because they don't quite have it elsewhere in the receiving corps. Andrew Hawkins and Travis Benjamin, who started in the Browns' Week 5 matchup against Baltimore, measure at 5-foot-7 and 5-foot-10, respectively. Brian Hartline is 6-foot-2, but has been battling thigh and ribs injuries in the previous two weeks and has made nine catches through five weeks.
"If you look at our receivers on the outside, we don't have big targets," Pettine said. "We're actually the opposite of that. Hawkins, Benjamin and Gabriel aren't the biggest targets, so it's nice to have that presence in the middle of the field that can make plays. [...] He understands football, he understands how defenses play, leverage and how to get open and present himself to the quarterback. We coldn't be more pleased with where Gary is right now."