|Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and the rest of the Browns' defense say they have to be on their toes when they face the Cowboys' potent receiving trio. (US Presswire)|
The Cleveland Browns defense is primarily concerned with containing the Cowboys receiving trio of TE Jason Witten and WRs Dez Bryant and Miles Austin when the teams play Sunday in Dallas.
The Browns know the trio can hurt you on short, mid-range and deep routes, and there's no area of the field with which the defense won't be concerned.
Witten specializes in getting open underneath. Bryant and Austin can move the chains 10-15 yards at a time or light up the scoreboard behind QB Tony Romo.
Witten uses his size and experience to shield his body from defenders. His 18-catch game three weeks ago against the New York Giants ended speculation that he's no longer in his prime. Does it also preclude the Browns from using a linebacker one-on-one against him? Browns MLB D'Qwell Jackson indicated that the defense won't make drastic changes to contain Witten.
"We're going to stay within our scheme whether we have a linebacker or safety matched up on him," he said. "We have confidence in our guys ... but we always have to be aware of where he is on the field."
FS Usama Young, who has performed well since taking over the starting spot from Eric Hagg early in the season, doesn't see a big difference in Bryant and Austin. They are equally daunting assignments in his mind.
"They both got speed, they're both talented, they're both physical and they both have good hands," he said. "You have to worry about them both. They have talent all over the field and that really puts a lot of pressure on the secondary."
That secondary was without top CB Joe Haden (oblique) at practice Thursday. Haden said Wednesday he anticipates playing in Dallas. The Browns are in serious trouble if he doesn't -- they lost all four games with him out earlier in the year due to a drug suspension and the secondary was torched repeatedly.
The effectiveness of the pass rush will also play a big role in containing the receivers. The Browns have just 12 sacks in the past seven games after racking up eight in the first two. They can't allow the elusive Romo to extend plays and give his receivers more time to get open.
"Romo is very mobile; he keeps plays alive longer than you want him to on defense," offensive coordinator Brad Childress said. "He has really good movement and can escape. He doesn't move to run. He wants to go downfield, and he keeps his eyes downfield. He makes a lot of plays on the move out of the pocket."
Downward trend for tight ends: The changes on offense this season have resulted in far less involvement of the tight ends as pass catchers.
One major emphasis has been developing a relationship between rookie QB Brandon Weeden and his young wide receivers. That has eroded the numbers for the tight ends. That unit had 91 catches for 898 yards and seven touchdowns last year. This year's trio of Benjamin Watson, Jordan Cameron and Alex Smith has combined for 41 receptions for 360 yards and a score.
Watson said the reasons for the difference would require a "comparative analysis" but added that the coaches and players are simply working to put points on the board. He's concerned that scoring has decreased in recent games. The Browns, who scored a meager 12.8 points a game last season, averaged more than 22 in their first six games and just 11.5 in the past three. Their five red-zone drives in their last game against Baltimore netted five field goals.
"We had decent plays to run, but for whatever reason, whether it was penalties or communication, we messed it up," Watson said. "We've got guys who can make plays. We need to hone in as a whole team and get into the end zone. To get down there five times and not score a touchdown, we shouldn't win the ballgame."
Streamlining: Browns coach Pat Shurmur vowed to "streamline" getting plays in after the debacle against Baltimore cost them valuable timeouts.
Mission accomplished, according to Childress, who said there have been staff discussions about it. Childress acknowledged the problem, which he blamed on several issues.
"It's gone through a lot of staff discussions," he said. "We've had communications issues, whether it's been indecision or me not speaking clearly or Pat not speaking clearly or we've been caught on the last play. You get irritated [over the previous play] and that sometimes happens. We've talked about getting plays in and out."
Childress added that the game against the Ravens was the first time the problem "has reared its ugly head."
Bits and pieces: Shurmur said he has seen "no real drop-off" at left guard since veteran John Greco replaced starter Jason Pinkston, who is on IR with a blood clot in his lung. ... WRs Mohamed Massaquoi and Josh Cooper will not both be active for the same game, according to Shurmur. The one that performs better in practice and provides a better matchup against that particular opponent will dress. ... Trent Richardson can become the first Browns running back to exceed 100 yards rushing in three straight games since Jerome Harrison in the last three games of the 2009 season. Richardson rushed for more than 100 yards against San Diego and Baltimore. ... The Browns are 3-16 in their last 19 games.
Stay dialed in on the Cleveland Browns on Twitter at @CBSBrowns throughout the season with on-site updates from CBSSports.com RapidReports correspondent Marty Gitlin.