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BEN VOLIN | ON FOOTBALL

The Browns may be winless, but they aren’t pushovers

Triple threat Terrelle Pryor might be the best player in the NFL that you’ve never heard of.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

This is an emotional week for Patriots fans, and it’s easy to get caught up in the hoopla of Tom Brady’s return. Not only is the star quarterback coming back, but the NFL schedule makers were kind to the Patriots, giving them a game against the 0-4 Cleveland Browns as a sort of warmup for Brady as he reacclimates to the team.

But after watching a couple of Browns games on the coaches’ tape, one thing became clear: Underrate them at your own peril!

Though they are the only winless team left in the NFL, and are just in the beginning stages of yet another tear-down-and-rebuild job (16 rookies on the active roster), the Browns have a surprisingly dangerous offense and are much better than their record suggests. They obviously struggle at the quarterback position, but this is a young team that has built leads this year; it still needs to figure out how to close out games.

The Browns blew a 20-point lead against the Ravens in Week 2, yet still could’ve been in line for a game-winning score at the end if not for a bogus taunting call against Terrelle Pryor that pushed them back. And they probably should have beaten the Dolphins in Week 3, but missed a 46-yard field goal at the end of regulation and lost in overtime.

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Sunday’s game probably won’t be a cakewalk for the Patriots, especially since it’s on the road. Let’s take a look at what to expect from the Browns on both sides of the ball:

Offense

■   Coordinator: Pep Hamilton

■   Key skill players: QB Cody Kessler, RB Isaiah Crowell, RB Duke Johnson, WR Terrelle Pryor, WR Andrew Hawkins, TE Gary Barnidge.

■   Personnel notes: Kessler is the Browns’ third quarterback this year, after Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown each suffered broken bones. Receiver Corey Coleman, the Browns’ first-round pick in April, broke his hand and likely won’t return for a few weeks. Starting center Cameron Erving is out with a bruised lung, and his replacement, Austin Reiter, tore his ACL last week, leaving right guard John Greco as the likely center.

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■   What to expect: Let’s talk about the best player in the NFL that no one really knows about: sixth-year receiver Pryor. Holy cow, is he fun to watch.

A converted quarterback, Pryor has developed into a tremendous weapon at wide receiver and does pretty much everything for this offense.

He’s a mismatch for defenses, listed at 6 feet 4 inches, 223 pounds with speed to burn (he once had a 93-yard touchdown run for the Raiders).

Logan Ryan typically covers the opponent’s bigger receivers, so he’ll have a huge task Sunday and will likely need double-team help.

Against Washington’s Josh Norman last week, Pryor was unstoppable with the back-shoulder fade, using his size and strong hands to make several nice catches.

And he took over the Dolphins game two weeks ago, gaining 144 yards receiving, 21 rushing, and 35 yards passing.

Pryor displayed his world-class speed when he caught a short slant pass and galloped 40 yards, outracing the Dolphins secondary.

He is a dangerous weapon in the run game, and ran out of the wildcat more than a dozen times against Miami.

And not only does he have the speed to beat the defense around the corner, but you have to respect his passing skills. Pryor completed 3 of 5 passes for 35 yards against Washington, including a nice 25-yarder to Barnidge over the middle.

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The Browns get creative on offense, sometimes utilizing a wishbone-type of backfield with Pryor in the pistol, giving him all kinds of run-pass options depending on the defensive look.

Outside of Pryor, the Browns don’t have much at quarterback, although Kessler, the team’s third-round pick, has been efficient in his two starts, averaging 233 passing yards and completing 67.1 percent of his attempts. Kessler doesn’t push the ball downfield, but he has managed the game well and avoided crippling mistakes.

The Browns are ranked 12th in total offense, and Hamilton and first-year coach Hue Jackson have done a nice job building the unit around the team’s strengths.

And there is one thing the Browns do well — they run the heck out of the football.

Believe it or not, the winless Browns have the NFL’s No. 1-ranked rushing attack, averaging 149.3 yards per game. They also lead the NFL with a whopping 5.7 yards per carry.

Most of that has been behind Crowell, the third-year running back who is off to a great start. Crowell is second in the NFL with 394 rushing yards, averaging an eye-popping 6.5 yards per carry with three touchdowns. He runs with good power and vision and is dangerous as a cutback runner, particularly with the stretch and read-option runs.

Washington had nine defenders stacked on the line at one point, and Crowell was still able to squeak through for a 17-yard gain thanks to some great blocking by an underrated offensive line anchored by Greco, guard Joel Bitonio, and the ageless Joe Thomas.

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Johnson, a second-year pro, is the third-down scatback, and he has rushed for 156 yards on 6.2 yards per carry, and caught 18 passes for 115 yards.

The running game is dangerous, because the Browns come at you with so many different weapons. As Bill Belichick noted Tuesday, they will use multiple tight ends, an unbalanced line, spread formations, multiple personnel packages, and frequent use of the wildcat.

In addition to Pryor, Johnson also will run the wildcat, and often runs a read-option type of run with Crowell. Last week, Washington linebacker Trent Murphy played it perfectly, playing the outside run and forcing Johnson to commit to a handoff or keeper, and ultimately stuffing the play at the line of scrimmage.

The Cleveland personnel is not deep; Hawkins has just eight catches for 70 yards, and Barnidge is having a bit of a slow start with 16 catches for 160 yards. The Patriots will likely double-team Pryor and stack the box to stop the run game, but that won’t be easy.

Defense

■   Coordinator: Ray Horton

■   Key players: NT Danny Shelton, DE Carl Nassib, OLB Emmanuel Ogbah, ILB Demario Davis, CB Joe Haden, CB Jamar Taylor, FS Jordan Poyer.

■   Personnel notes: Nassib, this year’s third-round pick, is likely to return after missing the last two games with a broken hand, but he may be playing with a cast. Haden is dealing with a groin injury. Strong safety Ibraheim Campbell should return from a hamstring injury. Defensive end Desmond Bryant, the top returning pass rusher, is out for the year with a torn pectoral.

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■  What to expect: The defense hasn’t been a strong suit, ranked 27th in points allowed (28.8 per game) and 22nd in total defense. It’s a young unit that features a lot of players without name recognition, but the Browns play an aggressive zone-blitzing scheme under Horton, who developed his style while coaching for the Steelers from 2004-11. The Browns will play some man-to-man coverage, but also a lot of Cover 1 and Cover 2 with zone blitzing from the linebackers.

They have to be creative with their blitzing, because they aren’t very good up front. They have only six sacks this season, tied for 24th, and linebacker Cam Johnson is the only player with more than one (he has two).

Game of yards
A look at the Browns' defensive statistics and where they stack up against the rest of the league.
CLE League rank
Yards per game 378.0 22nd
Points per game 28.8 27th
Yards per play 5.7 T20th
Passing yards per game 259.8 16th
Rushing yards per game 118.2 24th
Sacks 6 T-24th
Interceptions 5 T-4th
Pass breakups 23 T-12th
Fumbles 2 T-24th
Turnover margin -1 T-18th
Source: NFL.com

On paper, the Browns have a lousy rush defense, ranked 24th and allowing 4.3 yards per carry. Washington’s Matt Jones had a great game, rushing 22 times for 117 yards (5.3 average) and a touchdown.

But a closer inspection of that game shows that Cleveland’s defense simply wore down in the fourth quarter. Jones had 11 rushes for 38 yards through three quarters, then gashed a tired defense for 79 yards on 11 carries in the fourth. This bodes well for LeGarrette Blount, who has gained 248 of his 352 yards in the second half.

The secondary has allowed 10 touchdown passes but is still ranked 16th against the pass after facing Carson Wentz, Joe Flacco, Ryan Tannehill, and Kirk Cousins. Haden, the team’s first-round pick in 2010, is the defensive leader and has two interceptions. Taylor, the other starting cornerback, was a total bust in Miami and never made an interception in three seasons, but he already has two with the Browns.

Briean Boddy-Calhoun is the nickel cornerback and had a 27-yard pick-6 against Miami.

But unless the Browns can consistently get a hand in Brady’s face, and find a way to slow down Blount, they may be in for a long day against the Patriots’ revamped offense.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.