The Giants will attempt to return to the win column Sunday when they host a Cleveland Browns team that Tom Coughlin said is much better than its 0-4 record suggests. The Giants trail in the regular-season series, 26-19-2, and the postseason series is tied, 1-1. The Giants are 9-12-2 in home games vs. Cleveland, including a 27-10 triumph in Giants Stadium on Sept. 26, 2004. The teams last met on Oct. 13, 2008, when the Browns pinned the first loss on the defending champion Giants in a Monday night game, 35-14. From 1950-69, the Giants and Browns had one of the NFL’s greatest rivalries, playing each other twice each season (except for 1968). Since the Browns moved to the AFC in the 1970 merger, they have gone head-to-head only eight times (each team has won four). The Giants had a four-game winning streak in the series, including two victories in Cleveland (24-3 on Nov. 5, 2000 and 16-13 on Dec. 4, 1994), before the Browns’ triumph four years ago.
The Browns have lost 10 in a row and 13 of 14 games dating back to last season. But they have played almost everyone tough; their four losses this season are by a total of 25 points, including a one-point defeat to Philadelphia on opening day. Cleveland is the NFL’s shortest (average height 6-1.1 inches), lightest (242.6 pounds), youngest (25.55 years) and least-experienced (3.25 years) team. The Browns have 15 rookies, plus 11 second-year players. Offense
Seven offensive starters have two or fewer years of experience, including three rookies – quarterback Brandon Weeden, running back Trent Richardson and right tackle Mitchell Schwarz. The Browns’ average of 311.5 yards a game, 27th in the NFL. They are 27th in rushing (76.3) and 20th in passing (235.3).
Weeden, the second of the Browns’ two first-round draft choices this year, is a rookie starter who turns 29 next week (he played minor league baseball before joining the Oklahoma State football team). He has completed 53.9 percent of his passes and threw for more than 300 yards in two of his last three games. Weeden is a strong pocket passer who can also complete passes on the move. He has been very productive throwing dink and dunk passes. The backup is Colt McCoy, who started 13 games last season.
Richardson, the third overall selection in this year’s draft, leads Cleveland in rushing (222 yards on 64 carries) and receiving (15 catches). He has scored four of the team’s seven touchdowns. Richardson is a tough, hard-nosed first- and second-down back who runs with vision, strength and balance. He can cut quickly and run over defenders. Chris Ogbonnaya, who was signed off Houston’s practice squad a year ago, is the third-down back. He is a savvy receiver with a nice feel for the passing game. Ogbonnaya missed the season opener with an ankle injury, but has since been a valuable change-of-pace back. Brandon Jackson filled in for Ogbonnaya against Philadelphia.
Fullback Owen Marecic is a rugged lead blocker who attacks his target and is alert on blitz pickup.
The Browns are having trouble fielding healthy wide receivers. Mohamed Massaquoi, the most talented wideout, missed practice Wednesday with a lingering hamstring injury that forced him to sit out the loss last week in Baltimore. Travis Benjamin also did not practice because of a sore hamstring. Joshua Cribbs was limited after suffering a concussion against the Ravens. When healthy, Massaquoi is the team’s top playmaker at receiver. He can produce at all the wideout positions, separate at all levels and secure the ball with his strong hands. Greg Little leads the receivers with 11 catches, but he leads the NFL in drops. He is a physical 6-4 possession receiver who uses his size to shield defenders from the ball. The top backups - Josh Gordon and Benjamin - are both rookies. Gordon is another tall receiver with good coverage awareness. Benjamin is a big-play threat who has four rushing attempts in the young season. Cribbs can contribute as a receiver, runner and return threat. A former college quarterback, he is an explosive playmaker and the Browns look for creative ways to get him the ball. Jordan Norwood was active for the first time last week.
Tight end Benjamin Watson is a seven-year starter. He is a smart and competitive player with good production; his 12 catches this year place him second on the team. Jordan Cameron lines up all over the formation and is a tough point of attack blocker. He is a young, ascending tight end with good vertical speed to stretch the passing game. Alex Smith is a good athlete who can locate voids in the coverage and catch the ball when it’s thrown to him.
Cleveland’s offensive line is young and talented. Left tackle Joe Thomas was a Pro Bowler in each of his first five seasons and has never missed a snap in his career. He is a big, steady and complete tackle. At right tackle is Schwartz, a rookie from California who has done a good job keeping defensive ends off balance. Jason Pinkston, the left guard, can wall off defenders in the run game. Right guard Shawn Lauvao has solid run and pass instincts and the ability to overpower defenders. Center Alex Mack has not missed an offensive snap in his four seasons. He is an active veteran with good pull speed. Defense
The Browns’ defense is also very young, with nine rookies. The unit is ranked 25th in the NFL, allowing 403.3 yards a game. It is 19th against the run (117.3) and 28th vs. the pass (286.0). The Browns have six interceptions after finishing the 2011 season with nine.
Cleveland rotates several defensive linemen in and out of the game and all of them are good at getting their hands up and batting down balls. Left end Jabaal Sheard had 8.5 sacks last season and plays in all packages. He has a quick upfield burst and an impressive speed to power conversion. Sheard always seems to be around the ball. Frostee Rucker is a first-year starter at right end who moves inside when the Browns use their 5-2-4 alignment. He is a physical defensive end who plays with strength against both the run and pass. Ahtyba Rubin is a rugged inside defender. Rookie second-round draft choice Billy Winn is an athletic player who can quickly shed blockers. Another NFL newcomer, John Hughes, is a big backup with natural leverage. Ishmaa’ily Kitchen – also a rookie – is massive, thick and sturdy at the point of attack.
The Browns have a speedy corps of linebackers that excels at cutting off outside runs. Middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is a terrific undersized defender. With three sacks and two interceptions, he is the only NFL player with at least two in each category. He returned an interception for a touchdown in the opener vs. Philadelphia and had three sacks and a pick against Cincinnati. Scott Fujita is a two-down strongside linebacker who quickly locates the ball and is alert when the tight end leaks out to run a pattern. Rookie L.J. Fort started the opener in Fujita’s place while Fujita dealt with the sanctions levied against him in the aftermath of the Saints bounty scandal. Fort led the team in tackles in the preseason and has distinguished himself in the goal line packages. The weakside linebacker is Kaluka Maiava, a competitive run defender who is not included in the sub packages. Craig Robinson is listed as Maiava’s backup, but actually plays more snaps. He flies around the field, has good ball skills and exhibits good timing as a blitzer.
Cleveland’s secondary has been beset by a number of issues. The team’s best defensive back, Joe Hayden, is serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance enhancing substances and will miss the Giants game. Many of the other players in the unit have been switching roles and/or dealing with injuries. Strong safety T.J. Ward is the only defensive back to start every game. He is the team’s leading tackler with 27 (22 solo). But he broke his hand in Baltimore and didn’t practice Wednesday. Ward plays close to the line of scrimmage and is a disruptive run defender. Usama Young has been the starter at free safety. He left the Ravens game with a knee injury and was limited in practice. Young is an instinctive high-motor player who consistently gets good breaks on the ball. He also has good range as a centerfielder and is strong on contact. Rookie Tashaun Gipson has rotated with Young, but he also hurt his knee in Baltimore. Dimitri Patterson began the season as the nickel corner, but now starts for Hayden. He plays with confidence and anticipates and jumps routes. Eleven-year veteran and former Philadelphia Eagle Sheldon Brown has 23 career interceptions. The starter at right corner, he is a savvy veteran who is best in zone coverage. Buster Skrine has seen his playing time increase during Hayden’s suspension. In the nickel, Skrine plays left corner and Patterson moves into the slot. Ray Ventrone, Trevin Wade and Eric Hagg could all play. Special teams
Kicker Phil Dawson has made all eight of his field goal attempts and 83.5 percent of his career tries, which is 11th all-time. He is four-for-four from 50 or more yards. In Baltimore, he kicked field goals of 50, 51 and 52 yards in the rain. Because he has played on losing teams, Dawson might be the NFL’s most underrated kicker. Punter Reggie Hodges missed the entire 2011 season with an Achilles injury. His net average of 36.6 yards is 27th in the league. Cribbs has long been one of the NFL’s best return specialists. He has 11 career return touchdowns, including a league record eight on kickoffs and three on punts. When he left the Baltimore game after absorbing a brutal hit, Benjamin assumed the return duties.