BEREA: Browns General Manager Tom Heckert recently lamented the team’s lack of playmakers capable of truly striking fear into the hearts of opposing defenses.
The Browns (4-9) will encounter one of those rare men today when they face the Arizona Cardinals (6-7) at University of Phoenix Stadium. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is undoubtedly among the NFL’s elite.
“I put Larry Fitzgerald as the best receiver in the league,” Browns cornerback Joe Haden said. “I think he’s No. 1.”
Haden said he expects to shadow Fitzgerald, who will face the Browns for the first time in his career. Haden also conceded that Fitzgerald is worthy of double teams.
“He deserves for more than one person to be over there sometimes,” Haden said. “They throw it to him in double coverage. He makes plays in double coverage, so he’s used to it.”
The Cardinals could make double-teaming Fitzgerald difficult by moving him to different spots in their formations, a strategy they have capitalized on as of late. When Fitzgerald lines up as a slot receiver, the defense has more problems identifying which part of the field he’s going to occupy. In other words, he can sometimes avoid extra defenders if he reads the defense properly.
“Teams are making a conscious effort to have somebody over the top of [Fitzgerald] more and more,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “We see that. You have to try to move him around to try to discourage that or get him in matchups where he’s single covered.”
If Fitzgerald moves into the slot, Haden said, he wouldn’t necessarily follow him. Nickel cornerback Dimitri Patterson knows he must be at his best if he’s asked to cover the 6-foot-3, 218-pound Fitzgerald.
“He’s one of the most aggressive receivers at the point of attack at the ball, and he has outstanding hands,” Patterson said. “I think that’s what separates him in addition to his work ethic. But he has unbelievable concentration, great hands and extremely good ball skills.”
Those attributes allow Fitzgerald to grab passes in traffic. The Browns are well aware of his knack for making acrobatic catches.
“You’ve gotta make sure if you touch the ball, break it up or intercept it,” Haden said. “If you tip it in the air, he’s got so many plays that we’ve watched on film of the DB touching the ball and him just snatching it from him, or the ball getting tipped in the air and him jumping up and getting it.”
Fitzgerald has 62 catches for 1,092 yards and seven touchdowns this season. It’s his fifth consecutive season with more than 1,000 yards receiving and the sixth of his eight-year career.
Consistent production has helped him establish a reputation as one of the top playmakers in the league. The Browns certainly plan on devoting ample attention to Fitzgerald regardless of who plays quarterback for the Cardinals — backup John Skelton will play if starter Kevin Kolb is sidelined with a concussion.
“Wherever Larry [Fitzgerald] is, Joe [Haden] probably won’t be far,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. “There are different things you do on defense, whether you pressure sometimes when you’re one-on-one. There are different times when you’re playing a zone and there are two-on-one. We have multiple ways to try to cover him. We’ll use whatever we have because he is one of the finest receivers in this league. He can change the game with one throw.”
Haden said a misstep caused him to slip and fall while trying to cover wide receiver Antonio Brown on Dec. 8 in the Browns’ 14-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Brown capitalized by scoring a 79-yard touchdown with 2:52 left in the fourth quarter.
Haden knows he could redeem himself with a strong showing against Fitzgerald.
“When you’re trying to become elite, when you want to be known as one of the top people, you have to go against the best receivers,” Haden said. “You can’t be one of the best covering people that aren’t the best.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://browns.ohio.com. Follow the Browns on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ABJ_Browns and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.