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(UPDATED) Browns-Saints Preview: Antonio Callaway, Chris Smith to make 1st starts; 4 things to watch; 3 key numbers; the prediction

NEW ORLEANS — Rookie receiver Antonio Callaway will make his first NFL start today against the Saints.

The fourth-round pick was scheduled to start the opener against the Steelers but wasn’t on the field for the first play. He wound up playing 15 snaps, was targeted once and didn’t have a catch.

Callaway received the promotion when Josh Gordon was ruled out Saturday with what the team announced as a hamstring injury. General manager John Dorsey later announced he would release Gordon on Monday but is trying to trade him.

Linebacker James Burgess will get the start in place of Christian Kirksey (ankle), who was ruled out Saturday and didn’t travel with the team. Burgess started nine games last year in his first season.

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Defensive end Chris Smith will make the first start of his five-year career, filling in for Emmanuel Ogbah, who injured his left ankle in the 21-21 tie last week against the Steelers.

Tight end Seth DeValve (hamstring) also was ruled out Saturday and didn’t make the trip. He practiced all week and wasn’t listed on the injury report until Saturday.

The healthy scratches for the Browns are No. 3 quarterback Drew Stanton, defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo and defensive tackle Devaroe Lawrence.

FOUR DOWNS

(Four points of interest in Sunday’s game)

DUAL THREAT

On an offense with quarterback Drew Brees and receiver Michael Thomas, running back Alvin Kamara stands out. The third-round pick in 2017 instantly became one of the most dynamic players in the NFL, ranking sixth with 1,554 yards from scrimmage. He caught 81 passes for 826 yards, a 10.2 average and five touchdowns and rushed 120 times for 728, 6.1 average and eight. He also had a kickoff return to give him 14 touchdowns, which set a New Orleans rookie record and tied for second in the NFL with teammate Mark Ingram. Kamara opened his second season with nine catches for 112 yards and a touchdown and eight rushes for 29 yards.

“He’s a special player,” Browns middle linebacker Joe Schobert said. “We’ve got a lot of athletic guys on our defense who can do a good job of staying with him and hopefully limiting him, but the biggest key is to know when they’re trying to target him and how they’re trying to target him and, once you know those kinds of situations, being able to take it away and making Drew Brees go elsewhere.”

Browns defenders described Kamara as elusive and fast and were impressed by his receiver-quality route-running and catching. He will stress the linebackers, and strong safety Jabrill Peppers may be called upon to try to cover him.

WATCHING THE CLOCK

With a passing game far from a finished product and the deadly Brees on the other sideline, the Browns would be wise to go with a ball-control approach. That means committing to the run from the outset and not as a last resort.

“You look at all of the different scenarios to try to slow them down,” coach Hue Jackson said of the Saints.

The Browns rushed for 177 yards in the opener, but 77 came from quarterback Tyrod Taylor. The three running backs combined for 30 carries and 100 yards, a 3.3 average, and Jackson wasn’t pleased.

“The numbers are a little inflated. I watch the tape and we can do some things a little better,” said Jackson, who added he’s confident the improvement will be evident against the Saints.  “There is no question. I know it will.”

A 10-play, 86-yard touchdown drive featuring nothing but runs to start the third quarter against Pittsburgh showed the capability of the run game. Running back Carlos Hyde, who carried 22 times for 62 yards, a 2.8 average and a 1-yard touchdown, would welcome a run-heavy game plan.

“If it comes to that, I am all for it. I am not going to turn it down,” he said. “I will be more than ready.”

SPECIAL BOND

The numbers are staggering. New Orleans’ Thomas (6-foot-3, 212 pounds) had 16 catches in 17 targets for 180 yards and a touchdown in the opening loss to Tampa Bay.

“I guess that’s one of Drew Brees’ favorite targets,” cornerback Terrance Mitchell said. “So we gotta be ready for him.”

In 32 NFL games, Thomas has 212 catches for 2,562 yards and 15 touchdowns. He was a second-round pick out of Ohio State in 2016, taken 32 spots after the Browns selected Corey Coleman, who busted out of Cleveland and is already on his third team. Brees didn’t need long to develop trust in Thomas, who eclipsed 1,100 yards in each of his two seasons.

“They have a special relationship,” Jackson said. “This guy is big, fast, strong and has a big catch radius. He is always out there and he is making plays when the ball is thrown to him,” Jackson said.

The challenge will fall primarily on rookie Denzel Ward, who had two interceptions in his debut. Ward knows Thomas from their year together at Ohio State and said Thomas’ size won’t bother him.

DOME OF NOISE

The protection for Taylor was awful vs. the Steelers, as he was sacked seven times and pressured throughout. While the line won’t have to deal with a sloppy field, it will have to contend with the crowd noise amplified inside the dome. The Browns will use a silent snap count.

“You can’t let the crowd take a hold of the game because if you do, you’re able to have pre-snap penalties and just different things that catch you off-guard,” right tackle Chris Hubbard said. “You’ll be late off the ball.”

The Browns had four false starts in the opener, two by undrafted rookie left tackle Desmond Harrison, who also had an illegal formation penalty declined. Harrison settled in as the game went along but is still making the adjustment from West Georgia to the NFL. Avoiding penalties is harder on the road and in a dome.

“Those self-inflicted wounds like that, we can’t do that because it is hard to overcome those,” Jackson said.

Hubbard struggled vs. Pittsburgh linebacker T.J. Watt and will try to bounce back against Saints All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan, who had 13 sacks last season.

“He is strong. He is quick. He is tenacious,” Jackson said.


NUMBERS GAME

4

Consecutive years Saints have started 0-2, but none with both losses at home. They dropped the opener at home against Tampa Bay.

7

Points the offense scored last week in the possessions after the six takeaways by the defense.

21

Consecutive road losses for the Browns. The last win was Oct. 11, 2015, at Baltimore.

THE PICK

The unexpected absence of Josh Gordon is a huge blow to quarterback Tyrod Taylor and an offense struggling to find its footing. Saints 27, Browns 17.

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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