Editor’s note: This is the first part in a series that spotlights three Raiders-Browns matchups to watch Sunday, 1:25 p.m., at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Raiders NT Justin Ellis vs. Browns C John Greco
Tale of the tape:
Ellis (68): 6-foot-2, 311 pounds, rookie season, Louisiana Tech
Greco (77): 6-foot-4, 318 pounds, seventh season, Toledo
The Browns absorbed a huge blow two weeks back, when All-Pro center Alex Mack was lost for the season with a broken fibula. Mack was a team leader and the offensive brain trust, and his absence was certainly felt in Sunday’s loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“I think anytime you lose a player of that magnitude, I’m sure it becomes a next-man-up mentality and you have the confidence in whoever it is going into the football game, but you know you lost something,” Raiders interim head coach Tony Sparano said. “There’s no question about that. To say that I didn’t notice it – sure, I noticed it in the last ballgame. I’m also sure that those guys will continue to grind at it and they’ll get better and better and better.”
[RELATED: Raiders prepping for Manziel package]
Mack was replaced by starting right guard John Greco, a solid player at his position who struggled in his first game after making the switch to center. He allowed two pressures and struggled as a run blocker for an otherwise strong rushing attack.
That’s become an area of weakness that must be exploited by a young, talented nose tackle. Fourth-round pick Justin Ellis has emerged as a strong run defender with some pass-rush ability on the inside. He leads an interior rotation that includes Pat Sims and Antonio Smith on passing downs.
If Ellis can clog the middle and offer an assist to the run defense – the Raiders have struggled against runs to the right of center -- it could help the pass rush around him. Sims is a strong run defender, but they need Ellis to hold up his end to improve in the middle.
“He’s affected the passer on several situations by pushing the pocket, kind of being able to do that with some power and some speed-to-power inside,” Sparano said. “He’s been, really, an active player and his snap count has been going up a little bit. He’s earned that. He’s earned the opportunity to gain some more snaps.
“I actually had a good visit with Justin a couple of days ago and one of the things I told him is you earn what you get at this point right now. If you want more, you’ve got to earn more. To his credit, he’s gone out there and he’s worked really, really hard right now in practice and during the course of the games. I’ve been impressed with that. He’s not an easy guy to move.”