Cleveland Browns Preseason Game One Takeaways
The Cleveland Browns 2016 preseason campaign is officially underway. Although the Browns came up short against the Green Bay Packers, the entire team showed flashes of success. With that being said, head coach Hue Jackson and the rest of the coaching staff have a lot of work to do before the final 53-man roster is set.
When analyzing a regular season game, it is important to look at the entire team’s production. During the preseason, each individual player must standout to impress not only the coaching staff, but General Manager Sashi Brown who will have the final say on who will be making a home in Cleveland. Here are my biggest takeaways from this year’s first preseason game:
1. Surprising Depth at the QB Position
Many questions have been asked about first year Browns quarterback Robert Griffin III’s ability to be a successful pocket passer for the Orange and Brown. Hugh Jackson answered that question having his first offensive play call be a 49 yard bomb thrown by Griffin to receiver Terrelle Pryor. RGIII showed excellent poise stepping up in a collapsing pocket, and showed no fear while taking a big hit. We didn’t see the swagger Griffin has become known for in the NFL, but instead an extremely confident and veteran leader. His biggest error came on an interception targeting pro bowl tight end Gary Barnidge. An obvious miscommunication - Griffin looked for the deep post when Barnidge never broke from his streak. Headed to the sidelines Barnidge went to Griffin, admitting to the error. Although mental errors are never good to see in live action, preseason is the ideal time for these situations to happen.
NFL veteran Josh McCown will see his role in the Browns 2016 campaign be that of the next-man-up. McCown has earned the respect of the entire locker room due to his warrior like mentality in the 2015 season. During a 33-30 overtime victory over AFC North Rival Baltimore Ravens last season, McCown broke the Browns single-game franchise passing record throwing for 457 yards. Last night he may not have had the same success completing only 1 of 4 passes, but still commands the line of scrimmage with a fierce mentality.
It is very unlikely for a team to keep 4 quarterbacks on a 53-man roster, so the battle for the final spot will be between 5th year pro Austin Davis, and rookie 3rd round pick Cody Kessler. Davis saw action for the orange and brown last season after Josh McCown’s season ended with a broken collarbone. He was a serviceable option, but in no way guaranteed himself a spot on this year’s roster. Last night Davis completed 4 of 9 passes for 32 yards. He had to leave the game after showing concussion like symptoms when he failed to slide and took a massive hit running down the field. Little is known on how this will impact his standing on making the team, but it is crucial Davis does not rush a return that could further damage his career.
The Cleveland Browns 3rd round draft pick out of USC, Cody Kessler, could not have asked for a better first snap of his NFL career. Kessler threw a 10-yard back shoulder fade in the end zone to fellow rookie Rashard Higgins. The flawless rookie debut was short lived due to his second play - Kessler stepped out of his own end zone. Although Kessler may be a 3rd round pick, his job is not safe and it is crucial that he matures at a rapid pace. Late in the 4th quarter Kessler failed to get rid of the football, taking another safety giving the Packers the chance to seal the victory. Kessler has lots of room for growth and with excellent veteran leaders over him in the depth chart, expect Kessler to limit the rookie mistakes in the future.
2. Serious Offensive Line Problems
Although the Browns leader on the line, left tackle Joe Thomas is still in pro bowl form, the loss of center Alex Mack, and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz showed last night. 2nd year player Cameron Erving was used last season as a hybrid linemen learning every position, but this year will be used as Mack’s replacement at center. Head coach Hue Jackson has always been a huge advocator of games being won in the trenches, but has a lot of work to be done in making that a reality.
The Packers defensive line ran various twist and blitz stunts’ successfully putting the Browns quarterbacks to the turf on many occasions. Erving must take control at the center position adjusting the line into successful protections. This will come in time, but offensive line coach Hal Hunter must take it personal when his QB is on his back every time he drops back to pass.
The Browns lost the rushing battle 77 yards to 151 yards. This stat is slightly misleading due to the orange and brown only rushing 17 times compared to Green Bay’s 41 attempts, but correlates with the coaching staff’s confidence in running the football. Winning 1st downs will give the offensive line more opportunities to continue running the ball on 2nd and 3rd down.
1. Struggles in Defending the Run
Controlling the line of scrimmage is essential in producing wins during the season. The Green Bay Packers offensive line provided an excellent push throughout the game averaging 3.7 yards per carry. Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers inactive for the Browns first preseason game put the pressure on the offensive line to carry the load on the ground. Rookie defensive linemen Carl Nassib out of Penn State was a force to be reckoned with making key plays in the run and pass defense. He had an excellent first step shooting his hands into the opposing offensive linemen, and finding the best route to make the play. Drafted in the 3rd round, Nassib is expected to make an immediate impact during this year’s season.
2. Ray Horton Likes to Blitz
In his second stint with the Cleveland Browns, defensive coordinator Ray Horton showed us once again he loves to blitz in passing situations. The schemes are already freeing up openings for the Browns defense to make plays in the backfield, but the tackling is atrocious. Browns former 1st round pick Barkevious Mingo had a chance to end Green Bay’s drive early in the 3rd quarter, but failed to bring down Packers QB Marquise Williams. This is nothing new to the Browns fan base and with so many young players on the defensive side of the ball; don’t be surprised if the coaching staff loses patience with the player. On a more positive note, second year player Jamie Meder was a dominant presence at the nose tackle position. He scored the team’s first points with 5:01 left in the first quarter bringing down Packers QB Joe Callahan for the safety. Meder will be essential in passing situations with last year’s first-round pick Danny Shelton being the other nose tackle for the team. Hue Jackson has made it clear he wants Shelton to be a three-down player, but last night showed it doesn’t seem he has the motor to make that a reality.
Special teams coach Chris Tabor has been with the organization since 2011 and has been phenomenal. His mellow poise makes him relatable to players on the sideline, but he has a lot of work to do. After Meder’s sack for the safety, Raheem Mostert gave the ball right back to the Packers when the punt bounced right off his shoulder pads. This is an inexcusable thing to happen and an instant momentum killer. It was also interesting to see Patrick Murray take the first field goal attempt over Travis Coons, and after the game, coach Jackson explained that he likes trying out different combinations with different players, and decided to give Murray a shot with a 46-yard field goal that he nailed.
Coming into the 2016 season, Browns fans don’t expect the team to have a very high ceiling. Hue Jackson is a different story, producing winning seasons in his time as an offensive coordinator with the Bengals, and coach with the Raiders. The mentality in the Browns organization seems to be that they have the ability to contend in the AFC North right now, but must work as one unit. The rapid development of the young talent must take place sooner than later, and with that being said it will be interesting how the Browns organization accomplishes that goal.
Lou Marcinek is a Cleveland Browns staff writer for Pro Football Spot. Follow him on Twitter @Lou_marcinek