The Browns' first significant on-field activity of 2011 could be characterized as a success, at least considering the rushed circumstances of the NFL's compressed offseason. For a team that was barely assembled even two weeks ago – and directed by a novice head coach – the Browns' performance against the defending Super Bowl champions could be considered the stuff of preseason legend.
But then again, rarely are legends made in the preseason.
Despite Colt McCoy's efficient and at times extraordinary first half play and regardless of Titus Brown's star-making reintroduction to the Browns' faithful, it's obvious that Shurmur's task has only begun.
What's Old Is New Again
Check out photos from Saturday's win over Green Bay.
It was difficult to ignore the similarities between Saturday night's preseason opener and 2010's counterpart. Only a year ago, a similar article would be praising the sense of energy and purpose that Jake Delhomme brought to the Browns' offense. Now, McCoy is being heralded as the next legitimate Browns' quarterback hope for delivering a similar performance.
While the results are far from conclusive, at least McCoy appears to be operating within an offense that is suited to his strengths. Shurmur's new West Coast offense looks to offer McCoy more rollout options and fewer of the congested downfield routes characteristic of Brian Daboll's 2010 scheme. However, the results of both Delhomme and McCoy's preseason debuts were marked by unloading the ball over the middle of the field in the face of a Dom Capers-designed blitz.
Speaking of blitzes, perhaps another mystery was partially unraveled as Dick Jauron sent the occasional extra pass rusher at the Packers' second and third-string lineups. This pressure mainly came from a few corner blitzes, but increased late in the first half – when it appeared that Rob Ryan had returned to assume coordinator duties.
However, these wrinkles are a welcome sign for a defense that will likely again struggle to create a consistent pass rush. Throughout much of the game, Jauron's defensive line executed stunts in order to gain more favorable matchups. This should be an interesting trend to follow, as the Browns' current starting defensive ends, Jayme Mitchell and Jabaal Sheard, rely more on strength than quickness at this point.
The Mystery Men
Speaking of Mitchell, the ghost of 2010 finally made his Browns' debut. Throughout most of the first quarter, it was obvious that Mitchell hadn't played for quite a while. Mitchell was bulled over on a few running plays and looked sluggish on a couple early third downs. However, Mitchell did make a nice play on Packer backup tackle Marshall Newhouse and picked up a sack.
Another key to the Browns' 2011 fortunes is oft-injured right tackle Tony Pashos, who appears to fully healed from a 2010 ankle injury. While Pashos' durability will remain a question, his impact on the offensive line cannot be understated. Simply put, Pashos is a mammoth lineman who carries with him a much-needed mean streak. Pashos was dominant at times during the Packer game – particularly in the area of run blocking.
The Importance of Sheldon Brown
In regards to the running game, this newest version of the Browns could boast the team's best run defense in some time. While Phil Taylor looked a bit disheveled last night, in time the rookie defensive tackle should become a top priority for opposing defenses. Likewise, Ahtyba Rubin looked a bit out of place while simply playing in more open space. However, behind the Browns' new front wall was returning veteran D'Qwell Jackson, who instantly reclaimed his title as the most active linebacker on the roster.
Yet, the hopeful establishment of a solid defensive interior only points to the future significance of the Browns strengthening their outside run support. In this scenario, the play of both Sheldon Brown and Joe Haden becomes nearly monumental to the team's defensive hopes. Last night, Brown again showed why he is still one of the league's better physical cornerbacks. Or, for a better contrast – both the slender Coye Francies and miniaturized rookie Buster Skrine were essentially planted in the Kentucky Bluegrass of the Stadium.
However, in defense of Skrine, Browns' GM Tom Heckert may have landed a late-round gem in the Tennessee-Chattanooga product. Skrine showed some solid coverage instincts simply by placing his body in the right position against opposing receivers. Combining these advanced talents with his blazing speed, Skrine could easily find himself as the Browns' primary nickel cornerback.
Along with Skrine, cornerback Ramzee Robinson made a few nice plays against the Packers' second-string offense. However, Robinson's lack of bulk showed when he tried to cover Green Bay's Randall Cobb early in the second half. The remainder of the preseason should give Shurmur and Jauron some better evidence to evaluate both players, along with James Dockery and Dimitri Patterson.
Speaking of which, there has probably never been a better time for Browns' reserves such as Titus Brown, Brian Smith and Travis Ivey to land roster spots – if not significant playing time. Brown, who has surprisingly now played for three different Cleveland head coaches, could become the team's top reserve linebacker – which ranks among the most critical of current roster needs. Smith brings a bit more quickness to a position that has been overly defined as such, while Ivey could give Taylor a much needed off-down spell.
Another Fresh Start
While it's a whole other story to think of the prospective mood of Browns Nation had Aaron Rodgers played more than a couple series or if Dom Capers unleashed Clay Mathews and Charles Woodson on the Browns' still settling offense, Saturday night's preseason debut at least showed that the Browns appear more capable than previously thought.
In most respects, the offense exhibited a kind of veteran calm and preciseness not usually seen in Cleveland during the summer months. Defensively, the energy and relative youth of the unit were refreshing – especially compared to the rigid inflexibility shown in recent years.
Of course, the usual wrinkles of a Browns' preseason – the lack of a pass rush, sluggish running game, Josh Cribbs as the featured wide receiver and porous depth at safety – will have to be addressed moving forward.
However, for now, perhaps things aren't as bad as they once appeared.