When dealing with preseason NFL football, perhaps success is best measured by innocuous clichés. Or, as Browns' veteran Josh Cribbs surmised Friday evening, "We feel ready, we got a lot of work in but we have a long way to go. We have room for a lot of improvement."
In a game that was defined more by kick returners high-jumping piles of penalty flags and rookie receivers punting balls into the stands instead of the efficient nostalgia shown against Green Bay, reminders of the Browns' tenuous progress were everywhere.
It's Still Preseason
Depending on your level of Browns' optimism, the first half against the Lions could be characterized as a continuation of the Green Bay game – or a reflection of last season's stammering offensive production.
On one hand, the Browns scored three first half touchdowns – each of which arrived via clever play calling by Pat Shurmur and delivered through effective passes by Colt McCoy. However, all three scores were set up by fortuitous field position. A fumble recovery and Jordan Norwood punt return gave the Browns an ideal setting to score their first two touchdowns, while Cribbs drew a pass interference call to set up the third.
Yet the Browns' success on a short field was belied by the fact that the offense could only generate 34 total yards in the first quarter. During most of the first half, the Browns' rushing game was non-existent – which led to McCoy facing a variety of pass rushers. McCoy particularly struggled with pressure coming from the Lions' interior defensive line. However, when Joe Thomas and Tony Pashos could spread McCoy's pocket wide, the second-year QB proved effective.
However, the larger story to emerge regarding the Browns' offense is the idea of aggression. Or, simply put – will this Browns' offense be defined by the opposing defenses they face?
Throughout most of the first half, the Browns' momentum was extinguished after an unsuccessful first down. In facing longer yardage on subsequent downs, the offense becomes increasingly reliant on McCoy – which results in far too many hits for the diminutive starter. Based on these early preseason returns, Shurmur has to realize the importance of a revitalized running game – if only to balance the team's offense and keep McCoy alive.
Speaking of which, the Lions' defensive front offered more complications than what the Packers presented a week ago. Despite the beating McCoy took, the offensive line proved capable, albeit in an underwhelming manner. Of course, the absence of Eric Steinbach clearly affects the communication among the team's starting five.
Early in the game, John Greco started at left guard and quickly showed why he was essentially given to the Browns by the Rams a few weeks ago. Based on his few early series of action, Greco showed that he is not an effective run blocker and is only marginally better as a pass protector.
Greco gave way to rookie Jason Pinkston, who showed that he clearly has NFL strength. Pinkston was effective during the Browns' few successful running plays, as he held up his defender and later was able to move well during a counter run. However, Pinkston also showed that his pass protection skills need enhanced, as he nearly caused McCoy to have his left leg amputated in the second quarter.
Of course, speaking of legs, bonus points have to be awarded to veteran Tony Pashos. Pashos usually begins every pass play by dropping his right leg a couple yards into the Browns' backfield. Yet, Pashos compensates for his lack of quickness by swarming defensive ends with his bulk and eagle-like wing span.
As for the other side of the line, improvements were seen throughout the Browns' young front four. Jabaal Sheard was very effective for most of the first half and disruptive on a few plays. Sheard's play is encouraging, as the rookie defensive end has shown a sneaky combination of size and speed. While not a classic pass rusher, Sheard displayed a tendency to beat his blocker on running plays.
Across the line from Sheard, Jayme Mitchell showed more of a burst against the Lions. However, in an emerging tale of opposites, the lighter Sheard looks to be a more effective run stopper, while Mitchell's game will have to be defined by his play against the pass. While Mitchell didn't have any clear shots at either Matthew Stafford or Shaun Hill, the 6'6 defensive end did manage to get his arms into some passing lanes.
Lost in a Haze
However, when dealing with anything preseason-specific, it's worth asking how one half of defensive football translates to an entire game. Late in the first half against the Lions, the Browns' defense appeared to be slowing down. Likewise, the fire shown against the Packers a week ago seemed to be lacking on Friday evening.
But again – the glimpses shown so far during the preseason will not necessarily manifest themselves in a few weeks. At this point in the Browns' 2011 journey, Brian Smith is a starting linebacker and Armond Smith is getting more media coverage than Peyton Hillis.
As for that missing running game, it's becoming clear that Shurmur has entered into preservation mode with his collection of running backs. Hillis – whose value to the Browns will shortly reemerge – was held out of Friday's game, while Montario Hardesty appears close to making his return from injury.
In the meantime, free agent Brandon Jackson is showing the type of understated versatility that could be appealing further into the season. Jackson does nothing spectacular, but is a solid runner, receiver and pass blocker.
Unfortunately, these same attributes cannot be applied to rookie fullback Owen Marecic, who simply looks like nothing more than a special teams contributor at this point in his short NFL career.
In the Slot
Of course, not all NFL rookies are created equal.
Second-round draft pick Greg Little is far from a finished NFL product, but looks comfortable in Shurmur's new offense. While the learning curve for a rookie wide receiver is only exceeded by that of a quarterback, Little has taken to playing out of the slot. So far during two games of the Shurmur era, the new coach's offense appears to be more friendly towards its inside receivers.
Both Little and hybrid tight end Evan Moore – himself a rookie in many respects – possess the type of size and quickness that creates mismatches from the slot. Moore's 6'5 frame continually gave him leverage against smaller Lion defenders – while Little was able to get a couple steps ahead on two sideline routes.
While the Browns' overall receiving corps are still being sorted out, it appears that Moore and Little have established initial roles in Shurmur's offense. Now, the search begins for some reliable outside wideouts beyond Cribbs – which is something that could become a part of Little's evolution.
Along with being an emergency punter, of course.