Following the bye week, my email was flooded with some good thoughts and questions regarding the state of the Cleveland Browns. Getting to the root of the answers comes with interesting, potential developments for the struggling offense.
For now, we'll focus on the latest on running back Peyton Hillis and the locker room and changes that are in store as the Browns prepare for Sunday's battle with the Oakland Raiders.
—Contrary to those who seek to create further controversy in Cleveland, the Browns locker room — as a whole — does not have an issue with Hillis, nor does any specific player, theOBR has been told.
As reported previously by theOBR, the vast majority of players within the locker room were not aware of the circumstances of why Hillis did not suit up against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 25. The players that did discuss the situation with theOBR stated in unison that Hillis, if healthy, would have played. Speculation surrounding the player sitting out because to his contract status was ludicrous.
Hillis and his agent haven't helped matters. On Oct. 10, Hillis said his agent advised him not to play because of the strep throat, but the decision ultimately rests with the player.
Poor damage control tactics by the Hillis team has only intensified the media's circus show.
With that, unless something new is uncovered or develops, this is the last this column will talk about the Hillis illness saga.
—Hillis is healthy, ready to rumble and put the last two weeks behind him. Hillis is the starter, he is on the practice field with the starting unit and he appears to be fully recovered from his bout with strep throat.
Hillis' contract remains to be an issue. Talks between the representative for the player and the Browns organization have not gained any additional ground.
—Strange as it was seeing Hillis on the bench for large chunks of time against the Titans, it was even more shocking to see Browns head coach Pat Shurmur leave running back Montario Hardesty on the playing field. Hardesty was not having a good game against Tennessee, unlike the week before against the Dolphins.
Hardesty dropped four passes and had limited productivity on the ground. Shurmur kept Hardesty on the field to gain much needed experience, but the decision also prevented a Browns offense from utilizing their best running back, Hillis, who is also a major component in the passing game.
This column has been told the coaching staff is not likely they will play their cards the same way, if and when the opportunity presents itself.
—Second-year quarterback Colt McCoy has taken the good with the bad early in the 2011 season. Recently deemed as basically a rookie by Shurmur, McCoy has had his share of struggles, as the Browns offense remains a work in progress.
McCoy and Shurmur are on the same page. McCoy works and talks extensively with the head coach, as well as quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple.
Concerns about McCoy holding onto the ball too long and taking safer options in the passing game are facets within his game the staff believes can and will improve in the coming weeks.
One reason for the Browns' changes at wide receiver and a re-commitment to the running game is to improve the options and opportunities for McCoy, the passing game and the offense in general in the weeks to come.
—Rookie wide receiver Greg Little will slide into the starting lineup, as the Browns' coach staff looks to further increase his workload and potential. Little has practiced well and has caught onto the West Coast offense concept rather quickly, especially for a rookie who sat out his last season at North Carolina because of NCAA infractions.
The Browns' coaching staff simply loves Little's enthusiasm he displays on the playing field and his ability to be physical with defensive backs. Moving Little into the starting lineup is an indication the Browns' offense will look to improve their vertical passing opportunities and place the physical Little in position to beat press coverage.
—As Little has earned the chance to start, third-year wide receiver Brian Robiskie again has struggled to make his presence felt on the playing field. Outside of catching the first and last passes of the game against the Titans, Robiskie has provided little production and became less of a target for McCoy.
As reported by theOBR two-weeks ago, Robiskie's role with the team was on the verge of being greatly diminished, which was verified Oct. 10 as Shurmur announced Little would be starting against the Raiders in place of Robiskie.
Robiskie's season started with promise, as head coach Pat Shurmur talked up the wide receiver and noted his confidence in the player. With the Browns on the verge of getting additional youth on the field, Robiskie's playing time is likely to be limited, unless he can turn around his game quickly.
—While the Browns' coaching staff has not promised any specifics to players regarding playing time, theOBR has been told wide receivers Jordan Norwood and Carlton Mitchell figure to see the field. Shurmur seeks a combination of receivers to complement the talents of the West Coast offensive scheme.
Presently, the coaching staff appears to believe Norwood is further along than Mitchell, but the smaller and quicker Norwood is more of a slot-type receiver.
—Tight end Evan Moore, a lost soul amongst the Browns' receiving corps in recent weeks, will find the field early and often coming out of the bye week.
Moore was identified as a player in the passing game that simply finds ways to make plays. The Browns need to mask blocking issues along the right side of its offensive line caused Moore to ride the pine, unless the Browns were in the red zone.
With starting right tackle Tony Pashos back and coming off a solid performance against the Titans, the necessity to protect the right tackle's shoulder has been minimized.
Look for Moore to line up out wide as a tight end and a wide receiver.
—After evaluating the wide receivers, they were not blanketed in coverage as it would first appear.
Mohamed Massaquoi, Josh Cribbs and Little have improved in beating press coverage and finding soft spots in the zone as the season has progressed.
Meanwhile, Robiskie did not fare well.
Now, two issues that must improve are the consistency in which routes are run and the receiver's ability to do a better job hand-fighting off the line.
—Shurmur is less concerned with McCoy being late with throws and more focused on his quarterback becoming more comfortable in the scheme and trusting the play.
—Backup middle linebacker Titus Brown is getting closer to being ready to play following a high ankle sprain suffered in the preseason finale at Chicago. Brown's status will be determined later in the week.
—The Browns have yet to decide whether they will place defensive end Marcus Benard on the injured reserve following his motorcycle accident Oct. 10. They are waiting until all the information surrounding Benard's injuries — broken hand/abrasions — are confirmed. His roster spot is status quo.
If it is determined Benard cannot play with the hand injury, it's likely he will be placed on IR, effectively ending his season.
—When safety Usama Young was signed as a free agent this offseason, it was expected he would start alongside T.J. Ward, or at the very least push Mike Adams for a starting spot.
Young missed significant time in training camp because of a hamstring pull and he has been unable to unseat Adams in the starting lineup. While the staff believes Young has the size and quickness to be an asset on passing situations, it has been Adams who has been solid in coverage and willing to stick a helmet on a ball-carrier.
—Starting cornerback Joe Haden is highly unlikely to play Sunday in Oakland. Haden, who is rehabbing a knee sprain, has shown improvement, but the Browns are not willing to put him on the field unless he is healthy enough to play at a high level.
—Unless starting center Alex Mack has physical issues following his recent appendectomy, the offensive lineman will play this Sunday.
—Presently, the Browns starting guards are rookie Jason Pinkston (left guard) and second-year Shawn Lauvao (right guard). With Pashos back in the line up, veteran Artis Hicks will be the backup at right tackle and guard.
If the offensive line struggles at either guard spot, Hicks could be inserted, but the play of Pinkston or Lauvao would have to be very inconsistent. The plan has been to get both players reps in meaningful situations.