The Cleveland Browns’ first preseason game of 2016 is in the books, a 17-11 loss to the Green Bay Packers. But preseason games are less about wins and losses or the final scores than the opportunities they present to evaluate players in live-game situations and to slowly build up to becoming the eventual 53-man squad that will make up the final roster.
For a team like the Browns, with a new coaching staff and myriad new faces throughout the depth chart, this progress is incremental, with each preseason game building upon the next. So, with that in mind, here are the next steps we need to see the Browns make in their second summertime contest, Thursday’s home game against the Atlanta Falcons.
A Healthy First-Team Offense
Though it was only a two-series affair for most of the Browns’ offensive starting lineup on Friday night, there were noticeable absences that undoubtedly affected not only the game plan but also the overall efficacy of that side of the ball. Starting quarterback Robert Griffin III attempted just eight passes on the night, completing four for 67 yards (49 of which came on one passing play to receiver Terrelle Pryor) and an interception. He was without presumed starting receivers Corey Coleman and Andrew Hawkins (hamstrings, both) and has yet to have significant on-field reps with the returned Josh Gordon (quad).
Granted, no coaches are going to tip their hands regarding what they really plan on their offense to look like during the regular season. But that does not mean there are no benefits to the presumed starting lineup getting game experience together, especially one like Cleveland’s that features new-to-the-NFL players commingling with new-to-Cleveland veterans and long-established Browns. Hopefully, those offensive starters sidelined in the first preseason game can get healthy enough to take a few snaps in the second; this group needs as much work together as possible in order to be as comfortable as possible for the start of the regular season.
Run Offense/Run Defense
The Green Bay game did not provide many examples that Cleveland’s rushing offense nor rushing defense has made significant strides to turn both anemic areas around. Though this first exhibition game comes nowhere close to telling the entire story of either aspects of the Browns’ running offense or defense, it’s clear there is still work to be done and that defensive depth, in particular, may still be of concern.
Cleveland’s offense rushed a collective 17 times netting them 77 yards, while Green Bay’s 41 attempts earned them 151 yards. That high rushing rate should be of concern; it’s clear that the Packers wanted to do a little testing out of their own run game against a team that has long struggled stopping the run as well as handling a high volume of run attempts made against them.
On the offensive side of the ball, starting tandem Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell only had two rushes between them, one apiece; Johnson’s netted him 11 yards while Crowell lost two yards on one carry and another would-be touch was nullified by a poor handoff from Griffin. Additionally, 10 of the Browns’ 77 rushing yards were earned by quarterbacks.
Head coach Hue Jackson said in his Saturday press conference that he has “a high expectation,” about the run game but also promised that “we’ll get this solved.” https://twitter.com/maksimuspatrick/status/764542861652201472 And it’s hard to completely doubt him given that this was merely the first preseason game and that, especially for the starters, was likely highly—if not completely—scripted. But the Browns want their run game to be something they can reliably lean on this season, and that certainly didn’t stand out in a positive way on Friday.
There were signs of life in the run defense department, though, particularly from rookies Carl Nassib and Emmanuel Ogbah, with the latter leading the team with six tackles (two for a loss) and Nassib recording three tackles of his own in the run game. Nassib and Ogbah also had the most playing time among the Browns’ defensive linemen, a good sign that the first-year players make impacts in 2016. No matter what, a clearer picture of the Browns’ ability to run and to stop the run should emerge against Atlanta.
Offensive Line Depth
The Browns’ starting offensive line is almost finalized. Though there has been an ongoing rotation at right tackle, Austin Pasztor handled first-team duties against Green Bay and Jackson said on Saturday that he will remain the starting right tackle for the immediate future if not for the year. https://twitter.com/ScottPetrak/status/764544090734231552
But the real concern revolves around the Browns’ offensive line depth, something that is troubling nearly all 32 teams in the NFL. Building a quality starting offensive line is no easy feat any longer, with non-pro techniques being taught to tons of tackles, guards and centers beginning in high school and stretching through their college careers. There just aren’t the volume of capable linemen there once were in the NFL.
It could be most glaringly seen in the final two quarters of Friday’s game, when the bottom-of-the-depth-chart linemen were tasked with protecting quarterbacks Austin Davis and Cody Kessler. Kessler had the worst of it, taking three of the four sacks recorded by Green Bay defenders; the Packers also recorded a total of six additional quarterback hits in the contest.
Now, Kessler had his fair share of struggles, struggles undoubtedly tied to his rookie status. The third-round draft pick had numerous “welcome to the NFL moments,” including those three aforementioned sacks, the two safeties—one self-induced as he ran out of the end zone in an attempt to avoid pressure. Kessler had a total of five drop-backs but had only two pass attempts, and though both were completions, including a 10-yard scoring pass to rookie receiver Rashard Higgins that was Cleveland’s only touchdown, it’s clear he’s far from hitting his stride.
Perhaps a better offensive line in front of him would help calm Kessler down. This is something that could take place against Atlanta, with Davis currently in the NFL’s concussion protocol. It makes sense to throw a fourth-string quarterback to the fire behind a sub-par offensive line, because that’s just the nature of roster hierarchy. However, at the same time it would be a good evaluative tool to put Kessler with a better line just to see how he fares in an in-game situation that is more akin to what he’d hypothetically see in a regular-season contest.
Raheem Mostert’s Role
There appears to be little doubt that Raheem Mostert is on the fast-track to be the Browns’ firm No. 3 running back on the final depth chart. It’s not just that he was the team’s leading rusher against the Packers, with five runs totaling 43 yards, including a long of 27 yards, but it was also his use as both a kick and punt returner that increases his roster value.
Mostert was signed by the previous Browns’ administration to help their return game late in the 2015 season and the new crew liked him enough to offer him a one-year contract in March. While Mostert’s muffed punt that resulted in a Browns turnover against the Packers was a mark against him, that he wasn’t immediately doghoused by Jackson is a sign that Mostert isn’t one of the type of marginal players who aren’t allowed to make the occasional mistake without paying a price.
While Mostert was the only Browns player to return punts on Friday—two, for a total of 28 yards—he was one of three returning kicks, alongside Darius Jennings and Randall Telfer. Numerous teams’ to-do lists this time of year involve finding the right players to handle return duties, so it will be interesting to see how much of a hold Mostert retains on both kick and punt returning jobs as the preseason progresses.
Mostert’s use as a running back will also be worth keeping an eye on. While Crowell and Johnson are atop the depth chart, Cleveland’s No. 3 back can still carve out a space for himself in regular-season games. With a run game still trying to find its footing, there is an opening for Mostert behind the two presumed starters—but that also means the position is wide open for other Browns backs, like Terrell Watson, Glenn Winston and Rajion Neal, to step up. Any expansion or contraction of Mostert’s role against Atlanta will shed light on the running back battle as well as the potential makeup of Cleveland’s special teams.null