Musings: On the Browns’ second preseason contest and legitimate competition

This week, Sobo takes a look at the development (or lack of it) of specific players in pre-season Game #2. Want to know who's truly up or down? Click!

The second preseason contest should have served as a wakeup call for a handful of Cleveland Browns. Some responded. Others didn’t.

As the Orange and Brown Report’s Lane Adkins previously noted, certain established players — at least those sitting atop the depth chart — would face legitimate competition if they didn’t perform for a second straight week.

I heard those same rumblings a day before Thursday’s game. After the team’s 24-13 loss to the Falcons, a few should start to worry, because their performance didn’t warrant the previous faith placed in them by the coaching staff.

The all-important third preseason game is looming and will give the truest sense of where the Browns currently stand as a team and at multiple positions.

Now, who stepped up this week and who didn’t?

1. Nose tackle Danny Shelton remains the biggest question mark along the Browns defensive front. After a very poor performance against the Green Bay Packers’ backup center, J.C. Tretter, he faced Alex Mack, a three-time Pro Bowl performer. These two butted heads on a daily basis last year, and the veteran continued to get the best of the second-year defender throughout the contest. Initially, Shelton did fire off the ball with more authority. This is a positive step in the right direction. But his lateral agility — or lack thereof — was still readily apparent. Mack hooked him easily on multiple plays, which created rushing lanes for Falcons running backs. Shelton isn’t expected to just take on double teams. He must be able to work across the face of blockers and stay square down the line. Although, the staff put Shelton back into the game in the third quarter, and he seemed to get the message by playing with more urgency. He’ll need to continue in such a manner, because Jamie Meder is breathing down his neck.

2. Shelton isn’t the only former first-round pick under fire.  Barkevious Mingo continues to disappoint, and he’s now playing out of position. Is he a lost cause? He just might be after the coaching staff converted him to inside linebacker where he looked completely lost at times. Cam Johnson and Joe Schobert played on the outside with the second team, while special teams ace Justin Tuggle and undrafted free agent Dominique Alexander saw action on the inside before Mingo. The clock is ticking for the former sixth overall pick.

3. Will the light ever go on for cornerback Justin Gilbert? This question has been asked for quite some time, but one really has to wonder if the former eighth overall pick will ever understand the opportunity that’s passing by him. The current coaching staff sees the same things in him the previous staff did: He’s long, athletic and naturally gifted. Those skills haven’t translated on a consistent basis. But the curiosity still lingered. He’s now been given every opportunity to prove himself. It seems less and less likely he’ll ever realize his potential with each passing week.

4. Keep this in mind regarding the offensive line and its overall performance: The group has yet to face a legit pass-rusher. The Green Bay Packers didn’t play Clay Matthews or Julius Peppers. The Atlanta Falcons’ Vic Beasley didn’t see the field, either. And Dwight Freeney played a grand total of eight snaps. Thus, it’s quite difficult to assess where the team’s pass protection currently stands — particularly at right tackle. Austin Pasztor started for a second straight week, yet he hasn’t been truly challenged. It’s important to find out how Pasztor performs against better edge defenders when the Browns’ right tackle will face Brandon Graham, Elvis Dumervil (twice), Cameron Wake, Ryan Kerrigan, Carlos Dunlap (twice), Chris Long, Jason Pierre-Paul and Joey Bosa (maybe) this season. Even so, Pasztor has been consistent, while Shon Coleman didn’t appear as comfortable with the second team as he did the prior week.

5. With all of the discussion about underwhelming former first-round picks, Cameron Erving deserves some praise. Last year’s 19th overall pick played well against the Falcons. The area in which he excelled came in short-yardage situations when he got into blocks quickly and created some movement. There are still lingering technique issues, but he fared well against Atlanta’s defensive front. This is absolutely necessary, because the same can’t be said of backup (really, third-string) center Garth Gerhart. Also, undrafted rookie Mike Matthews didn’t play Thursday after only six snaps against the Packers.

6. Quarterback Robert Griffin III deserves a lot of credit for his play, but he might not have been the best performance of the night. Right guard John Greco played very well. There were two points when he destroyed defenders and buried them into the ground. Greco is an oft-forgotten piece to the Browns offensive line, but he’s still a very important part. With Erving and whomever starts at right tackle, his experience between those two positions is invaluable. If his play continues at the same level seen Thursday, the veteran will help expedite the transition from Mack and Mitchell Schwartz to team’s current incarnation.

7. Griffin did play well. His performance shouldn’t be overlooked by any means. The pair of deep touchdown passes displayed one of the Baylor product’s greatest strengths. But two more important things occurred through RG3’s performance. First, he immediately slid after taking off to run any time a defender neared. This is how the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson proved to be so effective in recent years. He takes what the defense gives him once he breaks the pocket. It’s a massive step in the right direction for the Browns quarterback.

8. In the passing game, Griffin’s best throw came when he checked down to an open Rashard Higgins. Why? It was his third read. The Browns started with a trips formation to the right with Higgins lined up alone on the backside of the formation. The quarterback immediately looked to the routes ran to the right side, checked Gary Barnidge over the middle and finally settled on Higgins for a first-down connection. The deep passes are pretty, but the ability to work through his progression is far more important at this stage of his career.

9. The Browns signed DeMario Davis to be the physical presence the team lacked for a long time at inside linebacker. The last downhill thumper to play for the organization was when Earl Holmes roamed the middle for Butch Davis. This presence is important in Ray Horton’s scheme as a run defender and a big part of the coordinator’s blitz and dog games. Unfortunately, Davis has limitations as a pass defender and was exploited against the Falcons. Surprisingly, Christian Kirksey proved to be the more physical defender. The 235-pound Iowa product played downhill and aggressively took on blocks from lead fullbacks and offensive linemen. Kirksey continues to evolve from someone whose skill set primarily centered on his ability to play in sub-packages as a nickel linebacker.

10. Many wondered why Philip "Scooby" Wright fell all the way to the seventh round and nearly out of the draft entirely. Watching his play compared to fellow inside linebacker and undrafted free agent Dominique Alexander has been eye-opening. Alexander flies about the field and is consistently found around the ball. He knifes his way through blockers while making plays as the team’s leading tackler through two preseason contests. The two rookies are similar in size and overall athleticism when looking at their shuttle and 3-cone times from their predraft workouts, but Alexander has a better first step and overall speed. Wright hasn’t performed poorly; he’s just limited.


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