The third preseason contest serves as the NFL’s “dress rehearsal” and should give the best indication of where a team stands as the regular season nears.
If that’s truly the case, the Cleveland Browns are in trouble. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers outplayed the Browns in all three phases of the game, and Cleveland looked completely outmatched against the young and improving squad.
Of course, the sky isn’t falling over Berea. Head coach Hue Jackson said as much. But the entire staff had to come away disappointed with the team’s performance.
The group of coaches also know there are positives and negatives in any situation. The Browns are a young squad at least a year behind the Buccaneers in the building process. Thus, those individuals who flashed become an important part of the evaluation, because this season will be a year-long assessment.
Before delving further into the game, let’s revisit the 2013 NFL draft:
- Four days ago, the Browns finally gave up on former first-round pick Barkevious Mingo and traded him to the New England Patriots for a fifth-round draft pick. This move was years in the making. Multiple sources I’ve spoken with over the past three years linked the Patriots to Mingo. The organization rated the LSU product very highly coming into the draft but knew he would never fall to them with the 29th overall pick. Instead, the Patriots staff turned its attention to Southern Miss linebacker Jamie Collins. After trading down, Bill Belichick and crew selected Collins in the second round. But their interest in Mingo never waned. The organization still saw value in Mingo and viewed him as being miscast in the Browns defensive scheme. With multiple injuries among their edge defenders, the Patriots leaped at the chance to acquire Mingo.
- Once the 2013 draft started, the Browns had two options: They set their sights on Mingo or expected to trade down if he wasn’t available. The defensive end was available — which made the decision easy for the previous regime. Here’s the disappointing part: A similar offer the St. Louis Rams made to the Buffalo Bills for the eighth overall pick was on the table for the Browns. Cleveland declined the deal to select their guy. If the deal was completed, who did the organization expect to target? Collins.
- As for the contest, everything starts in the trenches, and the concerns along the Browns’ defensive interior grow with each passing week. At this point, I’m starting to feel like a broken record when it comes to the issues along the defensive line. This week it was less about run defense and far more about the pass rush—or lack thereof. The Buccaneers were without both of their starting guards Friday. This means the Browns’ starting defensive line didn’t manage a sack and only a single quarterback hit against Tampa Bay’s third and fourth guards.
- Who did get a quarterback hit? Jamie Meder. His name comes up every week, because he’s hustling and making plays. If the coaching staff truly wants to send a message, it wouldn’t guarantee starting spots to those who haven’t earned them. Draft status shouldn’t matter and play against actual competition should. Meder has earned the right to push for a starting job and not at defensive end but at nose tackle. Xavier Cooper, Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib displayed legitimate potential throughout the preseason, and their reps shouldn’t be taken away to find a spot for Meder, who is outplaying last year’s 12th overall pick, Danny Shelton.
- The same applies for Cameron Erving. The Florida State product hasn’t played poorly, but there are some concerns about how he’s seeing the game. His performances are judged purely by what he can do as a blocker. A center is also judged by his ability to make line calls and put the unit in the right position. The Buccaneers defense registered nine sacks. Five of those came against the first-team offense. Of course, all of those sacks don’t fall squarely on Erving, but his recognition in certain situations is worrisome. One sack in particular saw the Buccaneers utilize a simple N-T stunt. The nose tackle acts as the penetrator and usually gets picked up by the guard as the 3-technique loops behind and presses the nose tackle’s previous gap responsibilities. Erving didn’t recognize the looping defensive tackle, which gave him a free run at Griffin. This is a very basic pickup, and every defense will show the same stunt. If Erving continues to struggle picking up movement, defensive coordinators will react accordingly.
- While pass protection became a disaster, the Browns ran the ball well in limited opportunities. Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson averaged 5.6 yards per carry on 11 attempts. The additions up front of Erving and Austin Pasztor are limited in certain areas, but they’re also more powerful at the point of attack than their predecessors. It’s up to Jackson to decide whether that outweighs the issues the team might experience in pass protection.
- Through three preseason contests, this is how the starting offensive line would look if I made the call: Joe Thomas-Joel Bitonio-John Greco-Pasztor-Shon Coleman. Greco might not be a natural center, but he’s experienced and knows the protection calls. Also, Coleman is by far the most physically gifted and natural right tackle. This grouping is unlikely to occur, but it’s the best combination of the talent on the roster.
- Unfortunately, Dan France played the worst game of his life when it mattered the most. Penalties and sacks as Joe Thomas’ primary replacement aren’t acceptable. At one point, the Michigan State product—who is naturally a guard—looked capable of securing an active roster spot, but his performance Friday certainly puts his status in danger. Meanwhile, Spencer Drango looked completely comfortable on the blind side—as he should after playing left tackle for the last four years at Baylor.
- Something that may have gone unnoticed is the fact Randall Telfer opened the game as the starting H-back. In fact, Connor Hamlett’s snaps have decreased with each passing week, while Telfer is experiencing a bigger role. Hamlett may have been the early training camp darling, but Telfer is making a play to become the second tight end behind Gary Barnidge in a system that utilizes two tights quite often.
- With the uncertainty at cornerback beyond Joe Haden and Justin Gilbert leaving the contest with a possible concussion, Charles Gaines quietly played well. Overall, he’s put together a strong preseason. The Louisville product has been targeted only a handful of times and didn’t give up a reception through the first two preseason contests. The same can’t be said of Tracy Howard, but the fact he was with the first-team defense covering a veteran like Vincent Jackson speaks to how highly the staff thinks of the undrafted free agent.