It may only be the first preseason game of the summer for the Browns, but there is a lot about this game that requires special attention.
WHEN THE OFFENSE IS ON THE FIELD
For starters, all eyes are going to be on the Browns offense, with good reason. After numerous seasons when the Browns epitomized everything that could go wrong with an NFL offense, hope rests on the shoulders of offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. It helps that he is bringing along a modified version of the Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs, and San Diego Chargers offensive schemes.
Aside form the new scheme, there are numerous questions about the Cleveland offense. These start with the obvious issue at the quarterback position, and include such open issues as the cohesiveness of the offensive line, having lost (temporarily) Eric Steinbach and Ryan Tucker. We'll anxiously await Jamal Lewis rushing in a Browns' uniform and ponder if he is the real deal, as well as gaze at the receiving corps and hope a player of two can break through, making life a little easier for Braylon Edwards and Joe Jurevicius.
On the offensive side of the ball, all that can be asked or expected is the team gaining consistency and making a minimal number of errors. Installing the new offense has been a slow process. Numerous walk-through periods have been conducted to get the players on the same page, practicing in unison. With the significant amount of movement, this Cleveland offense is much more complex than any in recent Browns' history.
Many of the struggles during the early stages of training camp can be directly attributed to the new scheme, as the quarterbacks and receivers have struggled at times with the timing and precision of routes. The rushing attack appears to be ready for the challenge, as the three primary running backs on the roster, led by Lewis, have looked good in practice situations.
The offensive line will need to provide adequate protection for the Cleveland quarterbacks, as the roster of players at the position have yet to impress the coaching staff in training camp. An interesting area to watch will be the drive of the offensive line on rushing plays, especially the interior of the line due with Lennie Friedman, Hank Fraley at center and Seth McKinney at right guard. Rushing the football with consistency has been a problem for the Browns' teams over the past few seasons. With a new line blocking philosophy, this game with is the first true test for the unit, minus two players who were looked on as starters.
WHEN THE DEFENSE IS ON THE FIELD
Defensively, the Browns appeared to be a much stronger unit a few days ago than they are today. Starting linebacker Willie McGinest is out due to back surgery for at least six weeks. Matt Stewart has been lost for the season due to a shoulder injury. This is on top of starting defensive end Orpheus Roye being sidelined following knee surgery.
As a result, the coaching staff is shuffling players and roles in the days leading up to the preseason opener.
McGinest's primary replacement in the base defense will be Antwan Peek, who has been practicing but has been limited due to a hamstring strain. Known primarily as an outside pass rushing specialist, Peek has performed well in practice but has not displayed the ability to play the position nearly as well as the veteran McGinest.
Four-year veteran Chaun Thompson returns to the outside linebacker position, where he may be more comfortable and can utilize his athletic ability. Fans should look to determine whether Peek and Thompson can be effective against the run and in drop-back coverage. If not, the Browns defense will be significantly weakened with the loss of McGinest.
The largest area of concern for the Browns defense could rest along the defensive line. Nose tackle Shaun Smith replaces Roye at defensive end, which reduces depth at the nose tackle position. Already thin at defensive end, Smith steps into the role to provide leadership, quickness, and a physical presence. Simon Frasier and J'Vonne Parker, and Orien Harris could see playing time at the position, as well as rookie Melila Purcell.
With aging Ted Washington only slated to see limited playing time, Ethan Kelly and Babatunde Oshinowo will see extensive time on the field in the opener. In the case of Oshinowo, he comes to camp in much better physical condition than a season ago and has demonstrated the ability to take up space along the interior of the line. He will have the opportunity to stake his claim as a legitimate reserve at the position with a strong preseason showing.
Overall play and communication in the defensive backfield will be of great interest in the opener, as Brodney Pool replaces veteran Brian Russell at free safety. Russell, the quarterback of the secondary in 2006, left via free agency. The athletic Pool should provide the unit with improved coverage against the pass and adequate support against the run. Teaming with Pool will be potential All-Pro Sean Jones. Jones, coming off a very good 2006 season is healthy and looking to become a force in the middle of the Cleveland defense.
Health has returned to the Browns secondary, as starting cornerback Leigh Bodden is healthy and ready to display the ability which has made him one of the better young cornerbacks in the league. Testing his surgically repaired ankle in camp, Bodden is ready to try out game action. A healthy Bodden makes the Browns defense much better.
Opposite Bodden will be veterans Kenny Wright and Daven Holly, along with rookie Eric Wright. Eric Wright got off to a blazing start in camp, but he has leveled off in recent days. Still, he but remains a candidate to become a starter by the time the team opens against Pittsburgh. Lining up against an opposing team will be the next true challenge for the rookie.
Hot on Wright's heels is Holly, the surprise of the 2006 Browns defense. Slated for a role as a nickel back in the 2007 season, Holly has performed well in camp and is not relinquishing a starting role easily. The four preseason games on the schedule could determine who walks away with the starting spot opposite Bodden.
Too much is made of wins and losses during the preseason. It is the individual on-field battles which build a team and create opportunity to progress, not only as a player, but as a team.
Regardless of the outcome Saturday evening, the position battles will take
center stage for the players on the field and in the locker room.