The third preseason game is the true dress rehearsal as the starters
generally play two or three quarters. This means very little opportunity for
the bubble players or long shots looking impress the coaching staff.
Thus far, the quarterback position is proving to be the disaster many had envisioned.
Brady Quinn's holdout seems to have held him back just long enough to put him
into Romeo Crennel's rookie doghouse. Receiving his first NFL opportunity last
week, he did two things that the front runners have yet to do: He looked like
an NFL quarterback with poise and confidence and he put the Browns in the
endzone. It was against the backups but confidence is confidence. Quinn should
see more action Saturday. While the lip service has all but eliminated any
chance of Quinn making his debut start versus the Steelers on opening day,
another solid performance by the rookie will certainly throw him in contention.
Especially if Derek Anderson and Charlie Frye continue to disappoint.
Frye and Anderson haven't been horrible, but neither has shown the ability to lead this team into the end zone. The same questions they had before pre-season remain... with more issues involving confidence emerging.
Running back Jamal Lewis continues to impress with his power and speed. Last week, he also showed me something I haven't seen from Lewis in quite some time. I saw those same explosive hips that carried him to his career game versus the Browns not too long ago. When he sees that seam open up, he is exploding through it and still maintaining the balance to take a hit and keep his feet moving.
Look for the Browns and Lewis to test the smaller DE's for the Broncos early
and often. Lewis should be an excellent test for the Broncos defensive line. A
healthy Lewis running the ball is also great protection for a rookie
quarterback. (Wink wink)
Jason Wright and Jerome Harrison are having good preseasons but Chris Barclay is the back that continues to catch everyone's eye. He is vastly undersized, but quick feet and good hands is about to get him an NFL roster spot. I would not be surprised if the Browns didn't at least take a serious look at moving Barclay from the RB to the slot receiver position.
The pass protection provided by the Browns offensive line continues to be impressive and so far they appear athletic enough to protect even a rookie quarterback (wink wink). I am really looking forward to the matchup of offensive tackles Joe Thomas and Kevin Shaffer going up against the sensational pass rush ability of defensive ends Elvis Dumervil, rookie Jarvis Moss and former Brown Kenard Lang. This should be one of the best battles we will see in preseason.
The real work for the offensive line will be in getting on the same page in their run blocking. Teams do not like to wear down their trench warriors by having them bang against each other all summer, thus run blocking is usually slower to develop. Facing an interior Broncos line with the likes of Sam Adams and Kenoy Kennedy will be an excellent opportunity for the Browns interior line to show that they can move defenders and open up running lanes for Lewis.
A critical part of that run blocking is dependent on second year full back Lawrence Vickers. Vickers will not play this week but it will give everyone a good look at backup Charles Ali. The Browns aren't likely to carry two fullbacks on the active roster which makes this the most important game of Ali's career.
The key to defeating the Broncos defense is forcing them to stack the box and hitting the tight end just behind the linebackers. Look for Winslow to have a huge game early in this one.
Also, look for the Browns to do a lot of soul searching at the receiver position this weekend. While Braylon Edwards continues to shine, he also appears to be proving me wrong with both his attitude and play. The remaining receiver positions are starting to feel some serious heat from two unheralded prospects in Steve Sanders and Maurice Mann. If they can put together another good outing they just may find themselves fighting for the 3rd and 4th receiver spots.
The Browns starting defensive unit is looking like a real NFL defense.
Facing the Broncos zone blocking run scheme along with the cannon arm of Jay Cutler will be their stiffest test this preseason, especially for the
linebackers. The key to stopping the Broncos running game is penetration. The
line will open holes and spread out the defense. If the linebacker hesitates
and gets caught up in the traffic the running back will be going one-on-one
against a defensive back. Those are matchups the defense usually doesn't win.
If however the linebackers are shooting the gaps and forcing the back to change
directions then the tackles-for-loss start mounting up.
The Broncos like to use play action off of their potent running game to set up the deep passing attack. If the defensive backs are forced to come up and support the front seven continuously, they become extremely vulnerable to the deep ball. Look for the Broncos to target rookie Eric Wright early and often in this one as they try to force safety Sean Jones up into run support.
The starting defensive line has played better than I expected thus far, particularly the play of defensive ends Shaun Smith and Robaire Smith. None of the backups have stepped it up enough to secure a roster spot as of yet. Being thin up front, the Browns will likely give a lot of playing time this week to the backup defensive linemen. This means that the real competition for those few defensive line spots are going to heat up with a fury. Babatunde Oshinowo, Orien Harris, Melila Purcell, Ethan Kelley, J'Vonne Parker and Chase Pittman are all fighting for one possibly two roster spots.
No matter who the Broncos put in the backfield, they always seem to be effective once they put on a Broncos uniform. Most point to the blocking scheme employed by the Broncos as the major contributor, but Mike Shanahan is simply a special talent evaluator when it comes to running backs for his particular scheme. The key words are "his particular scheme".
Travis Henry has made his way over from the Titans and I am looking forward to seeing how his game can transfer into the Denver blocking scheme. Henry is a patient back that will allow the play to present itself to him. However, he can go from patient to hesitant if you can frustrate him early - that will be the test for linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and Leon Williams.
The loss of right tackle George Foster to the Lions can't be underestimated. George was one of those nasty linemen that do whatever it takes to win the battle up front. Right tackle is a question mark for the Broncos, and the Pears/Peek match up should be a good one to watch.
Jay Cutler is entering his second year and appears confident in the offensive system in place. The young man is a thrill to watch and has effortless delivery. He made his rookie mistakes last year and he should have the Broncos sitting comfortably in the playoffs.
Veteran receiver Jevon Walker is one of the reasons for Cutler's confidence. Look for Walker and Cutler to target Eric Wright. Walker is extremely crafty at gaining separation as he likes to take the corner jam and use one arm to remove the corners hands and the other arm to push off. Once he gets that two feet of separation it is over and he is off to the races.
The Denver Broncos have one of the best secondaries in all of football with the likes of Dre Bly, John Lynch, and Champ Bailey. The question with this defense is whether or not the addition of Sam Adams can take opposing offenses out of their running game?
Look for the Broncos to stack the box with seven or eight defenders, attempting to take Jamal Lewis out of the game and force Charlie Frye to beat them with his arm. This will be especially true once the Browns get inside the 20.
Another key for this game will be how well the Broncos young ends can sniff out the screen pass and if the linebackers will be able to cover Kellen Winslow over the middle. Look for the Browns to attempt to isolate Winslow against veteran linebacker Ian Gold.
This should be an excellent game with a lot of hard hits and big plays on special teams. The Browns focus should be on getting the running game going and settling the quarterback position. The Broncos will be looking to establish their run defense and getting their passing game going early.