Lost amid the hoopla of Brett Favre mania, there was actually a preseason football game last Thursday night. The orange helmets hit the field for the first time in 2008 taking on the Jets. Thanks to an hour-long weather delay, the first teams saw very limited action. Given the way the game unfolded, let me give you some quick impressions of the starters in limited action. After that, we'll look at the backups.
A mere 12 months ago, Charlie Frye was the Cleveland Browns starting quarterback (at least according to Romeo Crennel's coin flip). This summer, Derek Anderson is firmly entrenched as the top QB coming off a Pro Bowl appearance. Anderson had just 10 plays, but he looked solid. His deep throw to Braylon Edwards drew an interference call. He had a nice scramble. But five throws isn't much to judge. He looked pretty good, especially considering the Browns were without Kellen Winslow, Lawrence Vickers, and Ryan Tucker.
Jamal Lewis had some nice runs, starting with the first offensive play going for 11 yards – and that with the Jets stacking the line. Charles Ali was the fullback and had a nice block on a run near the goal line. Both Donte Stallworth and Braylon Edwards got chances in limited duty. The Edwards touchdown catch was flat-out amazing. Fans not able to watch the game will have no doubt seen it all over the highlight shows. Darnell Dinkins started at tight end and did OK. The first team offensive line looks ready to pick up where it left off last year.
The defensive unit did not play much, but one thing became very obvious: opponents will have to account for Shaun Rogers on every single play. On one run, the back tried to go up the middle, but it was clogged by Rogers. When he tried to bounce to the next gap, the second it took to do so allowed other defenders to flow there and stuff it. That's how the 3-4 is supposed to work. We may finally see this team stop the run. One thing you saw was Kamerion Wimbley flowing down the line to make the play. I was very encouraged by what we saw in a handful of plays from the starters on defense.
The pass defense, well, that was weaker. Jet receivers were able to get open at times. But there was a fantastic first down saving tackle by Brandon McDonald. Brodney Pool and Eric Wright also got in the action some. And Sean Jones had a great stop on the fourth down attempt by the Jets. I love the fact that the secondary is finally ready to play tighter on the receivers, something I felt was successful when done last year. Overall, the secondary looked decent, but again, it was hard to tell from a handful of plays.
Brady Quinn saw extended duty and played pretty well. He did have an interception, but that pass was deflected by Syndric Steptoe. As advertised in camp, Quinn stuck mostly to shorter throws. You could tell the Browns were trying to go longer on certain plays, but you could clearly see Quinn going through his reads when the play was not there. This was a nice performance, and it is what is needed for Quinn. Hopefully, he will get about half the snaps in the preseason to continue to gain experience.
Meanwhile, Ken Dorsey was far ahead of everyone else last year because he already knew the offense. A year later, his performance in this game was pretty miserable. Other than one deep throw to Paul Hubbard, Dorsey's outing was not good. He just could not seem to hit on anything. His passes were often off the mark. I will give him that he was playing with bottom of the roster guys, but he was also playing against bottom of the roster guys.
Both Jason Wright and Jerome Harrison looked solid despite playing with the backup offensive line. I like how each of them was able to make something more positive out of a run than should be expected. The real camp battle is between Austin Scott and Travis Thomas, most likely for a slot on the practice squad. Neither impressed, and while I liked what I saw of Thomas at camp, none of that translated to the field in this game. Thomas looked slow and unsure. Scott got very limited chances so it was hard to tell much about him.
The backup receiver battle got tighter in this game. Interestingly, the Browns used Steptoe as the third receiver early. He did not do much on offense. Travis Wilson continued the improvement he's shown in camp. Josh Cribbs was in on a lot of plays and had one very nice catch. Steve Sanders has been the forgotten man, but he caught the ball well and blocked. Efrem Hill caught a ball near the sideline, but was out of bounds. Paul Hubbard caught the deep ball mentioned above, a beautiful, rolling catch, plus had another shorter reception. While Dorsey clearly struggled, it was obvious that the timing between he and the receivers was off many times. I didn't see that problem when some of these same players worked with Quinn.
With both Kellen Winslow and Steve Heiden out, both Martin Rucker and Brad Cieslak got a lot of playing time. Rucker was every bit as impressive as he has been in camp, even though he missed a catch in the end zone that would have given the Browns the win. Rucker is has the potential to contribute this year. Other than a penalty, Cieslak also played well. While he probably has little chance of making the roster, Cieslak is proving he can play at this level.
To me, the biggest disappointment on the offensive side of the ball was the backup offensive line. Remember, though, with Seth McKinney and Ryan Tucker out, the backup line is starting with eighth player in this position group. Actually, I thought Lennie Friedman looked solid as usual. He was clearly the best player in this group. I did think Nathan Bennett played well in spots. But with this unit on the field, the Browns went from being able to run at will to not being able to run at all. When the Browns tried a screen, it blew up completely. There were false start and holding penalties. Derrick Morse, James Lee, and Isaac Sowells have a lot of work to do. Ironically, Lee and Sowells might have the best chance to stick because they are tackles.
The biggest takeaway here, and it's hard to miss, is that the lack of depth on the line and in the secondary has to be of concern. With the backup defensive line players on the field, the defense reverted to its 2007 form. There was no pass rush and tackles on running plays were made well past the line. Of the backup linemen, the only one I thought had a good outing was Louis Leonard. He is big and he plays hard.
Among the linebackers, things were better. Surprisingly, after the rain delay, Andra Davis was one of the players who ended up coming back out to play along with Leon Williams. Williams had a quiet night. Alex Hall did a nice job in his time late in the game. I was pleasantly surprised with Kris Griffin, who has pretty much been a special teams player with the Browns, but he is a hard hitter on the inside. The clock is running out on David McMillan. He did not do much. Chase Ortiz saw action late. What a shame Beau Bell was not healthy. It would have been nice to get an extended look at him.
Finally, there is the secondary. Ouch. Backup defensive backs were being toasted right and left. Some of the players in this unit, like Nick Sorenson and Steve Cargile showed why they've largely been special teams players in the NFL. Mike Adams is the only member of the backup secondary to get an untarnished thumbs up from me. Terry Cousin struggled when playing outside. While A.J. Davis shows potential, he got badly burned on the first of two long touchdown plays by the Jets. Davis did recover to make some plays later in the game. But when Milvon James was toasted later in the game, it looked more like a player who was just lost. The dismal performance of the depth players has to send a message to Phil Savage about the need for some help here.
The Browns wisely let Syndric Steptoe and Gerard Lawson handle the bulk of the kick return duties. Both did pretty well. Jason Reda kicked a field goal and handled kickoffs. Phil Dawson saw limited action. Dave Zastudil is the only punter in camp, and he did just fine. I liked the fact that on the Jets big kick return, Zastudil did not really try to make the tackle. It is not worth the risk in a meaningless game.
The biggest black spot was the aforementioned punt return for a touchdown by the Jets. Browns special teams coach Ted Daisher recently said his biggest concern was the punt coverage team. It looks like that concern is well-founded. However, I reminded myself that a large number of the players on the field at that time were players that would not be suiting up on September 7.
Given where the Browns are entering this season, a chance for the starters to get their feet wet and an extended look at the guys lower on the depth chart was just what the Browns needed. This preseason will largely be about making some of those final, difficult cuts while trying to keep everyone healthy. We learned some things about some players, while the waters got a bit murkier in other cases. Look for a lot of play from the backups throughout this month.
A long pause until the Browns travel to New York to face the Giants. They have a week and a half to work on some things and get some folks healthy.
The season is short. Bark hard!