The third preseason game has traditionally become the one that looks closest to a real game for most teams. But with most of the key offensive starters out, this game was not typical at all. To be honest, I'm still trying to sort out what can be learned from it. Here are my thoughts after reflecting some on this game.
Because of all of the caveats, it's hard to assess what transpired here. Brady Quinn started and we've all wanted to see him play with the starters. But Jamal Lewis and Braylon Edwards didn't see the field, not to mention some of the longer-term injuries to guys like Joe Jurevicius and Ryan Tucker. So the results are somewhat skewed. Quinn wasn't horrible, but he still has a long way to go. It's hard to tell if the throws that we saw that were off the mark were because the timing between Quinn and the receiver was bad or because the throw was bad. Regardless of which way it went, we can at least conclude that Quinn was not able to make an adjustment on the fly even if the receiver didn't run exactly the right route. Quinn has shown good pocket awareness in both games and I liked that he was able to step up to avoid the rush.
Jason Wright struggled in limited chances against the Giants, but he showed some veteran moxie in this game. Wright didn't always take as much advantage of the holes he had as Lewis would have. But Wright does bring some things to the table that makes him a valuable player. Jerome Harrison showed nifty moves once again, but he also dropped a critical pass and had some problems otherwise. I do think he is helping his case with good play on special teams. Neither Travis Thomas nor Austin Scott did much that impressed me. The battle for a possible practice squad spot is still up in the air to me. Lawrence Vickers returned to action and wasn't his usual self. A holding penalty is something we are not used to seeing from him.
With Edwards out of action, this was a chance for the younger players to show what they could do once again. Veteran Donte Stallworth looked OK, but he had some problems, too. Syndic Steptoe did not follow up a good performance against the Giants with as nice a game on offense. Steptoe has shown a disturbing tendency to let the ball bounce off of him, something that leads to interceptions. Travis Wilson did nothing to help his cause and missed a pass that probably hurt his chances. I have a feeling this is already the end of the road for Wilson. Steve Sanders did not have an exceptional game, but he made a few catches in traffic. After seeing him in camp and in very limited game action, Lance Leggett is a player that might be worth a longer look, at the very least on the practice squad. Efrem Hill has also been solid.
At tight end, Kellen Winslow made a couple of nice catches, but he seemed like he was going through the motions. He had a penalty and didn't seem to be on the same page as everyone else at times. Steve Heiden still looks rusty to me. Darnell Dinkins has made the most of his chances with some of the other players out as, once again, he looked good blocking and showed good hands. Brad Cieslak returned to action and did OK.
My biggest concern was that the offensive line was suspect again. This line was the key to the 2007 season. The Giants have one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL and you'd expect the line to struggle there. But this was the Lions, not a team known for a great defense. While the line was better, Quinn was hurried several times and the line had some problems in pass protection, although they were better in run blocking. A lot of fans are all over Rex Hadnot, but I did not think he was the problem. Hank Fraley had some issues, as did Kevin Shaffer. I am becoming concerned with this, but I am hoping that it is just preseason-itis.
The backup line continues to have problems, but with both Lennie Friedman and Seth McKinney on the field, the backup line was better than the previous games. Among the backups, James Lee is raw but has potential. I also like Nathan Bennett. Time may be running out on Isaac Sowells.
Against the Jets, the starting defense stopped the run. Against the Giants, the starting defense didn't stop anything. In this game, the middle was stuffed nicely. Having Shaun Rogers on the field is the key. Once again, we saw linebackers making plays where they were largely invisible last week. However, the good play inside by the line is showing us two major weaknesses. First, the Lions were able to bounce to the outside and escape the wall in the middle. Second, the secondary was badly exposed against good receivers, and the Lions were able to burn the Browns underneath with questionable coverage on backs and tight ends.
This was really our first look at the starting defensive line and you had to like what you saw. Not only does Rogers stuff the middle, but his one-arm drag down of a back was impressive. Corey Williams bounced back from a shaky performance against the Giants and did a nice job here. Robaire Smith was the best of the Browns linemen last season, but he is probably the weak link now. Yet, he has plenty to offer and he gives good effort. Shaun Smith can be a valuable rotation player, but he is no Shaun Rogers.
The backups on the line show improvement from game to game. We saw some good plays from Chase Pittman and Melila Purcell. Ahtyba Rubin is getting better as well. But that being said, the drop-off from the top players is enough that there are still significant concerns about depth. Louis Lenoard did not play again, so this was a chance for the younger guys to step up. I think they did, but is it enough?
I'm beginning to think the Browns are going to have some difficult decisions to make at linebacker. With Willie McGinest out, Alex Hall got a chance to start. He did a pretty nice job. There were times that Hall and Kamerion Wimbley were getting good outside pressure on the quarterback. I think Hall is in the equation for this year. Meanwhile, Wimbley's attempted arm tackle was a huge gaffe that let Detroit score its only touchdown with he starters. Stuffing the run inside is futile if the back can bounce to the outside and eat up our linebackers. On the inside, I thought Andra Davis and D'Qwell Jackson did a nice job. With the line eating up blocks, they flowed to the play nicely.
Leon Willams has had a very weak preseason. He got toasted by the tight end on a third down. He has just looked bad. It's hard to believe that this is a player I wanted to see get a chance to start last year. Considering some of the competition, Williams had better step it up: Kris Griffin not only looked good on special teams, but he has looked solid on defense in all three preseason games; Shante Orr is looking like a great addition; and Chase Ortiz made his first noticeable play in a game. David McMillian, meanwhile, is not going to make this roster. He's had many chances and done very little with them. When you consider that players like Antwan Peek and Beau Bell aren't playing, someone decent is likely to be let go.
With both Brodney Pool and Sean Jones out, it's not surprising that third downs killed the starting defense. Eric Wright looked much better and Brandon McDonald continues to be good, but with the lack of depth, the Browns played a lot of loose zone coverages. The starters will killing the Browns by hitting dead spots in the zones. Mike Adams is solid as a backup. Nick Sorenson has been horrendous on defense, but he actually made some positive plays in this game. Since he is a good special teams player, if he could contribute at all on defense, it would help. When you play a lot of zone and don't play up on receivers, it's hard to get much of a read on the corners. While several of the backups made plays, I don't have much of an opinion on who is really helping themselves based on this game.
Phil Dawson looks ready to go. Dave Zastudil also appears ready. He got ripped-off on a corner kick that was ruled a touchback. Syndric Steptoe and Gerard Lawson both did some nice things in the return game. But the kick coverage continues to be inconsistent. Penalties continue to wipe out good plays.
Once upon a time, teams played six preseason games. But that was a different era when players didn't work out the entire offseason and had to take jobs to pay the bills. When the number was cut to four in 1978, some wondered if teams could get ready. The NFL has now evolved to a point where some teams simply discount the preseason in terms of getting their players ready and use it purely for evaluation of bottom of the roster players. Two years ago, the Colts won the Super Bowl after going 0-5 in the preseason. This is a strategic decision by some teams to adopt an approach that discounts the preseason.
The Browns didn't have the luxury of treating the preseason that way since The Return. They were constantly trying to find if their players could play at all or if they could form some kind of chemistry. This year is different. In many cases, the Browns know what they have and they don't want to get anyone hurt. While I am concerned by how the Browns have been beaten in terms of physicality at times, it is not time to panic yet. We probably won't get our first true look at this team until opening day.
One thing that can be reined in now is the mental mistakes. These hurt the team and professionals should be doing better in this area regardless of the approach taken to the games.
Five players will be gone by the time the Browns take on the Bears. It will be interesting to see how many of the starters play at all.
The season is short. Bark hard!