The first preseason games marks the end of the dead zone. For the three hours consuming the final preseason game, it becomes the dread zone. This is the most meaningless game of the meaningless games. The only good outcome for this game is an injury-free contest.
Despite the negatives, this is my favorite game of the preseason. The sole purpose of this final game is to decide on the final roster spots that remain up for grabs. When livelihoods are at stake players tend to give it everything they have. This is why it is so important to remove your starters early in this contest or simply to sit them out all together.
The intensity level is at its peak as teams across the league must cut from 75 to 53. Players are not only auditioning for their own team but also for the other 31 teams. For many veteran players, this is their last shot. For many of the younger players, they are looking to earn their way onto the team's 8 man practice squad.
The final preseason opponent for the Cleveland Browns is the Chicago Bears, who just happen to be yet another NFC North team that the Browns are scheduled to play later in the year. The Browns will return to Chicago on November 1.
Bears Offense vs. Browns Defense
The rarest commodity to be found in the NFL is the franchise quarterback and the Bears finally have one in former Bronco Jay Cutler. Cutler's arm should allow the second-year running back sensation Matt Forte to face an honest front. This one-two punch has the makings of something special if the Bears can develop a deep threat.
Return ace and receiver Devin Hester has the potential to become that consistent deep threat but he has struggled with learning the nuances of the position. Former Cleveland Brown fan favorite Brandon Rideau is challenging for a role in this offense as well. They are competing with Earl Bennett and Devin Aromashodu for the starting receiver positions.
One position that is certainly settled is that of tight end with Greg Olsen. Olsen has shown tremendous hands and is fluid in his routes. He is proving to be the favorite target of Cutler and should be a fantasy sleeper.
The biggest question for this Bears team is the offensive line. LT Orlando Pace is a solid addition at the tackle position but his durability is a major question. The line as a whole is simply failing to open up the running lanes for Forte. Their pass protection is also somewhat suspect but if they can't run the ball, it is going to be a long year for this offense; but if they can put it together, this is playoff-caliber franchise.
The Browns' defense has shown very little thus far in preseason and they are likely to show even less on Thursday. There are however key positions up for grabs.
NT Ahtyba Rubin has played himself into starting nose tackle consideration. Rubin at nose can allow Shaun Rogers to play defensive end in the Browns 3-4. Who becomes the remaining starter is in question but Robaire Smith, Corey Williams, CJ Mosley and Kenyon Coleman appear ready to not only step into that role but also to give the Browns a quality rotation along the line.
The key position up for grabs is at the nickel. Veteran Rod Hood was signed to fill that duty but he was released following a horrible preseason and will be playing for the Bears on Thursday. Veterans Hank Poteat and Corey Ivy are trying to hold off rookie sixth rounder Coye Francies.
Francies plays a very physical game despite weighing only 185. He has been very impressive with his hand usage and also his ability to make the big hit. He plays much bigger than his size and he should contribute greatly as the season progresses.
The greatest area of concern for the Browns defense is at the safety position. Brodney Pool has suffered through more than his fair share of concussions and with his physical style of play it is just a matter of time before he suffers another. Abe Elam came over from the Jets but has yet to show that he has the talent to be successful in this league. The Browns will be watching the waiver wire closely for not only depth but also the competition for the starting safety positions.
Browns Offense vs. Bears Defense
The Bears are famous for their linebacker play and this year's trio appears poised to continue the tradition. Pisa Tinoisamoa joins veteran linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs as one of the best linebacking corps in the game today.
The Bears love to get their line going one way while their linebackers slide the other. This can be very confusing to offensive linemen and running backs. Any hesitation and that big line with the likes of Tommie Harris, Alex Brown and Mark Anderson will bury quarterbacks and ball carriers alike.
The Bears' defensive backfield should be tested thoroughly as they face off against what is becoming a surprisingly talented receiving corps for the Browns. For players like Lance Leggett and Paul Hubbard, they may need a strong showing simply to make the roster, while rookies Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi will attempt to move up the pecking order for playing time in what is becoming one of the most competitive positions for the Browns.
The Browns' quarterback position remains up for grabs according to head coach Eric Mangini. It will probably remain that way until the Browns trade one of the quarterbacks (cough, cough Derek Anderson) or unveil the starter (Brady Quinn) during Week One's contest against the Vikings.
RB James Davis continues to pile up yardage and pressure on incumbent back Jamal Lewis. Davis actually reminds me a great deal of Lewis as he never looks pretty picking up yards but he is consistently moving the chains. Neither back should be too comfortable as it appears Jerome Harrison looks to be getting healthy at just the right time.
This is where many players will make their mark and earn their right to a roster spot, but two players that won't be fighting for a roster spot are the Browns' Joshua Cribbs and the Bears' Devin Hester. It is doubtful either will receive an opportunity to return punts and kicks in this one but both will be begging the coach for that opportunity. Each will be eager to prove that they are the best in the return game. This match up is one that is already circled on my calendar.