Man, was Saturday’s third preseason game against the Rams ugly. U-G-L-Y. Ugly. So, here is what I’m telling myself to make myself feel better:
It’s good. Sure. It’s good that the game was so bad. Here is my twisted logic: Last year Weeden looked like the second coming during the preseason. (Well, not really, but it’s Cleveland, and we wear those beer goggles nonstop…) And Hoyer looked bad last year during the preseason… like worse than Weeden and Campbell bad, which is really, really bad. But, he ended up playing better in the regular season than both of them. So that’s my new Browns preseason logic: The worse it is in the preseason, the better it’ll be during the regular season. (Clearly, this is all crazy talk, but I need something to keep me going right now folks, and this is the best I could come up with…)
Now for some straight talk… Why was it so bad?
1. The defense couldn’t make a stop on third down to save their lives.
Now, listen. The Browns defense should be very, very good this year. There is arguably just as much, if not more, talent on this defense as there is on any other team’s defense in the league. The front line is formidable. The linebackers are smart and wicked fast. The safeties are a pain in the ass across the middle, and the cornerback position is stacked.
And we have great defensive minds on our coaching staff. Mike Pettine is a defensive genius, making waves in Buffalo last year after being groomed by the league’s finest in New York and Baltimore. And his sidekick Jim O’Neill has been along for the whole ride and should be more than ready to take the defensive reins this year.
And we’ve seen some progress from players that had potential but were being improperly utilized in previous seasons. Barkevious Mingo looks like the guy we thought he would be when we drafted him. Paul Kruger looks like the guy we thought he would be when we paid him big money in free agency to leave the Ravens. And Craig Robertson looks like a totally different guy altogether—and that’s a very good thing.
And other Browns acquisitions on defense appear to be paying off quickly. Karlos Dansby is really smart and does a great job reading offenses and making adjustments on the field. Donte Whitner is totally living up to his “Hitner” nickname, while providing leadership on and off the field. And Christian Kirksey (3rd round) and Armonty Bryant (7th round) are proving themselves to be some of the Browns’ best later-round draft picks ever.
So what happened on Saturday? Well, first, the team was missing 4 of its top 6 corners: Haden, Skrine, Trufant, and Desir were all out with injuries. So that left Justin Gilbert, the rookie, and Leon McFadden. And while Gilbert had two great breakups in the endzone, he is still struggling to get his head around fast enough on longer routes, at one point giving up a 75-yard touchdown. McFadden has improved, but his aggressiveness makes him penalty prone. And anyone will tell you—in fact I think I did in my last post—that if you’re going to stack the box and blitz on almost every play, you better have really good defensive backs. And usually we do, but we didn’t Saturday. And it showed.
But mostly… the defense played like the Browns defense. Just like last year, the defense looked good except for when it mattered… on third down. It’s not the talent. I don’t even think it’s the play calling (although changing calls when you’re down some personnel might be wise). But something has got to change. And I really hope they figure it out before September 7th.
2. The quarterback play was insufferably mediocre. So were the efforts of the receivers and running backs.
Hoyer was mediocre… although a little better than last week. It was at least nice to see him a little more settled in his role as the starter. Although, if he hadn’t thrown a touchdown pass on Saturday night, all of the really… let’s call them special… Browns fans would have been calling for his head already. (Let’s be honest, half of them are anyway.)
Similarly, Manziel was mediocre… although a little better than last week. Granted, he didn’t have to face the Rams formidable 1st string defense, but the improvement was still visible. For example, he completed the forward pass to the fullback that he chose not to attempt in favor of running it himself in the first preseason game. This shows growth.
In my opinion, Manziel needs to focus on three areas in addition to improving his understanding of the playbook: (1) anticipating receivers—He seems to have a hard time with this. On Saturday he was best passing from the pocket on single reads where the receivers stopped dead in their tracks in the middle of the field. That is not going to work with 1st string defenses… receivers will get hurt and interceptions will be made; (2) game management—Maybe it’s because he’s trying really hard to remember play calls right now, but he doesn’t seem tuned into what is happening around him. It’s not his job to adjust for defensive changes at the line yet, but he should at least try to watch the play clock to avoid delay of game penalties; and (3) his safety—He took another head first dive on Saturday. While I think he is doing a better job of running to pass, instead of running to run, he still needs to be careful when he gets down, or he’ll end up like RGIII.
In terms of receivers and running backs, the number two guys—Andrew Hawkins and Terrance West—definitely made the best showing on Saturday. Everyone else? Meh. Apparently Dion Lewis is the coaches’ pick for third running back, but after watching camp film and the last three preseason games, I don’t understand that decision for the life of me. He shows considerable hesitation at the line of scrimmage and often doesn’t get anywhere at all. Maybe someone else can fill me in on what I’m missing? And while you’re at it, if you could ask our receiving corps why they’re still having trouble holding onto the football, that would be great too. (I’m looking at you, MarQueis Gray.)
3. Mitchell Schwartz
How bad is Mitchell Schwartz? I’ll tell you. He is SOOOOOOO bad. So bad that he gets his own segment in this post. I don’t know how many more ways I can write it. He just cannot, CANNOT hold the edge on the right side. While Hoyer was totally to blame for the interception he threw on Saturday, he was not at all responsible for the fumble he committed. Schwartz basically laid down a red carpet for the Rams defender that blew right past him and destroyed Hoyer from his blind side—he never saw it coming.
In each of the past two seasons Schwartz has started out awful. Then, at some point in the season, he appears to improve. And so we all jump back on the Mitchell Schwartz bandwagon. And then the new season starts, and somehow we’re back to square one. I feel like I’m on a merry-go-round in Browns fandom hell—the view never changes, and I’m starting to feel nauseous. So, there will be no bandwagon jumping for me this year. I’m over Schwartz. Bring on the former Buckeye Reid Fragel, and if he doesn’t cut it, maybe Michael Bowie (who the Browns craftily snuck away from the Seahawks during camp) will have recovered from his shoulder injury. No matter what, it can’t be worse than Schwartz.
Which brings us to the only really good thing about Saturday’s game:
The return game. It looked great. Take your pick: Travis “the Rabbit” Benjamin, Taylor Gabriel, Marlon Moore—They are all super fast and seem to have an great instincts for finding the gap and making the cut. And it helps when the special teams blocking is phenomenal without drawing too many penalties.
So what is the takeaway? We all pray we get 80 yards on each kickoff and punt return so the quarterback never has to take possession outside of the redzone. Maybe then, the Browns will win some games this year.