Red Right 88

In Cleveland, hope dies last

What does the preseason really mean for the Browns?

Preseason friendlies (or exhibition games, if you will) are a strange beast in the National Football League. Especially when it comes to the Cleveland Browns.

Do poorly, and it’s a sign that the coaches and management are incompetent, every draft pick is a bust and all hope is lost. Win and, well, the other team obviously wasn’t trying and it’s a sign that the coaches and management are incompetent, every draft pick is a bust and all hope is lost.

There is really no middle ground (at least according to some fans).

So what to make of the Browns effort against Green Bay, a 35-10 win for the good guys?

For starters, the defense looked better than it did the week before against Detroit. A week after giving up 198 yards on the ground to the Lions, the Browns held Green Bay to just 69 yards rushing.

The Browns also held Green Bay’s first-team offense to just seven points, coming on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson. Browns cornerback Joe Haden had solid coverage on Nelson, it was just one of those throws and catches that verifies why the Packers are one of the league’s top offenses.

“I think our defensive backs did a good job of challenging,” coach Pat Shurmur told The Plain Dealer. “I thought our young defensive tackles (John Hughes and Billy Winn) played the first half and did a nice job. They were in there rattling around.”

Montario Hardesty continued to show that he can be a decent second-string running back, gaining 45 yards on 12 carries (although he did lose a fumble on the first carry of the game). That won’t carry the water as a full-time starter, but as a fill-in for starter Trent Richardson, Hardesty should be OK.

“I thought (Montario) really ran the ball hard,” Shurmur told The Beacon Journal. “We can’t have ball security issues. He knows that. But I do like the fact he went out there and responded. He ran as well as I’ve seen him run, but we’ve all been talking about how he’s a different-looking Montario this year since he’s healthy. He looks just different to me. So let’s hope it stays that way.”

The offensive line did not give up any sacks and, a week after struggling against the Lions, rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz bounced back with a solid game.

“I think he made improvements,” Shurmur said in his Friday press conference. “We obviously were able to run the ball more and we did it by design, and I thought it helped us. I think he can be a fine run blocker, so that helped him. The pass-rush was a little different scheme than we saw against the Lions. The Lions scheme is somewhat similar to the Eagles, which we’ll see here.  The style of defense was a little bit different, so I think he made improvements, but he got to see different things and that was good too.”

Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden also looked better, finishing 12-of-20 for 118 yards with no turnovers (but also no touchdown passes) in eight first-half possessions. He also spread the ball around, completing passes to Greg Little, Jordan Norwood, Josh Cribbs, Brandon Jackson and Josh Gordon.

The biggest think that Weeden did was get time with the first-team offense, something he so desperately needs.

“There were a couple of progressions there that I think Brandon could be better with which would have even added to the success of our offensive day,” Shurmur said. ” Those are the things that you talk about today and some of the situations were the first time for Brandon, going through it, plays we’ve been running in practice as they related to a new defense. He’ll be better with that the next time, but for the most part he led us on a touchdown drive and did some other things better than he did in the first game. As you work your way through the preseason, training camp and the games, you just want to see steady improvement and I think I saw that from him.”

A couple of additional thoughts about Weeden. One, the Browns need to dump the screen pass, because it is obviously not working. Two, when Weeden feels pressure, he needs to stop with the back pedaling and throwing off his back foot – that’s not going to cut it in the NFL. Third, let Weeden air it out for cryin’ out load. All we’ve heard about during training camp is Weeden’s “big arm” but then the Browns don’t let loose with the vertical game.

“I think he sees the field well,” Shurmur said. ” think he understands what he’s looking at. I think the biggest thing for him is getting used to our progressions. We can provide a lot of different looks out here, whatever the route is that we call or whatever the protection scheme. We can provide a lot of looks in practice, but now when they match up against a different style of defense, different coverage, different part on the field where it’s either bigger or smaller or condensed, that’s where the experience of going through it helps him. I think he’s learning and doing a good job.”

One way the Browns can accelerate that learning curve is to give Weeden and the rest of a young offense as much playing time in the preseason as possible.

So what say you, coach?

“In terms of the guys out there playing, our guys need work,” Shurmur said. “(Next week against Philadelphia) is the third preseason game so I’ll withhold the details of that. We have it pretty much planned out based on who’s so sore from this game they can’t go on to next game.”

So what does this all mean? Well, for starters, the Browns need to keep worrying about the Browns and give the starters as much game time as possible before the regular season starts on Sept. 9.

“I think we’re still trying to get better at the fundamentals, the basics,” Weeden said on Friday. “Obviously, in the preseason you don’t do a ton of game planning for the team you’re going to play. You run the plays that you feel like you need to work on. I think I’m just speaking for me what I think, I think the coaches are still focused on getting better each practice on what we do fundamentally. The rest of the preseason will play out and on the 9th we’ll open up with Philly. I don’t think we’re jumping ahead too far. I think we’re taking it one step at a time.”

It also means the Browns are 2-0 in the preseason for the first time since 2005 (as the TV announcer breathlessly told us last night). Of course, that team went 6-10 so that is about as meaningless of a stat as you can find.

Seriously, though, it means the Browns showed noticeable improvement from the first preseason game, but there is still a lot of work to be done. There are some things the team did well that they can build on, and other areas that are still a concern. How much the Browns improve between now and the regular season is completely up the them.

And isn’t that what preseason football is all about?

(Photo by The Associated Press)

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