Preseason Game #1 – Cleveland @ Detroit – Preview
I cannot believe the 2012 season is finally here! Granted the wins and losses do not count for another month, but it’s finally time once again for some gridiron action.
(During the season I will break down before and after what should/could possibly happen vs. what actually occurred for the 2012 Cleveland Browns. I will break down each game based on four areas – Offense, Defense, Special Teams, and Coaching as well providing a prediction beginning in the regular season.)
The Great Lakes Classic (aka GLC) at Ford Field pits the Cleveland Browns against the Detroit Lions. Let’s take a look at what fans should anticipate from Cleveland’s perspective.
Offense: Well, it starts and ends at the quarterback position. Since it is preseason game one, I envision all four quarterbacks on the roster getting playing time. None will have tremendous numbers overall but I hope to see a few things during the game. I’ve been hearing all spring and summer long about the arm of starter Brandon Weeden. Against the Lions, I look forward to a couple fifteen-yard ins, twenty yard out routes, and even a fade or two. More importantly, are the passes on the money and do they take little effort to complete? I just look for promise in Weeden in 2012 – it begins in game one.
As for the remaining backups, I expect Colt McCoy, Seneca Wallace, and Thaddeus Lewis to play consistent with their capabilities. None will set the world on fire, but can they limit their mistakes? Will McCoy continue to check down or will he try to force a throw downfield? Will Lewis pull out all the stops to try and earn a roster spot?
Trent Richardson will be the focal point of the running game; I cannot wait to see his cutting ability, speed to outrun defenders, and even his skill at blocking defenders. The only problem is he may play only a couple of series (if at all), so we will not see much of him. The other thing to watch in the game is who jumps out to an early lead for backup duties. Brandon Jackson (who was injured last season), Montario Hardesty (who has been injured the past two years), and Chris Ogbonnaya (a free agent pickup in 2011) will face their first “live” test. Granted they will likely not go against Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, or Kyle Vandenbosch, but they still must prove they can perform when given an opportunity. I would like to believe Hardesty comes out as the second-string back, as he was a second round pick a few years ago, but he’s got a ways to go to sew that up.
The disappointment in the Cleveland Browns’ wide receiver corps in 2011 and the potential in 2012 makes the group a focal point in the preseason. Greg Little, Mohammed Massaquoi, and newly acquired Josh Gordon (with possibly Travis Benjamin getting looks in four or five receiver sets) will likely be on the field the first couple of series with the starters. When evaluating these members – besides catching the ball and picking up yards, one word will be very important: separation. Can these athletes get a clean release off the line and have room to catch the football? Also, can an under-the-radar player (like a Josh Cooper, Carlton Mitchell or to a lesser extent Jordan Norwood) impress coaches and fans and earn an opportunity to start in the next preseason game? I look forward to a more vertical offense this season, but the offense will take time and mistakes must be curbed sooner rather than later.
I have faith (and why not) that Joe Thomas and Alex Mack will have, at worst-case, solid performances in the 2012 season. I look to see if guards Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao continue to develop – will they open holes on running plays and not allow defenders to provide a rush during passing plays? Mitchell Schwartz was the Browns’ second round pick and is expected to start in the regular season opener; many will track how he plays and if there are potential struggles. I anticipate to finally see a solid unit on the field, with likely mental errors coming from backups and rookies later on in the game. Jordan Cameron’s name has come up several times as very improved at the TE position; I believe given the opportunity he can be another weapon for the offense – especially in the red zone. He must earn that job by being able to block, which has been his recent critique.
Defense: It may become apparent fairly soon on whether the Browns have improved on their 30th ranked (in terms of yards allowed) rushing defense from last season; will the rookies and young veterans provide a wall that makes it at least difficult for opponents to run through? I don’t expect John Hughes and Billy Winn to dominate the line of scrimmage, but if they don’t seem lost (i.e. out of position to make a play) and can be somewhat disruptive, they could appease some fans’ fears for the upcoming season. Look to see whether they can beat their man off the ball and give the team another threat to sack the quarterback. Do not discount Scott Paxon, Brian Shaffering, and Marcus Benard, who are also fighting for playing time while Phil Taylor and Aythba Rubin fully recover from their injuries.
James Michael-Johnson and Emmanuel Acho are two rookie linebackers have their work cut out for them. As members of the highly instinctual and fast moving position group, these guys could get lost not being accustomed to the speed of the NFL. Although they may struggle initially, look to see improvements and who can pick up the pro game quickly. Kaluka Maiava and Michael-Johnson will likely get the first crack at replacing Scott Fujita (during his suspension – and possibly after that) and Chris Gocong. This is their first chance to stand out from the others. The defense is looking for another leader like D’Qwell Jackson – Maiava could provide that, especially since the team lost Gocong for the season. I feel he will have to improve greatly from his 2011 performance in order to accomplish this however.
The coverage by the secondary will likely either be basic zone or man-to-man; Browns fans will not be able to see how the corners perform in more complex schemes (like bump and run coverage) until the regular season or in training camp. Dimitri Patterson will likely be the favorite for the starting cornerback spot opposite Joe Haden, provided he outperforms incumbent Sheldon Brown – I do not expect Patterson to be shut down in the preseason but at least not allow big plays. On the first depth chart, Usama Young was listed as a strong safety as opposed to free safety. How will he respond and will he be able to compete with T.J. Ward for playing time? Buster Skrine and Trevin Wade will play later in the game on defense and can also garner notice via special teams earlier on.
Special Teams: This aspect of the game will not be as important (in terms of potentially deciding the final outcome) as it will be in the regular season. What players and fans can envision is improvement in the units as a whole – the rookies and younger veterans should improve upon the poorer areas from last season. Covering kicks/punts, getting down the field quickly, and making plays are aspects where the team must get better immediately. As long as the special teams do not give up a return for a touchdown and do not turn the ball over, there is little reason to be concerned this early in the season.
Coaching: I expect play calling on both sides of the ball to be extremely vanilla; all NFL teams do not want to show much of their arsenal when it comes to strategies and capabilities. Therefore, there’s not much in this area to zone in on, unless something goes tragically wrong. In terms of firing players up, this will be the first time to witness new coaches like Tim Hauck, Brad Childress, and Nolan Cromwell on the sidelines. Will they be upgrades from the former staff when getting the most from players? Preseason game one could possibly give us an answer.