Chicago @ Cleveland Preseason Game #4 – Preview
Well the fourth and final preseason is finally here, this means the regular season is just around the corner! Expect to see many rookies, younger veterans, and players who are on the verge of getting cut get ample playing time this game. No matter how the contest shakes out, both of these teams will look completely different on opening day (September 9th).
Offense: Brandon Weeden will not play in this game per Pat Shurmur’s press conference. Fans will have to wait until the regular season to see a passing touchdown from him. Colt McCoy will start instead – he has been the backup all three preseason games and will be the backup during the season (provided the team does not trade or release him). He has played well this preseason and I expect this trend to continue Thursday. Seneca Wallace will get some playing time as well; his future with the team is uncertain and will likely be dependent on what happens with McCoy. He has played average this preseason and the team knows what to expect from the veteran in extended playing time. Thaddeus Lewis has garnered praise from coach Pat Shurmur about being a good developmental quarterback, his ability to latch on with a team (whether it’s with the Browns or another franchise) could rely on his performance against the Bears.
The preseason battle between Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson for the backup running back role finalizes on Thursday evening; it will be interesting if Jackson starts the game this week. Hardesty has started the previous three games, but the coaches may want to change things up. At this point, the only thing that has separated the two is Hardesty losing the football a couple of times. Expect to see a fair amount of Adonis Thomas and Chris Ogbonnaya, as one or both may not be on the final roster. Thomas has doubled as a special teams member, which could be an added advantage. Having a player likely Ogbonnaya (who was solid when forced into action, due to injuries, last season) be in trouble of losing his job proves that the Browns are finally acquiring depth and talent at the running back position.
It’s fair to say Josh Gordon, Travis Benjamin, Greg Little, and Mohammed Massaquoi will all get a plethora of playing time this season – provided they are healthy. That leaves Josh Cribbs (who will be a special teams ace again), Josh Cooper, and Jordan Norwood as the players who will be fighting to become a wide receiver on the team. All three have made plays this preseason and Norwood was serviceable in the latter part of the 2011 season. I believe he is ahead of the others at this point, but the final decision by the Browns will come after this game. The tight end position is log-jammed with several players looking to make the final roster. Ben Watson has been injured all preseason, and I am not sure what the front office’s plans are for the veteran in 2012. Evan Moore, Alex Smith, and Jordan Cameron have shown their abilities in the passing game, while Smith appears to be the best blocker. Dan Gronkowski may be the odd man out, as he has been given fewer opportunities in the preseason games.
Entering the season, I anticipated the offensive line to be one of the team’s strengths – this was not the case last week. Adjustments will be made and the unit does not have scouting reports in preseason so I’m not alarmed (right now). Seeing who can fill in after injuries or ineffectiveness by starters should be the coaches’ objective during this game. John Greco, Ryan Miller, and Garth Gerhart look to be in the rotation as the season approaches. Mitchell Schwartz will be the starting right tackle to start the regular season, but could have his playing time reduced if he struggles and a reserve proves they can be just as capable. Oneil Cousins has not distinguished himself this preseason and may be no longer with the team in a few days.
Defense: The continual rotation of defensive linemen has given many opportunities for players to prove their worth. The release of Marcus Benard, following his elbow injury in the Eagles game, will open up another roster spot for a player like William Green, Kiante Tripp, Ronnie Cameron, or newly acquired Ernest Owusu. I feel more confident about this position group heading into the season than I was a few weeks ago – they continue to impress in one aspect or another. Rookies Billy Winn and John Hughes have shown they can perform but will face many tests in the upcoming season. Whether the team can stop the run is a large question for the Browns in 2012, hopefully opponents will no longer be able to get a lead and shorten the game (by running the ball effectively) en route to a victory.
I look forward to watching the linebackers get extended playing time in this game; even if it the schemes are simplified, the faster, stronger, better players will stand out. The younger athletes must maintain their responsibilities in the passing game – whether in man-to-man or zone coverage. Additionally, the ability to get off blocks and continue to hold opponents to shorter rushes will be scrutinized. Rookie draft pick Emmanuel Acho has been placed on injured reserve and will not play in 2012. Look for first year pro Craig Robertson to likely take his roster spot now. Quinton Spears is another younger veteran who was pressed into playing time last season; he hopes to remain with the team following this game.
So far Joe Haden has been impressive during the preseason; his possible suspension means the secondary will have to play flawlessly (in his absence) to prevent a huge drop-off. Opposing cornerback Sheldon Brown has not played exceptionally, but will continue to start until someone beats him out. The only people giving him a run for his money, as well as potentially taking over for the injured Dimitri Patterson until he heals, are Trevin Wade and Buster Skrine. The secondary appears to be another area of depth – which is a great thing with such a long season. Watch to see if undrafted rookies Tashaun Gipson and Johnson Bademosi can stay with the team (much like James Dockery did last season) as they have been getting some playing time in the preseason. I like the safety trio of Eric Hagg, T.J. Ward, and David Sims and am unsure of what the Browns will do with the recently injured and last year’s starter Usama Young.
Special Teams: Phil Dawson and Reggie Hodges have their spots locked down; as long as they don’t develop the yips, I’m positive about them going into the season. The special teams have to prove last week was a fluke in the poor punt coverage and protection – that has been my only concern with the group during the preseason.
Coaching: One final game (hopefully) of boring play calling on both sides of the ball; with many of the Browns’ starters sitting out, things will be very simplified – even for the preseason.