Preseason Game #1 – Rams @ Browns – Preview
It’s that time of year again, and the Cleveland Browns will kick off their 2013 campaign at the recently named First Energy Stadium. The first opponent is the St. Louis Rams, who is coming off a respectable 7-8-1 season. Quarterback Sam Bradford has never really lived up to his first overall pick draft status, but nonetheless has played well at times. The Browns should have a good measuring stick to gauge themselves (heading into the season).
Offense: It no longer Brandon Weeden’s rookie season; I do not anticipate the signal caller to light the world on fire but this game is the first (of hopefully many) where mistakes should be reduced immensely. We must not see poor throws and unnecessary interceptions – likewise, I would prefer to see his completion percentage rise greatly on all throws; he had multiple misses on deep targets in 2012. The backup situation could begin to become a bit clearer as Jason Campbell competes with Brian Hoyer; Campbell will likely be the second quarterback on the field for the Browns, but if Hoyer plays markedly better that can change heading into next week.
This will be the first preseason game for Trent Richardson in two years. Both fans and coaches know he is familiar with the speed of the NFL game, so his touches will be very low (as to prevent injury). Reserve rusher Montario Hardesty missed several practices with a hamstring injury, but this preseason is vital to the former University of Tennessee star. There are several talented runners looking to contribute. One of those is Dion Lewis, whose speed has been on display in camp – he is in line for a few touches each game in the regular season (in addition to being a kick returner). As with many preseason games, having a great outing is no guarantee of a roster spot (see James Davis, Chris Barclay, and Armond Smith in past seasons) – these guys must excel on a daily basis to stay on the roster.
Davone Bess and Greg Little will be scrutinized early on in this meeting. Will this duo step up during the 2013 season? Again, they may not get a ton of throws their way, but I would enjoy a few good connections with Weeden. With Josh Gordon being held out of a few practices, I doubt he would see significant action. Travis Benjamin is a smaller receiver, but if he can prove to take hits over the middle, that could instill confidence in this unit heading into the Miami matchup. As far as reserves goes, the trio of Jordan Norwood, Josh Cooper, and David Nelson are in direct competition for a slot receiver job with the team. Each has their downsides (size, coming off of an injury, etc.), but the victor of the battle could be a key contributor. These wide outs may not see time with the first unit but making the most is what matters.
The offseason overhaul puts the tight ends under the spotlight – many believe they know what to expect from Jordan Cameron. He is a fine tight end who can make a nice play or two, when healthy. However, he has gone relatively under the radar thus far in his career; 2013 will be his first real chance to be the starter. Time will only tell whether he can be the guy who Chud and Turner want at tight end. Gary Barnidge and Kellen Davis will see action with the second and third string units – fans should be eager to see if they can step up to challenge for the top spot. Davis will have a good opportunity to be on the field in rushing situations, but it may be hard to develop into a consistent receiver after not being one for five years. Barnidge could be a surprise; he has not seen a lot of playing time but Chud believed in him enough to snatch him away from his former employer (Carolina Panthers).
Defense: Running a basic defense in the preseason, and the Browns will not employ blitzes and complex schemes. It will be up to the front three to use their strength to dominate the opponent’s offensive line. Status quo (from 2012) for Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor, Billy Winn, and John Hughes would definitely be welcomed. The two Bryants will be on notice; Desmond will be a starter and although he may not make a huge impact, I would like to see his speed and power frequently. The odds are against Armonty being impactful in 2013, but his attempt to turn heads begins on Thursday. A change in the defensive scheme will take time until its full potential is realized but flashes of brilliance can be possible early.
The linebacker unit may be the most exciting position group to watch this season; I cannot wait to see Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard, and Barkevious Mingo repeatedly get after opposing signal callers. While that might have to wait until September, speed from the outside should still be present in August. After some seasoning in 2012, I am eager to see whether L.J. Fort, Craig Robertson, or James-Michael Johnson have improved in the offseason and can be dependable inside linebackers in the 3-4 defense. Stopping the “big play” on the ground should be a priority, and these three (alongside D’Qwell Jackson) must be in the right position to take down the ball carrier.
Chris Owens will more than likely accompany Joe Haden on the outside as a starting cornerback. He will face some burners in Tavon Austin, Brian Quick, Stedman Bailey, and Austin Pettis – Owens must eliminate any opportunity to get beat deep or else criticism will be immediate and prevalent by the fan base. Leon McFadden, Buster Skrine, and Trevin Wade will get opportunities against the Rams as well; however facing Sam Bradford might be the only good test for these defensive backs. Tashaun Gipson has been battling a shoulder injury, while Jamoris Slaughter has been held out of camp with leg injuries – Johnson Bademosi will have an opportunity to seize the starting free safety spot.
Special Teams: Chris Tabor will have the challenge of replacing his kicker, punter, punt returner, and kick returner from the 2012 squad. All facets will have competition, which will be on display on Thursday. It will be interesting to see who gets the nod between Brandon Bogotay and Shayne Graham – there is a definite drop-off from Phil Dawson (or it appears as so, judging from training camp). Hopefully time and practice can cure some of the issues the duo has had. Chud stated they will rotate returners in both the punting and kicking units; I would like a couple nice gains and zero turnovers against the Rams.
Coaching: New head coach, new offensive coordinator, and new defensive coordinator. There will be a tremendous amount of change in play calls and philosophies from last year. Granted these may not be clearly visible until the regular season, but as long as the same type of vanilla, predictable decisions we have been used to are gone, supporters can begin to get excited.
Prediction: Much like last season, I will save my predictions for the regular season for several reasons. First, it’s extremely tough to predict who will win any of these contests, with the high rotation of personnel. Second, teams do not take these matchups as seriously (i.e. some starters sit out all four games). Having said that, I anticipate a somewhat sloppy contest with mistakes, penalties, and possibly even a few turnovers. Hopefully the Browns look like the better team though.