Thursday, September 8, 2011

Questions won't spoil opener

The Browns head into the regular season with numerous questions marks on offense. Almost too numerous.

For example:

Along the offensive line, only two spots are set: Left tackle (Joe Thomas) and center (Alex Mack). Some believe Shawn Lauvao is a fixture at right guard. Then there are those who think Lauvao might be moved to left guard because it would be too risky to start rookie Jason Pinkston there. If that’s the case, then veteran John Greco most likely moves in to play right guard.

Right tackle Tony Pashos, who tops the injury-waiting-to-happen list just about every season, is walking around with a boot on his right foot. That brings newcomers Oneil Cousins and Artis Hicks into the picture.

So will it be Thomas-Pinkston-Mack-Lauvao-Pashos Sunday in the season opener against Cincinnati? Or will it be Thomas-Lauvao-Mack-Greco and Cousins/Hicks? Then again, it could be Thomas-Greco-Mack-Lauvao and Cousins/Hicks.

The Browns’ front office, of course, could spin this to look like a positive. “We have so many good and versatile linemen, we’ll be all right no matter who plays,” they could say.

Heading into the season, this is not what you want the offensive line picture to look like. Stability is the key for the front five. The less stability, the less effective they are. The same five needs to start every week in order to have a shot at being successful.

Now let us turn to the wide receivers. Who is going to start? Better yet, who are the main contributors going to be?

Mo Massaquoi hasn’t played a single minute of the exhibition season due to injury. How sharp is he going to be for the Bengals? And while Brian Robiskie looked halfway decent during those games, he’s not an elite guy. Joshua Cribbs is still a much better return specialist than wideout and Greg Little is a rookie. Most rookie wide receivers struggle in their first year.

Then you’ve got Jordan Norwood and Carlton Mitchell coming off the bench. Enough said. The Browns are hurting, once again, at wide receiver. And nothing the front office can say changes that.

The only solid parts of the offense right now reside at quarterback with Colt McCoy, running back with Peyton Hillis, although the bench offers little help there, and tight end with Ben Watson and Evan Moore.

On defense, there exist a few questions marks. Such as:

Is the Browns’ defensive line too young and too inexperienced to be a factor in the early stages of the season?

With rookies Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard comprising half the line, and Jayme Mitchell finally getting a shot at starting after five seasons of watching from the bench, it’s almost too much to expect them to scare the opposition.

As for the linebackers in the revamped 4-3 scheme, can D’Qwell Jackson stay healthy long enough to be a force in the middle? How effective is Chris Gocong going to be after missing the entire exhibition season? And how spry will Scott Fujita be in his 11th season?

Unlike last season, the Browns enter the 2011 campaign in relatively good shape in the secondary. Unless, that is, Joe Haden and T.J. Ward suffer from a sophomore jinx. The addition of Usama Young, James Dockery and Buster Skrine provides much needed depth.

All things considered, I look for the Browns to do something they have done only once on opening day since the return in 1999 – win. And it shouldn’t be close.

The Bengals, strong candidates to replace the Browns in the AFC North basement this season, open with a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton and are relatively inexperienced at wide receiver.

If new Cleveland defensive coordinator Dick Jauron steps out of character and shelves his normally conservative approach for a more aggressive stance against the rookie, it’s going to be as fun afternoon at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Look for that to happen with McCoy hooking up all day with Watson and Moore and Hillis banging out big yardage, especially in the second half. Make it:

Browns 30, Bengals 17

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