Friday, July 25, 2014

Questions and answers

With Browns training camp launch less than 24 hours away, time for questions seeking answers with most of the answers provided.

What will be the camp’s most interesting and watched competition?

That one’s easy. If you don’t know the answer to that one, you’re in the wrong place. Of course it’s the battle at quarterback between Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel. Which begs the next question.

What are Manziel’s chances of winning the job and being under center Sept. 7 in Pittsburgh?

Better than you might think even though coach Mike Pettine wants Hoyer to win the job, which means he will give the incumbent every opportunity to do so. If Manziel (never Johnny Football or any other Johnny reference here) is all that has been advertised, however, don’t be surprised to see him start the season opener.

How will that happen?

New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is savvy enough and flexible enough to tailor part of his offense to cater to Manziel’s unusual improvisational skills whenever the rookie is under center. He has designed plays specifically for him, ones Hoyer cannot execute.

So how can Hoyer overcome that?

By playing well in his time on the field. And in practice. He’ll get half the first exhibition game, half the second and about three quarters of the third. If he does well, Manziel holds the clipboard in Pittsburgh. It’s Hoyer’s job to lose more than it is Manziel’s to win.

Are three exhibition games enough to determine who starts at quarterback?

In the National Football League, it is. It’s the only barometer coaches use.

Any other interesting battles to keep an eye on?

Quite a few: Wide receiver, two-fifths of the offensive line, inside linebacker and half the secondary.

With the year-long suspension of Josh Gordon, the Browns are in trouble on the flanks. There are no stickouts unless you consider Nate Burleson or Miles Austin, both of whom are on the downside of their careers.

Unless the likes of Andrew Hawkins, Travis Benjamin, Anthony Armstrong, Charles Johnson and rookie Willie Snead flash, look for a more toned-down Cleveland passing game this season. Especially with an offense geared much more toward the run than last season.

The Browns didn’t run very much last season because they were downright awful. Why the change back to the ground game and who will carry the ball?

Why? Because of the new blocking scheme installed by Shanahan, the zone-blocking scheme, an easier and simpler scheme for the offensive line. It enables the ball carrier more opportunities to make cutback runs.

As for the who, try veteran Ben Tate and rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. All are young, tough, hard-nosed runners built along the same physical lines: 5-10, 5-11, 225 pounds. There is no question the Cleveland running game will be significantly improved this season because it can’t be any worse than last season’s.

So who will be the No. 1 running back?

There’s a good chance there won’t be a No. 1 with at least two, perhaps all three, sharing the load. All are good cutback runners who should work well with the new blocking scheme.

How does the new offensive approach and the lack of quality wideouts affect tight end Jordan Cameron?

Don’t expect another 80-catch, 917-yard, seven-touchdown season. Now that Gordon is out of the picture, look for opponents to pay close attention to Cameron. Much more attention.

That brings us to the offensive line. What are the problems there?

The offensive line has two big question marks: Left guard and right guard. The tackles and center are set. Second-round pick Joel Bitonio and veteran John Greco are the early favorites to win starting jobs. Watch out for Garret Gilkey and Paul McQuistan.

We know about the new run-blocking scheme. What about the pass blocking?

Now that could be a problem. Perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas showed cracks in his pass pro armor last season. Mitchell Schwartz, after a slow start, played well. And center Alex Mack had his best season.

What about the other battles?

At inside linebacker, free-agent signee Karlos Dansby is one of the NFL’s best. But he’s 32, an age considered by some to be a crossroads, and played next to the solid Daryl Washington in Arizona. If he plays as well as he did last season, he is a definite upgrade from the departed D’Qwell Jackson. Rookie Chris Kirksey and Craig Robertson battle to play opposite Dansby.

In the secondary, strong safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Joe Haden are locks at their respective positions. Both play Pro-Bowl caliber football. Top draft pick Justin Gilbert most likely will open opposite Haden at corner with fellow rookie Pierre Desir pressing him. And Tashaun Gipson played well enough at free safety last season to lock down the spot again. Look for Desir to give Buster Skrine a battle for the slot role in the nickel.

So what are the strengths of the defense?

The quality and depth on the defensive line and outside linebacker, and the expected pressure defense by Pettine, the de facto defensive coordinator.  His in-your-face style of defense has Browns fans excited, primarily because they haven’t seen that style in, oh, probably never.

Pettine is a big fan of playing a stifling defense with emphasis on getting opposing quarterbacks on the ground or releasing the ball before they want. That means a lot of blitzing and press coverage on the outside.

How much a role will the outside backers play?

The operative word here is huge, especially against the pass. With Jabaal Sheard slated to line up as a hand-on-the-ground defensive end more this season, that gives Pettine much more latitude to employ exotic blitzes. And he appears bold enough to employ some of those blitzes featuring members of the secondary.

With a much more pass-rush friendly scheme, we finally will find out about Barkevious Mingo and Paul Kruger, who disappointed last season with only 9½ combined sacks. It will be interesting to see whether Pettine can extract the talent and production fans expected from them last season.

What can fans expect from Pettine, the head coach?

Right now, he’s a blank slate. He seems to be the kind of coach who is straightforward with the media. He doesn’t sugarcoat things. There is no reading between the lines with him.

It will be interesting to see how much of an effect running the defense detracts from his role as the head coach. Some veteran head coaches can handle both chores. Most cannot. Pat Shurmur, for example, tried running the Cleveland offense a few years ago as a head coach and was awful. 

Another reason to harbor hopes Pettine will be successful: He is the son of a coach. Before you minimize that fact, consider that three of the NFL’s top coaches are sons of coaches. That would be Bill Belichick and the Harbaugh brothers, John and Jim.

What problems can Pettine expect to encounter?

The main one will be the circus atmosphere that will envelop training camp beginning Saturday. Because of Manziel, this will be unlike any other camp the Browns have had. The kid is a lightning rod, a magnet, a polarizing figure no matter how the club chooses to look at it.

The TMZ factor kicks in from day one, not to mention daily visits from ESPN, Fox, NBC and CBS. How long they stick around probably depends on how insulated the Browns plan to shelter Manziel. It also depends on how Pettine and his coaching staff handle it. It very well could become a sizable distraction,

It’s hard to imagine Manziel eventually becoming a non-story. No matter what he does, he will placed under the media microscope and Pettine had better be ready to share that microscope with his rookie quarterback.

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