Thursday, August 28, 2014

At least there's some momentum

If nothing else, the Browns’ 33-13 exhibition victory over the Chicago Bears Thursday night gave Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau something to think about.

It wasn’t necessarily the 33-point explosion against the Bears’ second- and third-stringers. And it certainly wasn’t the erratic throwing by Johnny Manziel.

What LeBeau should be thinking about is how many different ways the all-of-a-sudden awakened Cleveland offense can put points on the board.

LeBeau, who now heads into his laboratory of fun and games and devises a scheme to shut down the Cleveland offense a week from Sunday in the season opener in Pittsburgh, has plenty from which to choose.

For example, he will find out that Manziel, who will be more of a spectator in the opener, is much more dangerous with his feet than with his arm.

He’ll also see that Brian Hoyer is, at least right now, the better Cleveland quarterback and he’ll have to adjust to a more conventional attack instead of the unpredictability of Manziel.

In addition, LeBeau most likely will notice the Cleveland running game, which has been missing in action the last few years, is much more formidable with the likes of young veteran Ben Tate and rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell.

The latter, who has been tethered to the bench in the first three exhibitions, introduced himself to the home fans with a 102-yard, one-touchdown effort in the second half as the Browns scored nearly as many points as they did in the first three games (49).

Crowell played against the Chicago scrubs for the most part, but displayed a rare combination of power and speed, especially on his 48-yard scoring burst in the final quarter, hitting the hole with stunning quickness and outracing the secondary. His performance is certain to give the coaching staff something to think about on cutdown day.

Hoyer, who played just one series and directed his team on a 13-play, 85-yard scoring drive, provides stability at quarterback and can be schemed much easier than Manziel. He is much steadier than the flashy rookie, whose passes against the Bears were too long, too short or wobbled en route to the receiver.

Manziel was most effective, and this is where LeBeau most likely will take note, on misdirection bootleg rollouts designed to give him the freedom to pick and choose where to throw the ball or run with it.

For whatever reason, he seems to be much more effective and accurate when out in the open field. Midway through the second quarter, for example, Manziel faced a third-and-10 at the Chicago 28 and had to deal with a furious pass rush while in the shotgun.

He eased slightly to his left in the pocket and encountered too much traffic. So he reversed his field, scrambled to his right out into the open and found Nate Burleson for a 27-yard gain. On the next play, a misdirection bootleg left, he hit tight end Jim Dray in the end zone.

While it has become quite obvious Manziel struggles with the more conventional pro sets, he clearly is at home when on the run. As it turned out, he was the Browns’ second-leading rusher with 55 yards on four carries, two of which were designed plays off the zone read.

There remains the possibility that coach Mike Pettine might sanction the use of both quarterbacks against the Steelers as a change of pace, giving LeBeau something to think about in the next 10 days.

The Cleveland defense, meanwhile, played well albeit against the Bears’ second team. All regular standouts Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery and Co. could do was commiserate with their offensive mates.

Unlike last Saturday’s pungent display of football against the St. Louis Rams, the Browns were a much more aggressive bunch against the Bears on both sides of the ball. The defense recorded only two sacks, but applied pressure on quarterback David Fales all evening.

The only negative was the failure of second-year cornerback Leon McFadden to make up for his poor performance last Saturday. The Bears picked on him unmercifully and he did not respond well. His chances of making the final cut faded with every Bears completion against him and/or pass interference penalty.

So the Browns end the exhibition season at 1-3, but with some momentum into the regular season.

They know for certain the defense will hold up its end of the bargain, the running game will be stronger, the receiving corps leaves a lot to be desired and the quarterbacks right now are of unknown quality. They also discovered some sparks to the offense that were missing in the first three exhibitions.

Whether they were just an aberration or the real thing will be known much better on Sept. 7 in Pittsburgh. 

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