Rambling thoughts on exhibition opener
Musings on the Browns’ 20-17 loss to the Washington Redskins Thursday night in the exhibition opener at home . . .
Two of the Browns’ main objectives as we get closer to the beginning of the 2015 season are improving the run game and stopping the run. Very simple and equally basic. Follow that rule of thumb and you’re going to win your share of games.
If you can establish a strong ground game, the passing game falls into place. And if you prevent the opposition from establishing that strong ground game, your chances of winning increase.
If their performance against the Redskins is any indication, this will be a very long season. Major fail. They couldn’t run the ball (45 yards), while the Redskins pounded away to the tune of 153 yards infantry style. It was nearly as many yards (170) as the Browns had overall.
To be fair, it should be noted this was just the first exhibition, not the third or fourth. And the starters played just the opening series. Then again, it was also the Redskins’ opener and they looked significantly better on both sides of the ball throughout the game. Washington won just about every battle in the trenches.
Bottom line: The Cleveland run defense was not very defensive all evening. And the run offense was extremely offensive.
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Second-year cornerback Justin Gilbert got off to a rocky start when he watched Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III too much on the game’s first series and allowed Pierre Garcon to break free behind him. Fortunately, the wide receiver dropped what should have been a touchdown pass.
Gilbert, burned moments earlier on a 22-yard pass, chose to take the positive route after the game, labeling his performance as “flawless” after the early miscues. Props to him for the attitude, albeit somewhat misguided.
Being beaten like a snare drum does not exactly pile up points in the correct column for Gilbert, the club’s top pick in last year’s college draft. If not for injuries to Joe Haden and Pierre Desir, he doesn’t start against the Redskins.
Again to be fair, his performance did improve (it couldn’t have gotten any worse) when Washington’s second- and third-stringers entered the game. He still has a long way to go.
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Quarterback Josh McCown played just the first series and he was, to quote Gilbert but more accurately, flawless. Five passes, five bull’s-eyes and a touchdown to a wide-open Travis Benjamin in the corner of the end zone following a scramble.
Just as important was his demeanor on the bench once his evening was over. He was constantly offering advice and encouraging Johnny Manziel and Connor Shaw. Unlike last season when Brian Hoyer appeared to avoid Manziel like the plague, McCown is much more accommodating.
Maybe it’s because he knows he’s clearly the No. 1 guy and Manziel is not a threat. Then again, maybe it’s because he’s been around long enough to know it is counterproductive to cold-shoulder a fellow quarterback. It was refreshing to see.
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Manziel was a workmanlike 7-for-11 for 42 yards while working into the early stages of the third quarter and, as he did in last week’s scrimmage, did not look out of place. He did not make any obvious mistakes, although lack of protection hampered his ability to spot open receivers.
His natural instinct to run enabled him to score on a 12-yard scamper in the second quarter when the Washington defense provided what looked like a highway to the end zone. Notably absent was the Manziel money sign, which fortunately seems to have been retired.
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On the other side of the equation, where was the Cleveland pass rush? Only one sack (by rookie defensive lineman Xavier Cooper late in the game), while the offensive line surrendered five.
It seemed as though Cleveland’s quarterbacks could never get into a rhythm because the offensive line was leaky all evening. The only time McCown, Manziel and Shaw could complete a pass was either on the run or by getting rid of the ball quickly.
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Rough outing for rookie offensive lineman Cameron Erving, who played a large part of the game at left tackle in place of Joe Thomas, given the night off after a scare a few days ago.
Erving, the Browns’ second first-round pick in the draft behind defensive tackle Danny Shelton, had all sorts of problems in pass protection and looked slow off the ball in the run game. He can’t get anything but better.
If he has any designs of cracking the starting lineup, he’s going to have to do it on the right side of the line, where John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz reside. But he’ll have to hike up his game several notches if that’s going to happen. Very disappointing.
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Shelton, on the other hand, was comparatively spectacular at nose tackle. He was credited with just one tackle, but applied the kind of pressure up the middle that was missing last season, when the Browns brought up the rear on run defense.
His quickness off the ball, strength to handle double teams and relentless style of play will pay dividends in the run game if he is schemed correctly. On several occasions against the Redskins, he faced triple teams and on one play had to battle four players.
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As for the new uniforms, it’s going to take an acquired-taste mentality to accept them. At first blush, I did not like them. Second blush was worse. And third blush made me wish those who designed them should go back to school and take up something else.
I guess I’m from the old school. There is nothing wrong with the classic look of the basic Cleveland Browns uniform. The new version is anything but classic. They do not need the name Browns running from mid-thigh to the top of the kneecap on the outside of the pant legs. It looks garish.
And why does the name Cleveland have to be stripped across the chest? It’s not like we need that to know those are the Cleveland Browns on the field. Nothing wrong with subtlety. This is not a fashion show. It’s not how you look that counts; it’s how you play.
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Notebook: The Browns forced two turnovers, one on special teams, and turned them into 10 points. Good start. . . . There something about the Browns that turns Kirk Cousins of the Redskins into a great quarterback. He beat them during the regular season a couple of years ago replacing an injured Griffin and was 12-of-14 for 154 yards Thursday night. He has trouble beating everyone else. . . . Would like to see more of rookie wide receiver Darius Jennings returning kickoffs. He was thatclose to breaking what turned out to be a 54-yard return. . . . Andy Lee quietly showed why he is one of the best punters in the National Football League by placing four of his five punts inside the Washington 20. . . . Two nice blocks in pass protection by veteran running back Jalen Parmele prevented the Washington sack total from reaching seven. Perhaps he can teach the proper technique to Isaiah Crowell, Terrance West and Duke Johnson before he’s cut. . . . Time of possession: Washington 36 minutes, Cleveland 24. Room for improvement. Lots of room.