Sunday, August 30, 2015

Defense center stage in impressive dress rehearsal

If the so-called dress rehearsal exhibition game is any indication, Browns fans can look forward to some entertaining defense this season.

And if the offense – and here is the key – can stay on the field long enough to give that defense adequate rest, the 2015 season might be enjoyable with emphasis on the word might. It’s going to be an iffy season.

What fans witnessed Saturday night in Tampa can be interpreted two ways. The Browns, walking away with a ridiculously easy 31-7 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, did so against a very bad football team with a rookie quarterback. But they looked awfully good on both sides of the ball in doing it.

Josh McCown, exhibiting tendencies of daring that angered his coach, played an inconsistent game at quarterback, looking at times like a seasoned professional and at other times like, well, like he did when he racked up only one victory in 11 tries in Tampa last year.

He expertly engineered two scoring drives that piled up 158 yards in 27 plays eating up almost 16 minutes on his opening and closing series before departing midway through the third quarter. Brian Hartline and Gary Barnidge were on the scoring end of his touchdown passes.

In between, though, McCown (17-of-23 for 117 yards and the two scores) looked extremely mediocre, often missing open receivers badly. On several occasions, he forced his targets to reach back for the ball in an obvious case of bad timing.

What fans did not see were field-stretching plays to loosen up the Tampa Bay defense. Everything McCown threw was of the short-to-intermediate variety. That might be a portent of things to come this season. Keep everything buttoned down.

A season full of good/bad McCown will not end up well. The good McCown showed what he could do in those two scoring drives. He disappeared until the final drive. That inconsistency is why he is a well-traveled quarterback.

You never know what you’re going to get with McCown under center other than he is not afraid to run. Only problem there is he favors running like a running back instead of the most valuable piece of property on the offense.

Instead of sliding during scrambles as most quarterbacks do, McCown apparently gets a testosterone rush when running and disdains the more prudent move of going feet first to avoid contact.

On his first two scrambles, he ducked his head to take on hits. On the first, which occurred near the Cleveland bench, coach Mike Pettine, shouting to McCown, pointed to his head and admonished him to “be smart” or something to that effect.

It wasn’t until McCown was nearly cut in half on a crushing hit by rookie Tampa Bay linebacker Kwon Alexander on another scramble late in the second quarter that the quarterback finally got the message.

By then the Browns’ defense, which was on the field for just 23 minutes, made Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston look very much like the rookie he is. It limited the Bucs to just 10 first downs and a paltry 177 yards of total offense. They reached the red zone only once.

When defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil wasn’t dialing up blitzes (which he did frequently), he confused Winston with mixed and disguised coverages. Of the four sacks of the kid, two were of the coverage variety.

With the exception of a second-quarter lapse that allowed the Bucs to score their only touchdown on a 19-yard run by Doug Martin, the Cleveland defense was in control. It took control from the start and jacked it up a few notches after Travis Benjamin began the scoring for the Browns with a 53-yard punt return.

Winston and Mike Glennon had precious little time to get rid of the ball most of the evening and connected only when O’Neil went conservative with only three rushers. Other than that, it was relentless pressure.

But it must be cautioned that the Bucs’ offensive line is not among the more elite in the National Football League. We’ll find out in a couple of weeks just how strong this Cleveland defense is when the games start counting.

Now if the Cleveland offense can achieve any measure of consistency – and therein lies the secret to the success or failure of the Browns this season – to match what appears to be a vastly improved defense, anything is possible.

The exhibition finale against the Bears in Chicago next Thursday will not shed any more light on the situation since Pettine will empty the bench from the beginning in easily the most meaningless game of the season.

The starters will watch from the bench while reserves try to impress the coaches in an effort to land on the final 53-man roster. Not exactly must-see television.

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