Friday, September 1, 2017

Exhibition perfecto

(Full disclosure: I did not see the Browns-Chicago Bears exhibition game as originally telecast Thursday night. I will watch the game on tape Saturday morning on the NFL Network. The following piece is written based on observations after viewing video highlights of the game online and interviews with the media.)

As the Browns now prepare for the beginning of the 2017 National Football League regular season, which launches Sept. 10 at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, one thing is certain.

This is the most confident Browns team I have seen in recent memory as they get ready for games that count after sweeping the exhibition season for the first time in 31 years.

With nearly all of the starters and a few significant backups getting the evening off, the team’s backups, many of whom have no chance at surviving the massive roster purge in the next couple of days, at least gave the coaches something to think about with a 25-0 victory over the Bears in Chicago.

Cutting the roster down to the final 53, a number that probably will be liquid for perhaps as long as a week because of the enormous amount of players who become free agents, will be somewhat difficult in a few instances.

Take quarterback, for example. DeShone Kizer, who will start against the Steelers, and Brock Osweiler did not play against the Bears. Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan shared the four quarters and both played well.

Kessler was 12-of-19 for 144 yards and a 27-yard touchdown heave to Rannell Hall, breaking a scoreless tie late in the second quarter. However he was sacked three times in the first quarter.

Hogan was even better, completing 13 of 18 passes for 180 yards with scoring throws to tight end Randall Telfer in the third quarter, a 51-yarder on a blown coverage, and a 21-yard strike to Jordan Leslie early in the fourth.

All of which presents an interesting conundrum to the coaching staff. Does Hogan move ahead of Kessler on the depth chart based on a more solid performance? Will the quarterbacks room next week include Osweiler?

Browns boss Sashi Brown hinted teasingly before the game that the Browns might keep only two quarterbacks on the roster this season. “We’ve had some discussions about that,” he said. “As this roster evolves over the next couple of days, we’ll make some final decisions. We might keep three, might keep two.”

If that is the direction he heads, Brown is courting disaster. It’s not as if he has a pair of established veterans helming his offense. The candidates are a rookie, two pro sophomores with a lot still to prove and a five-year veteran who might have fallen to fourth on the depth chart.

Another major decision involves kickers Zane Gonzalez and Cody Parkey. Gonzalez, who missed a 55-yard field-goal attempt against the New York Giants in game three, nailed a 53-yarder against the Bears to give the Browns a 10-0 led in the third quarter. But he hit an upright on his only extra-point attempt. Parkey has been solid throughout the exhibitions.

“We’ll go back and sit down and make some decisions about which way we’re heading here,” coach Hue Jackson told the media after the game. “(Hogan) made a great case for himself tonight and he’s done that the last two weeks. It’s a good problem to have.”

Another good problem to have is the way Gregg Williams’ defense has performed thus far. The backups played even better than the starters from a statistical standpoint in pitching the shutout.

The Cleveland defense, which limited the Bears to just 68 yards on the ground and recorded four sacks to push the season total to 16, posted its first safety of the season when defensive end Karter Schult and safety Calvin Pryor combined to sack former Browns quarterback Connor Shaw in the end zone in the third quarter.

The defense this exhibition season surrendered only 29 points and just one touchdown that in the opening game against the New Orleans Saints.

The Bears registered only nine first downs Thursday night, an incredible four by penalty, and a meager 159 total yards of offense as the Chicago coaching staff went conservative almost all evening.

Cleveland-area native Mitch (Mitchell) Trubisky, the Bears’ No. 1 draft choice, opened the game at quarterback and handed the ball off nine straight times in three series, all three-and-out, before departing. He returned late in the fourth quarter when Shaw was injured.

It was almost as though the Bears, who ran only 53 plays from scrimmage, weren’t trying.  The Browns, meanwhile, banged out 380 yards of offense, all but 78 through the air. Kessler and Hogan distributed the ball to 11 different receivers.

All in all, it was a performance that will make the coaching staff’s job slicing and dicing of the roster in the next couple of days that much more difficult. Some good players will be jettisoned.

Jackson is buoyed by a good feeling he has regarding his team. “I can see something building in the locker room and that’s what you want,” he said after the game. “We all know football is a whole lot different in the regular season, coming up against Pittsburgh.”

There is no question, though, he feels a whole lot better about this team than the one he coached a year ago.

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