Big victory toughens roster trimming
If Thursday night’s 35-17 drubbing of the Detroit Lions is any indication, the Browns this season will have bench strength as never before since the return in 1999.
At the same time, General Manager John Dorsey and his staff, along with Hue Jackson’s coaching staff, will have an extremely difficult time paring the roster to the final 53 by Saturday afternoon.
It is at the same time a pleasant situation to have from a depth standpoint and one where Dorsey and Co. will slash some pretty good players if the Lions’ victory is indicative of where this rebuilt roster stands.
There is no question whatsoever the 2018 Browns are a far better team from a talent standpoint up and down the roster. The exhibition spanking in Detroit produced eye-opening performances from names on that roster who had not yet been given a chance.
Names such as running backs Dontrell Hilliard, Matthews Dayes, quarterback Brogan Roback, defensive backs Jeremiah McKinnon and Denzel Rice, linebacker Justin Currie and an offensive line that permitted only one late sack, kept quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Roback clean and provided enough holes for a 163-yard evening on the ground.
Twenty-eight Browns did not suit up, all presumably who figure prominently in the grand scheme for the season, players the Browns did not want to expose the possibility of an injury.
Starting right guard Kevin Zeitler played his first and only series of the exhibition season after sitting out the first three games with a calf injury, rookie left guard Austin Corbett once again played the entire game and defensive tackle Caleb Brantley was in for a few plays.
It’s the next 22 who were playing for their professional football lives against the Lions and acquitted themselves well in just about every phase, making those front-office decisions that much harder to make.
McKinnon, Currie and Rice, who logged eight unassisted tackles, stood out on a defense that swarmed to the football all evening and produced enough of a pass rush that limited the Lions to just 170 yards through the air, forced eight punts and nearly shut out the Lions on third down, allowing just one in 11 tries.
The feeble Lions offense recorded 15 first downs, but five were achieved via Cleveland penalties. More on that later.
The Cleveland offense ran with smooth efficiency from the opening play, Mayfield connecting on a play-action 41-yard strike to rookie tight end Devon Cajuste that set up rookie Nick Chubb’s three-yard scoring run on fourth and 1 from the 3.
Cleveland’s five first-half possessions took 19:13 off the clock and produced 256 yards in just 37 plays. Mayfield was nine of 16 throwing for138 yards, but stats do not totally define him.
He is extraordinarily quick in the pocket and seems to have a sixth sense of knowing where the trouble is and working his way either around it or sometimes through it keeping his eyes downfield at all times. He also seems much more comfortable under center and smoother with his play fakes.
On this night, though, his running game ground out 118 yards in the opening half, Dayes gaining 77 on eight carries (he also caught two passes for 34 yards), Hilliard 54 in 18 and Chubb put up 20 on just five rushes. It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, gets the call behind Chubb, Duke Johnson Jr. and Carlos Hyde.
Roback introduced himself to Cleveland fans in a rather impressive fashion, too., connecting on half his 14 passes for 139 yards, including a pretty 22-yard scoring throw to fellow rookie Blake Jackson on a perfectly thrown post pattern.
It would appear, speaking hyperbolically, as though the Browns have an embarrassment of riches at the important running back position, a situation this franchise hasn’t seen since the original Browns moved.
And the defense, which has shown so well in the 3-1exhibition season (that’s 7-1 in gamest that don’t count the last two seasons), definitely won’t lose much, if at all, if injuries strike.
One who stood out was linebacker Nate Orchard, one of many veterans on the roster bubble. It’s entirely possible he saved his job with a terrific and very athletic 64-yard pick six in the final minute of the first half that boosted the halftime lead to 25-0.
Orchard delayed his rush on Matt Cassel and batted the veteran quarterback’s attempted flat pass up in the air, controlled it and raced untouched into the end zone.
It is difficult to find negatives after a game such as this, but two stand out – special teams and penalties.
Special teams committed three penalties on punts and kickoffs and carelessly let a short Detroit punt hit a member of the receiving team, giving the Lions a gift field goal early in the third quarter.
The Browns, who committed only one harmless penalty for five yards in last week’s 5-0 victory over Philadelphia, made up for it against the Lions, committing 14 (that were accepted) for 134 yards.
Even though they did not impact the final outcome, there is no excuse for penalty statistics like that. That’s an area that definitely needs to be cleaned up.