Cleveland Browns: What to Watch for in the First Preseason Game
It is finally here. Real football will commence for the Cleveland Browns on Saturday. OK, well it is kind of real football.
The first preseason game in Detroit might not mean a whole lot outside of a trophy that no one cares about, but it will be full of storylines that Browns fans want to see. This is the first real glimpse at a team that seems to have hope for the first time in recent memory.
Saturday night will mark the debut of a head coach, general manager, quarterback and dozens of players who have not played for the Browns before. This will also be the first time that owner Jimmy Haslam has an organization full of guys that he handpicked.
Here are the five things to watch for when the Browns battle the Lions in Detroit on Saturday.
Manziel Under the Lights
Don’t get me wrong, people are interested in how Hoyer plays. Heck, he very well might be the starting quarterback for the Browns this season. But you can be certain that all eyes will be locked onto the field when Johnny Football enters the game.
Whether they love him or hate him, Manziel is the main attraction on Saturday night for everyone. Doubters can’t wait to see him struggle, and believers want to see a sign of hope that he is everything they thought he would be.
Adding to the intrigue is the fact that Manziel is coming off his best two practices of training camp. On Tuesday, I witnessed Manziel be comfortable and in command on the field for the first time, and that momentum carried over into Wednesday’s practice as well.
ESPNCleveland.com's Tony Grossi described Manziel’s week as “revelatory”:
Johnny Manziel added another strong practice to add to a revelatory week of practice. Manziel practiced mostly with the first team again (second time this week) and added to his momentum. One particular throw stood out – a deep sideline out to Andrew Hawkins that traveled about 30 yards and was right on the mark between cornerback Buster Skrine and safety Jim Leonhard.
Manziel has always showed up huge when the lights come on. Well, it’s time to see how far he has come since the beginning of camp because the lights will be big and bright on Saturday night.
What Receivers Will Step Up
We will finally start to get some clarity on the wide receiver position Saturday night as well. While no one will solidify their spot on the roster in the first preseason game, guys can take a huge step toward that goal.
On Tuesday, Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer (h/t Aaron Wilson of NationalFootballPost.com) reported the Browns are bracing to lose receiver Josh Gordon for at least eight games. This is better than the original full season prognostication but still a major blow to the Browns’ receiving unit.
Through the first 10 days of camp, the team has had unknowns like Willie Snead and Anthony Armstrong play well, per Dawgs by Nature's Chris Pokorny, and Charles Johnson be a "revelation," per Grossi. Can any of these guys step up when it counts though?
For players with little or no NFL resume, they need to take advantage of every pass thrown their way. It does not matter if it is in the first or fourth quarter.
For veterans like Miles Austin, Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins, this is an opportunity to show they deserve to be put directly on the roster. This is especially important for Burleson who has done little to separate himself from the group of unknowns chasing him for his job.
The receivers will rotate throughout the first-, second- and third-team offenses, so they will get a mix of both Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel. The guys who show they can contribute no matter who is throwing the ball have a leg up heading into the second game.
On Tuesday morning the Browns released their first league-mandated depth chart. One of the positions my eyes darted directly toward was guard:
As you can see in Mary Kay Cabot’s tweet, rookie Joel Bitonio and veteran John Greco are listed as the starting guards. This wouldn't be all that odd except they haven’t been taking all the reps with the first-team offense.
Greco was injured the entire first week of camp and seems a bit behind, while Bitonio has been as solid as advertised. Also taking reps at the guard spot have been Garrett Gilkey and Paul McQuistan. McQuistan has been taking some reps at right tackle as well.
While Greco and Bitonio could certainly end up the starters Week 1 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, that race is still wide open. Preseason games against real opposition will be the true tests of who deserves to start. That test begins Saturday night.
Gilbert's First Game
If it weren’t for Johnny Manziel, there would be a ton more hype surrounding the first game for the eighth overall pick in the draft. Fortunately for him, Justin Gilbert has flown under the radar and will probably continue to do so as long as Johnny Football is around.
Being under the radar does not mean Gilbert lacks confidence, however. The fact that he is listed as a backup to Buster Skrine on the first depth chart hasn’t shaken Gilbert one bit.
Nate Ulrich of The Akron-Beacon Journal spoke to Gilbert about the depth chart:
'The season hasn’t started yet,' Gilbert said when asked whether the depth chart motivates him.
So will he be listed ahead of Skrine when the regular season opens Sept. 7 at Pittsburgh?
'I hope so,' Gilbert said with a smirk.
He’s certainly on track.
Gilbert has been taking reps with the first-team defense over the last few practices and making the most of them. On Tuesday, I witnessed him break up multiple passes from Hoyer and Manziel. He made it extremely difficult to throw to his side of the field.
He also chased Manziel in the backfield and forced him to throw the ball away on a scramble, much to the delight of his defensive teammates on the sideline.
If Gilbert plays as well in the game as he has in practice, then he doesn’t have to worry about being under the radar anymore. Everyone will know he is on his way to proving his worth as a top-10 pick.
A Poised Pettine?
As much as NFL coaches try and deny it, they are human beings. They feel excitement and nervousness just the same as anyone else. You have to imagine Mike Pettine will be feeling both those emotions on Saturday when he hits the sidelines for the first time ever as a NFL head coach.
“I think it’ll be a special day, but, to me, it’s more for the staff and the team than it is for me personally,” Pettine told the media after practice on Tuesday.
The question is not whether it will be special. The real question is how will Pettine handle those nerves on his special day?
In Cleveland, the place where Pat Shurmur knocked a referee down in his coaching debut, you are trained to expect the unexpected. If Pettine’s demeanor thus far is any indication, however, fans may be pleasantly surprised.
The sidelines can be a hectic place where things are moving 1,000 miles per hour. Even Pettine will need these preseason games to gear up for the regular season. Something tells me that he will be able to handle this task with ease. He is already ahead of the game—and the last two head coaches—by not calling offensive plays from the sidelines.