St. Louis vs. Cleveland: Browns Preseason Week 3 Preview

Andy McNamaraCorrespondent IIAugust 21, 2014

St. Louis vs. Cleveland: Browns Preseason Week 3 Preview

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    The third exhibition game is commonly referred to as the "dress rehearsal" for the regular season, and the Cleveland Browns are hosting the St. Louis Rams at FirstEnergy Stadium.

    This makes Wednesday's announcement of Brian Hoyer as the opening-day starting quarterback extremely important, as it allows No. 6 to work exclusively with the first team through practice and in Saturday's matchup.

    Seeing if Hoyer's play dramatically improves over his 2-of-6 Monday Night Football effort now that he won the QB competition is going to be an interesting storyline to follow.

    Cleveland's main focus this week needed to be centered on building chemistry within the offense. The disconnect between quarterbacks and receivers was alarmingly bad in the loss to Washington on Monday.

    St. Louis ranked ninth overall in run defense last season, which makes this an important test for Browns running back Ben Tate. The veteran will look to build off a stellar performance against the Redskins that saw him rumble off an average of 5.1 yards per carry on 10 rushes.

    Rookie Justin Gilbert starts once again opposite Joe Haden at outside cornerback. It's good that the youngster gets to experience a true pocket passer in Sam Bradford who has offensive weapons like Chris Givens, Tavon Austin and Kenny Britt at his disposal.

    It should be a good way to gauge where Gilbert is at in his development to become a lockdown corner.

    On paper, the Browns defense looks like an overall force with playmakers on the front seven and secondary. The question is whether the sputtering offense can remain on the field long enough to keep the defenders fresh and effective.  

Browns Preseason Week 2 Recap

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    Richard Lipski/Associated Press

    The obvious takeaway from Cleveland's 24-23 loss to Washington on Monday Night Football is that the passing game is in dire need of improvement.

    In what turned out to be the final phase of the quarterback competition, Brian Hoyer got the start and switched with Johnny Manziel about every second series so that both got time playing against the Redskins' first-team defense.

    Hoyer was 2-of-6 through the air for 16 yards, while Johnny countered by going 7-of-16 for 65 yards and a touchdown pass to Dion Lewis. However, Manziel's scoring drive came when Washington's backups were on the field.

    Fourth-string QB Connor Shaw provided some entertainment as he orchestrated a late comeback Hail Mary touchdown with no time remaining on the clock. A failed two-point conversion attempt meant the Browns left the nation's capital as losers.

    Chemistry, rhythm and timing between Hoyer and the receivers need to take significant steps forward Saturday at home versus St. Louis if Cleveland wants to provide any sort of hope to its fanbase that the offense will be ready for Week 1.

    Pass-interference penalties aside, the Browns defense got better as the game went on. We have to remember that defensive schemes are often kept vanilla during these exhibition contests so as not to reveal creative looks and packages that have been developed.

    Three interceptions (one returned for a TD by Jim Leonhard), two sacks and seven defended passes demonstrated a secondary that attacks the ball and a front seven that gets after the quarterback.

News and Notes

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Dress Rehearsal 

    #Browns HC Pettine said starters will play about half Sat, some starters might play into third quarter, plan to play ones some in finale too

    — Nate Ulrich (@NateUlrichABJ) August 21, 2014

    The third exhibition game is always the litmus test for starters. It is usually the last chance that the first team has to work out any kinks before Week 1 of the regular season.

    Having a new head coach and schemes on both sides of the ball makes Saturday's action extremely valuable to the Browns as every rep with the new terminology helps.

     

    #JohnnyClipboard

    After losing the starting quarterback competition to Brian Hoyer, don't expect to see Johnny Manziel with anything but a clipboard in his hands when the regular season starts...at least for now.

    #Browns coach Mike Pettine said there won't be a package of plays for Johnny Manziel at start of season.

    — Scott Petrak ct (@ScottPetrak) August 20, 2014

    Johnny was humble in defeat, and personally, I feel that having a 21-year-old that is supposed to be your future signal-caller take in the full speed of NFL regular-season games from the sideline is a good thing.

    #Browns Manziel on Hoyer: Good for Brian. He's a hometown guy. Props to him.

    — Scott Petrak ct (@ScottPetrak) August 20, 2014

    #Browns Manziel said he was disappointed, but not angry about Pettine's decision. Will keep trying to get better.

    — Scott Petrak ct (@ScottPetrak) August 20, 2014

    Manziel still has fans in the Browns clubhouse. One of them is veteran receiver Nate Burleson.

    #browns wr Nate Burleson: "Johnny's still the man. Johnny will be successful in this league. I'm a Johnny football fan."

    — Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) August 21, 2014

     

    Gordon Still in Limbo

    The fate of the NFL's 2013 leader in receiving yards, Josh Gordon, still remains up in the air. A final decision on a suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy is pending following his appeal earlier this month. The news of his suspension broke all the way back at the draft in May.

    Gordon had only one reception on five targets Monday night and did not look like he was going all out.

    #browns Pettine said he talked to josh Gordon about his half-hearted effort in washington. Knows that Gordon is frustrated

    — Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) August 21, 2014

    There have been no credible updates provided by the league on a definite date when the ruling will come down. This means that every game we see "Flash" Gordon play in could be his last for a very long time.

Injury Report

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Both cornerback Buster Skrine (thumb) and defensive end Desmond Bryant (wrist) had surgeries this week to repair their respective ailments. 

    #Browns say DE Desmond Bryant's wrist surgery was on Monday. Return to play status will not be re-evaluated for at least 2 weeks, per team.

    — Nate Ulrich (@NateUlrichABJ) August 20, 2014

    #Browns CB Buster Skrine had thumb surgery, source said. On track to play Week One at #Steelers.

    — Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) August 18, 2014

     

    Below is a list of players who will miss Saturday's game.

    Player PositionInjury
    Joe Haden CBFoot
    Buster Skrine CBThumb
    Desmond Bryant DEWrist
    Edwin Baker RBHamstring
    Martell Webb TEGroin
    Nate Burleson WRHamstring
    Darius Eubanks LBShoulder
    Eric Martin LBConcussion
    Keith Pough LBAnkle
    K'Waun Williams SHamstring
    Pierre Desir CBKnee
    Isaiah Trufant CBKnee
    Michael Bowie OLShoulder
    Randall Harris OLKnee
    Jonathan Krause WRUndisclosed

    (Courtesy of the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram's Scott Petrak.)

    Out of the above group, running back Edwin Baker may suffer the most if he is unable to participate in Saturday's preseason game.

    The competition is fierce in the backfield as Baker is vying for a roster spot as the third option behind Ben Tate and Terrance West. Dion Lewis, Chris Ogbonnaya and Isaiah Crowell stand in Baker's way, and all are expected to be available against the Rams.

X-Factors and Matchups to Watch

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    Richard Lipski/Associated Press

    Since the third preseason game is typically the dress rehearsal for the regular season, the depth chart can sometimes shed light on who's leading any internal positional battles.

    #browns depth chart for St. Louis. Hoyer still No. 1, justin Gilbert replaces skrine (thumb surgery) at RCB pic.twitter.com/ybux2f3aPE

    — Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) August 19, 2014

    Although Craig Robertson is listed ahead of rookie Christian Kirksey, ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi reported that the competition is actually pretty even: "The only battle among starters still ongoing involves Craig Robertson versus Chris Kirksey at the inside spot next to Karlos Dansby. Both have played well, and Pettine has said both could be considered starters depending on the opponent’s offensive formation."

    Cleveland's wide receivers simply must be better than they've shown throughout training camp and the preseason. Josh Gordon has looked unfocused (which is excusable since he's facing a possible suspension), and everyone else has been inconsistent at best.

    Nobody has stepped up to take advantage of the open second outside receiver spot that would be vacant if or when Gordon is disciplined and misses time.

    According to the above depth chart from Mary Kay Cabot, Miles Austin would presumably jump up to fill in for Gordon since he currently occupies the first position in the other wide receiver area. 

     

    X-Factor

    St. Louis was ranked 19th versus the pass in the NFL last season, which means Browns pass-catchers have an opportunity to test how far they've come in practice this week against a bottom-half pass defense.

    Kevin Jones of ClevelandBrowns.com wrote:

    If you could pinpoint a weakness on the St. Louis roster, it would be their secondary. Cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson aren’t exactly known as lockdown defenders. The young pair of corners are athletic and have potential, but they’ll bite on play fakes and have been prone to give up big plays. 

    A suspect secondary also benefits Brian Hoyer, who must show better accuracy and timing on his throws. All eyes will be on No. 6 since this is his first action as the official starting quarterback and it'll be in front of the hometown fans.

Prediction

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The actual final score of any preseason game is irrelevant, but areas in need of improvement are where predictions can be made.

     

    Rams vs. Browns Game Predictions

    • Both Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel shine: With their roles now clearly defined and the Cleveland crowd behind them, Hoyer and Manziel will impress and lead touchdown drives. The "should Johnny start" debate will also be rekindled afterward.
    • Josh Gordon torches the Rams secondary: Following a talk with head coach Mike Pettine this week and the possibility that this could be his last game before being suspended by the league, Flash shows the hometown fans why he led the league in receiving yards a year ago.
    • The running game takes a step back: This St. Louis front seven is no joke, and the Rams love to stuff the run almost as much as sacking quarterbacks. Ranked ninth against the ground attack in 2013, the likes of Chris Long, Alec Ogletree and James Laurinaitis clog up those rushing lanes and punish anyone with the ball.

      

    Andy McNamara is an international sports broadcaster and journalist.

    Follow Andy on Twitter @AndyMc81