Saturday night the Browns suffered a disappointing loss at the hands of the Detroit Lions, 35-27.
Losses don't mean much in the preseason, but this one sure did make the "who wants to spend a Saturday night in Detroit?" joke that I've been making all week take on a slightly different and far less humorous meaning.
Preseason games tend to focus more on putting the ball in the air than on the ground game, but there's still a lot of information we can gather about the Browns' backs from Saturday's game.
This is particularly true when the efforts of the Browns' running backs are viewed in juxtaposition with Detroit's ground game, which defied that very assumption about the preseason focusing on passing and essentially allowed the Lions to win the game on the ground.
Following are 10 observations on how Cleveland's ground game fared in Saturday night's loss to Detroit.
Collectively the effort of the Browns' running backs on Saturday was, let's say, acceptable. We didn't see a whole lot of major mistakes, nor did we see much in the way of exceptional, standout play.
The group lost one fumble (Harrison) and scored one rushing touchdown (Hillis).
They were edged out or summarily defeated by the Lions' backs in pretty much every category. Both teams had 26 carries apiece, but the Lions netted 154 yards on those carries to the Browns' 109 yards, and posted a team average of 5.9 yards-per-carry to the Browns 4.2.
Both teams' backs lost one fumble, but Detroit's rushers scored three touchdowns to the Browns' single rushing touchdown, a one-yard effort by Peyton Hillis.
The Browns lost this game on the ground, any way you look at it. Mostly that was due to the Cleveland defense's inability to stop Detroit's ground game, but the offense isn't exactly blameless here either. Detroit scored three unanswered rushing touchdowns in the second half, whereas the Browns managed just one field goal.
The bottom line is that only one team's rushers completely showed up and made impact plays in the second half, and that team won the game.
There will be no blaming it on the rain this week as the Browns fumble-itis continues. You know you're in trouble when three fumbles lost registers as an improvement from the week before.
Specific to the running backs though, only one fumble was recovered by the opponent. Harrison, who coughed one up last week against the Rams, did it again on Saturday, and this time it resulted in a turnover.
At this point, it's still difficult to say how concerning this should truly be. On one hand, no player who will be in possession of the ball a great deal should EVER be consistently unable to hang on from week to week.
On the other, we're talking about two preseason games in which Harrison fumbled once each time and only one resulted in a turnover. No one fumbled in the first preseason game against the Packers, and Harrison is the only back who has lost the ball at all this preseason.
Certainly the fumble was worse than your garden-variety turnover because it was returned for a touchdown. An ill-timed fumble can certainly destroy a game, or even a team's entire season (just ask Ernest Byner), but it isn't as though Harrison can't hang onto the ball at all across the board.
The concerning issue isn't so much that Harrison will fumble with regularity, but rather whether these two fumbles will make him hesitant and paranoid and thus cause him to compromise or alter his style of play due to being overly conscious of needing to protect the football at all costs.
Fumble aside, Harrison did a decent job this week. His 3.3 yards-per-carry was certainly not great, but the numbers don't tell the whole story. That this total is less than desirable is indisputable, but it also isn't exactly a harbinger of doom for Harrison's future as the team's potential feature back.
It's also worth mentioning that Harrison alone isn't completely responsible for the low average; the blocks he was getting (or perhaps more accurately, not getting) were a huge part of the problem.
Harrison did an adequate job of making defenders miss him, and with the exception of the fumble, appeared to have a handle on ball control.
The performance certainly did nothing to guarantee Harrison the tag of feature back for the team, but that decision shouldn't and won't be made on the basis of one game. The biggest concern going forward should be that Harrison looked a little slow and not particularly sharp on Saturday.
Harrison needs to get focused quickly, or he'll have both Hillis and Hardesty right on his heels in the fight to become the team's go-to ball carrier before he knows it.
With the exception of scoring the Browns' lone rushing touchdown of the game on a one-yard play, Hillis, like Harrison, looked competent but not particularly impressive on paper.
He posted just 26 total yards, and had a long of 10 and an average of 3.7 yards-per-carry on seven total possessions.
But the box score stats, as always, don't tell the whole story. What stood out to me for Hillis in this game (in addition to the touchdown, of course), was his huge save on a potentially disastrous play.
Mack and Delhomme had yet another bad exchange, but Hillis bailed them both out by not only getting ahold of the ball but actually taking it for positive yardage.
It's this kind of instinct toward the ball, quick thinking, and effort that truly indicate how a player will fare throughout the regular season, rather than how his numbers look in one preseason game.
It's a little thing, really, but I believe it may be indicative of what we can expect from Hillis this season. If that turns out to be true, it's a very, very good sign.
If Chris Jennings' brief appearance in Saturday's game told us anything, it's that there is a fine line between determined and desperate.
As a player on the roster bubble, Jennings desire to make something big happen despite being limited to just three carries is both understandable and admirable. But he also toed the line a little too closely by making a reckless decision in an effort to come up huge.
The best running backs aren't always big, dramatic playmakers; they're grinders. Jennings isn't in a position to or blessed with the talent to be a big playmaker. He would do better to demonstrate he can consistently grind out yardage if he wants to make the team.
To be fair, we didn't really see enough of Jennings on Saturday to make any impact decisions based on his performance, but three yards on three carries isn't going to sell anyone on keeping him around.
Given his limited opportunities, there isn't much to be said about James Davis' efforts on Saturday. Davis was limited to just one carry for three yards on the ground.
He did a decent job as a pass catcher with 4 receptions and 35 yards, but wasn't really given the chance to do much that could potentially allow him to win the final roster spot at running back over Chris Jennings.
Once tabbed as a key player in the Browns offensive scheme, Davis' future with the Browns now hangs by a thread. Whether or not he makes the roster will depend on his performance next week (if he gets a solid amount of opportunities) and also on how much he can contribute to special teams, which is something that Eric Mangini has stressed as a key factor in determining final roster cuts on several occasions.
As discussed above in the comparison between the Browns' and Lions' running games, Detroit emerged as the superior ground force in this contest.
Jahvid Best had just one carry, but bowled over the Browns' defense with a 51-yard run. Jerome Felton posted the next highest total yardage with 37 total yards on six carries with an average of 6.2 yards.
Kevin Smith had a solid performance as well, posting 20 yards on eight carries and scoring a touchdown to atone for the fumble he lost.
The standout for Detroit was second-year player Aaron Brown, who had 34 yards on five carries and scored twice.
Mostly, the Lions' rushers outplayed the Browns' backs in the red zone, scoring three times from inside the five yard line on two two-yard runs and a four-yard run. They also posted eight rushing first downs to the Browns' six.
As I briefly touched on when discussing Jerome Harrison above, a lot of the ineffectiveness of Harrison's game on Saturday had to do with poor blocking rather than just his own struggles as a ball carrier, at least to a degree.
Harrison didn't get much help, and was forced to find holes and mow down tacklers more often than his blockers created the holes for him.
However, the post-game grumbling that this was going to be a problem going into the season may have been perhaps a shade over-dramatic. The Browns' performance collectively throughout the preseason hasn't necessarily indicated that the team is incapable of creating holes for its rushers.
In fact, when you look at the outstanding job fullback Lawrence Vickers has done blocking for Peyton Hillis, it just doesn't ring true at all. Despite some general grumblings about missed blocks and Harrison's unfortunate inability to catch a break on Saturday, the Browns' blocking thus far indicates that their power running game should succeed this season.
James Davis and Chris Jennings didn't get many opportunities on Saturday to demonstrate that either of them should win the final roster spot.
Generally speaking, Davis seems to have the edge. His speed and natural talent are superior, even if Jennings' level of effort wins him back some points.
Davis certainly has some durability issues, but the Browns have more invested in him than Jennings, who could be cut with very little cost to the Browns.
Also important: Remember that Jennings was undrafted. Being an undrafted player is sort of a double-edged sword. If you beat the odds and make it anyway, you're everyone's favorite against-all-odds feel good story.
The flip side? Good luck ever making that happen. Going undrafted leaves an NFL player branded for years after it happens. It won't keep a fantastic player who somehow slipped through the cracks off the field, but for a player on the roster bubble, it can be exceptionally damning. Jennings will have to really stand out (probably more so than Davis) because of this to win the spot.
The decision will largely depend on their respective performances this coming Thursday, though we don't know how much playing time either will really see in the Browns' final preseason game.
Aside from the final auditions for the aforementioned bubble players, the big thing to watch for this Thursday in the final game of the preseason will be the much-anticipated debut of rookie running back Montario Hardesty.
Observers at camp and fellow Browns running backs had nothing but high praise for the rookie out of Tennessee, but we've yet to see him in action in a pro game.
There's every indication that he's almost totally recovered from the knee injury he sustained early in camp. Still, don't expect to see him log too much time in Thursday's game if there's even the smallest hint that he's in any significant amount of pain.
We'll also be able to tell a lot by how much Hardesty's play indicates an acute awareness of his right knee. Just like a driver will instinctively protect his side of the vehicle in the even of a crash, an injured player will do the same for an injured body part, however subconsciously. Any efforts, however minor, by Hardesty to favor the right side of his body should register as a concern.
Overall, the last game of the preseason should tell us the winner of the Jennings/Davis roster spot battle, the status of Hardesty's injury, and could potentially either cement or obliterate Harrison's status as a possible feature back for the start of the season.