Cleveland Browns vs. Chicago Bears: "Bubble Bowl" Preview
This Thursday, for the second year in a row, the Cleveland Browns will take on the Chicago Bears in the final game of the preseason. By game four of the preseason, most teams have finished evaluating the majority of their players and the starting lineups for the regular season are usually close to complete.
Even thought the starting players for both Cleveland and Chicago are likely to only play a series or two, there are plenty of reasons to watch this game. The final preseason game, known affectionately here on Bleacher Report as the "Bubble Bowl," can actually be quite exciting, as players on the roster bubble play as if their careers depend on it. In many cases, they actually do.
Teams must trim their rosters down to 53 players this weekend and there are several players for the Browns who are walking a razor's edge between making the team and being a casualty of final roster cuts. While the first team players will simply try to get in and out of this game without injury, these players will be playing with great determination and intensity. For the players who ultimately do not make Cleveland's final roster, Thursday's game will be a chance to audition for a job with another team.
There are also usually a few starting spots still up for grabs and players in the mix will be doing everything possible to prove that they deserve an opportunity to start.
While preseason games may not count, they definitely do matter and here are some reasons for Browns fans to watch the final tune up game of 2010.
James Davis Vs. Chris Jennings
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Entering Thursday's game, it appears that Cleveland already has three running backs who are a lock to make the final roster. The triple H rushing combo of Jerome Harrison, Peyton Hillis, and Montario Hardesty are expected to provide a strong presence in the backfield for the 2010 season.
However, the Cleveland Browns are expected to feature a run-heavy offense this season, and with that in mind, there may be one more opening on the roster at the running back position. Battling for the last RB spot will be a couple of second year backs in James Davis and Chris Jennings.
Davis was a sixth round draft pick in 2009 and put together an outstanding preseason campaign last year, leaving many to believe that he could be the running back of the future in Cleveland. Unfortunately, Davis was placed on injured reserve early last season and now finds himself buried in the depth chart.
Jennings, a former CFL running back, was elevated from the practice squad following the season-ending injury to Jamal Lewis last year. He is a very raw player, who relies more on his athletic talents than anything else, but Jennings did make some good plays for the Browns when he was given the opportunity last season.
Neither Davis nor Jennings has done much to impress so far this preseason, and the battle to make the roster will likely be one fought tooth and nail and down to the wire. Both players should see plenty of time against the Bears and if one is able to clearly outplay the other, then the situation at running back could be decided in this game.
Competition at Wide Receiver
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Somehow, new Browns quarterback Jake Delhomme has managed to put together a stellar preseason without a lot of help from the wide receiver position. Outside of Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie, and Joshua Cribbs, no one wideout has been able to really stand out from the pack.
Competing for the last two or three receiver spots are Jake Allen, Bobby Engram, Carlton Mitchell, Chansi Stuckey, and Syndric Steptoe. Out of the group Stuckey, Engram, and Mitchell are probably the most likely to be on the opening day roster. Stuckey spent much of last season with the Browns after being acquired in the trade that sent Braylon Edwards to the New York Jets and has been able to make a few big plays this preseason. Mitchell was a 2010 sixth-round draft pick and should be given at least one year to develop and Engram is a crafty veteran whose experience may give him an advantage toward making the final roster.
Expect the Browns coaching staff to take a long, hard look at these receivers against Chicago. Hopefully backup quarterbacks Brett Ratliff and Colt McCoy can play well enough to properly evaluate the play at wide receiver.
Competition in the Secondary
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The new front office in Cleveland has done a lot this offseason to improve a porous secondary, and the group now looks ready to compete in the tough AFC North in 2010.
Cornerbacks Eric Wright, Sheldon Brown, and Joe Haden look to be a very good trio in the coming season, but the team has yet to settle on two starters at the position. The rookie Haden will likely see the most playing time of the group against the Bears and will have one last shot at cracking the starting lineup.
There are also several talented safeties on the roster, but the depth chart is a bit murky. Rookie T.J. Ward appears to have done enough through three preseason games to earn a starting job alongside Abram Elam, but the versatile Mike Adams is still in the mix.
Also competing for roster spots in the secondary are Larry Asante, Chris Chancellor, Coye Francies, Brandon McDonald, DeAngelo Smith, and Ray Ventrone. Safety and special teams ace Nick Sorensen is recovering from a concussion suffered against Detroit and may end up on the PUP list to start the season. Gerard Lawson was waived Tuesday.
Expect the defensive backs to put forth a determined effort against a Bears passing attack that is ranked 30th thus far in preseason in an effort to make the team and fight for the top of the depth chart.
The Right Side of the O-Line
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The left side of Cleveland's offensive line is set with Joe Thomas, Eric Steinbach, and Alex Mack, but the right side continues to be a work in progress. Head coach Eric Mangini has tried out several combinations along the offensive line this preseason and will use the final preseason game to take one last look at his options.
Rookie Shawn Luavao has played extremely well and has a solid chance of opening the 2010 season as the starter at right guard. Tackle Tony Pashos was brought in as a free agent during the offseason to provide a veteran presence at the right tackle position, but has yet to lock down that role. Also competing for spots along the right side or to provide depth are Scott Kooistra, Pat Murray, John St.Clair, Floyd Womack, Paul Fanaika, and Billy Yates. Joel Reinders is injured, but he remains with the team and could be a candidate for the PUP list or the practice squad. John Malecki was waived Tuesday.
Mangini prefers versatile players along the offensive line, so expect more shuffling amongst offensive linemen in preseason game four as the team attempts to determine the best combination of guys to protect the quarterback in 2010.
Standouts at Tight End
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One position of strength for Cleveland heading into the regular season is that of tight end. The Browns have the potential to do a lot of damage in the passing game from the tight end position in 2010. Through three season games, Browns' tight ends have combined for 17 catches, 200 receiving yards, and two touchdowns.
Free agent acquisition Benjamin Watson and emerging Evan Moore form a deadly duo of receiving tight ends for the Cleveland Browns. Moore was a college wide receiver, and his combination of size, strength, and soft hands can lead to mismatches all over the field. Watson, a former first-round pick of the New England Patriots, already seems in sync with Quarterback Jake Delhomme and should be a true playmaker in 2010.
The Browns are likely to hold one more roster spot at tight end and competing for that spot are Alex Smith and Robert Royal. Smith has proven that he can be a weapon as a receiver as well, netting four receptions for 47 yards through preseason. Robert Royal is an above-average blocking tight end, but appears to have hands of stone, dropping far too many passes.
Look for these two to battle it out against the Bears, and the final decision could simply come down to whether the team wants another receiving weapon or a run blocker at the position.
Who Will Stop the Run?
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Jahvid Best's 51 yard scamper aside, the Browns starting defense has been adequate against the run so far in preseason. However, the backups have been suspect and were downright dominated in last week's loss to the Detroit Lions.
Ahtyba Rubin and Robaire Smith have been playing well and should be starting on the defensive line come opening day and Brian Schaefering is quietly making a case to start as well. Behind the starters are a lot of questions and someone is going to have to step up and provide a boost to the run defense. Kenyon Coleman, Swanson Miller, C.J. Mosley, Derreck Robinson, Travis Ivey, Brian Sanford, and Clifton Geathers will all be looking to show something against the Bears.
Defensive standout Shaun Rogers will not face suspension during the 2010 season, but is still recovering from the ankle injury that landed him on IR last season and may not be ready to start in Week 1.
Browns defensive linemen should have a good test Thursday against talented backs Chester Taylor, Matt Forte, Kahlil Bell, and Garrett Wolfe.
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Team President Mike Holmgren pulled rank and pulled the trigger on drafting quarterback Colt McCoy in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft and McCoy is expected to one day take over as the starting QB for the Cleveland Browns.
However, that day isn't going to come any time soon, so McCoy has not received a lot of playing time this preseason and hasn't look very good in the time he has been given. That's okay, because McCoy will be afforded plenty of time to adjust to the pro game.
Jake Delhomme and the starting offense appear to be operating smoothly, so most of the playing time in Thursday's game will be split between Seneca Wallace, Brett Ratliff, and McCoy. Ratliff is likely on his way out of Cleveland, meaning McCoy will probably get extensive playing time this week.
It is likely going to take a year or two of learning before McCoy is given an opportunity to take the field in a regular season game, so the game against Chicago will probably be the last chance for Browns fans to see McCoy play until the 2011 preseason.
Montario Hardesty's NFL Debut
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If for no other reason, Browns fans should watch Thursday's game to see the NFL debut of much-heralded running back Montario Hardesty.
The Browns traded back up in the 2010 draft to select Hardesty in the second round. Hardesty is a powerful, versatile runner who is expected to anchor Cleveland's backfield for years to come. He put up impressive numbers as a senior at Tennessee, amassing 1345 rushing yards, 302 receiving yards, and 14 total touchdowns.
Hardesty was praised for his work ethic and for quickly adjusting to the nuances of the NFL during rookie camp and OTAs, but suffered a minor injury just prior to the start of training camp. He has not appeared in a preseason game and only recently returned to practice. Hardesty now appears ready to go and Thursday night will be his first chance to see NFL action against a team in a different uniform.
Since he has missed all of preseason up to this point, Hardesty should get plenty of carries with both the first and second team offenses. If Hardesty is indeed the long-term answer at running back for the Browns, this could be the first of many memorable nights for Browns fans everywhere.