Throughout the preseason thus far, the Browns' success has differed significantly from game to game. They had a great outing against Green Bay, a disappointing one against Detroit and a concerning one against Philadelphia last week.
With the first three games over and done with, that leaves one final preseason game for the Browns to use to iron out any remaining wrinkles in the game plan before we enter the regular season and this stuff starts to count.
The final preseason contest will be in Chicago against the Bears on Thursday, and will give head coach Pat Shurmur and his front office one last chance to evaluate the team and make any last-minute decisions on roster cuts, starting spots and playbook issues.
There has been no official word given yet, but look for the starters to play most of the game on Thursday and for the remaining playing time to go to those whose status with the team is in flux, whether because they're fighting for a starting job or just fighting for a roster spot.
Following are six things to look for this Thursday in the Browns final preseason tilt in Chicago.
Please feel free to add other things you're on the lookout for in Week 4 of the Browns preseason in the comments below!
Ever the topic of concern in Cleveland, it looks like the question of who will win the 2011 jobs in the Browns' receiving corps is finally starting to clear up.
Barring an injury or some bizarre twist in the final week of the preseason, it appears it will be Brian Robiskie, Josh Cribbs and rookie Greg Little in the top three spots.
With the starters all but decided (at least for the start of the regular season), it's the remaining roster spots at the position that are still in question.
Mohamed Massaquoi and Carlton Mitchell will both finally return to the field this week after injuries kept them out of the first three preseason games. It will be a big game for them both, as each has a lot to lose or gain.
Love him or hate him, Massaquoi probably isn't going anywhere. The Browns won't be cutting him, but they won't be starting him in Week 1 either. For MoMass, the final game of the preseason is likely a test of whether he's completely recovered from injury and/or is rusty, and thus, whether can play if needed in the first few games of the regular season.
For Mitchell the stakes may be higher. I don't expect Mitchell to be cut (particularly since the team may use him on special teams), but it is possible.
After that, there is Jordan Norwood, who has done well in the preseason and should be sticking around. Demetrius Williams is still around also, though he's probably the guy who will go when the Browns cut it down to six receivers.
In a somewhat surprising (or at least surprisingly early) decision, wide receiver Johnathan Haggerty was cut over the weekend.
Of all the question marks about the offensive line entering 2011, not too many people expected the biggest question at the end of the preseason to be about the left side, rather than the ever-problematic right side.
That all changed when LG Eric Steinbach began to struggle with injury early in the preseason, and rookie Jason Pinkston—who wasn't projecting as anything close to a starter for this season—was suddenly asked to step in.
While the left side of the line should have an easier time absorbing any rookie mistakes Pinkston might make, thanks to standouts Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, this still creates a hole on the side of the Browns' line that was supposed to be impenetrable.
The right side certainly looks better than last year (a healthy Shawn Lauvao and Tony Pashos should make a huge difference), there were still problems there that were clearly evident in the last preseason game against the Eagles. That puts enormous pressure on Pinkston to keep it together so that if the right side of the line collapses again this season, at least the left side will remain intact.
We'll probably have a better idea of the chances of this after we see more of Pinkston this Thursday against the Bears. Chicago doesn't have the league's best pass rush, certainly, but you can bet they'll be picking on Pinkston. How he handles it will tell us a lot about what we can expect going forward.
We the Browns faithful spent much of the offseason lamenting the team's lack of depth at linebacker, and sure enough, it's already become an issue.
With expected starting weakside linebacker Chris Gocong and backup middle linebacker Titus Brown both injured, that leaves the Browns very few options should anything go wrong.
Losing Gocong for the time being hurts no matter what, but losing Brown as well creates a potentially disastrous depth issue in which the Browns, if they suffer one more LB injury, simply will have nowhere to go.
This week's preseason game will be a good test to see what the solution to this should be, though I think most of us already know the answer. Kaluka Maiava and Brian Smith can spell certain LB spots, but as several Cleveland writers have repeatedly mentioned, the Browns need an LB or two who can play a variety of positions.
Unless someone steps up out of nowhere in the final preseason game on Thursday, the Browns need to be hunting high and low for an available LB who has some diversity with regard to where he is able to line up.
Much to the dismay of those of us who may have gotten a tad overexcited about T.J. Ward and Joe Haden at the end of last season and perhaps overlooked some other holes in this area of the game, the secondary has looked questionable thus far in the preseason.
Even phenom Haden has been burned a few times, though I don't worry much about him in the long run. What I do worry about, though, is nearly everyone else in the secondary, especially the players who will be expected to provide depth.
Sheldon Brown has had a very rough preseason, but barring injury, you have to believe the wily veteran will recover and be just fine. But if he isn't, or if he's injured, there are some questions about where the Browns go after that.
Rookies Buster Skrine and James Dockery have both done well in the preseason and may both also see a final test this Thursday. I like both of them a lot, though I'm not sure either is equipped to be thrown into a full time starting secondary job this season if injuries or poor play by others force them into it.
At the safety spot, I'm surprised to say I kind of like what I've seen of Mike Adams thus far in the preseason, though I'm not completely sold on him yet.
While the roster spots in the secondary are already decided for the most part, Thursday's game may help clarify any questions about the pecking order, as well as whether this is an area of the team that we may need to have concerns about going into the regular season.
Critics picked at QB Colt McCoy's third start of the preseason in Philadelphia last week, seemingly taking back the praise heaped on him in the first two games.
In reality, McCoy did a much better job than the numbers showed last week. If you look into the game closely, most of the mistakes that resulted in things like incomplete passes were the product of receivers dropping the ball and not getting separation or the offensive line caving in.
In three games started, McCoy has thrown just one interception, and has been a commanding leader and an efficient passer.
While I have every faith in McCoy going into the regular season, i also think it's critical for him to have a good outing in his final preseason game this week so that his confidence is at its highest entering the first regular season game.
McCoy, thankfully, isn't a guy who rattles easily. He's not going to get flustered after one or two frustrating or heavily criticized outings. But he's only human, and with the Browns entering the season in such a precarious state across the board, it's imperative that McCoy has as big a mental boost going into week one as possible.
He can help himself out with that by turning in a commanding performance this week against the Bears similar to the one he turned in against Green Bay in week one, and his receivers and line can help him out with that too by getting their own jobs done and thus giving McCoy a boost indirectly.
Anybody getting nervous yet?
After Thursday the Browns are out of dress rehearsals and will have just over a week to make any last minute adjustments before they open the regular season against the Bengals on Sept.11.
This being the final dry run for the team, Thursday's game is about as high stakes as a game that doesn't count can get.
The Browns are approaching a make-or-break season of sorts. This is the year the system either finally starts to work, or it needs to be reevaluated and overhauled yet again. Thursday is the last chance the Browns will have to get their ducks in a row heading into this high stakes season before any decisions they make could have a huge impact on the season as a whole.
So in a sense, Thursday is the team's last chance to really get it right before it would be a crushing blow to get it wrong.
This will be the last dress rehearsal of the summer. Brace yourselves, Browns fans. The curtain is about to go up on the 2011 football season.