The excitement has come and gone, as the Cleveland Browns have finally played their first football game in 2015. Though the team lost 20-17 to the Washington Redskins, there were a number of positives to walk away from the first game of the preseason with. There were negatives as well, which is why you have to take the outcome of a preseason game with a grain of salt and really focus on the development of certain players when you are watching these games.
Instead of doing a game recap you can read anywhere on the web, throughout the preseason Cleveland Sports Zone will highlight five takeaways—positive or negative—for the fans to look at moving forward to the next preseason game. For this game, there are 10 pages of notes that were taken during the game by yours truly. So while I could go on forever about the game, please feel free to talk about anything you think was important I left out in the comments below.
Josh McCown and the First Team Sharp
Even with Joe Thomas and Dwayne Bowe sitting out, new starting quarterback Josh McCown and the Browns first team offense looked very, very good. The impact of new offensive coordinator, John DeFilippo, could be seen early—as the team focused on getting the ball out of McCown’s hands quickly and decisively, which allowed the wide receivers to make plays after the catch.
With Bowe out, Travis Benjamin saw reps during the first series and made the best of them—looking in sync with McCown. A player I thought could be the odd man out, Benjamin ended up running good routes and ended the drive with a touchdown catch in the back of the endzone. Brian Hartline also looked in lock-step with McCown as well, and looks poised to have a bounce back season with increased targets from his last season in Miami.
Rob Housler MIA as E.J. Bibbs Stands Out
Heading into this game, one of the position battles I highlighted as one to watch was at tight end. With so much stock put in the signing of Housler this offseason, his shaky performance during camp needed a good beginning in preseason game one. Instead, Housler was pretty much MIA in the game—with his only notable moment coming when he dropped a pass from Johnny Manziel late in the second quarter.
On the contrary, undrafted rookie tight end E.J. Bibbs stood out in a big way on Thursday night. Someone who has been talked about positively all offseason, Bibbs looked very good lining up as a blocker and catching passes. He is very fluid running routes and finding holes in the defense, and is a non-stop fighter for yards after the catch. Bibbs was the Browns second-leading receiver on the night with three catches for 29 yards, but looks like he could do a lot more damage with increased reps and targets.
Hayes Pullard Backs Up Writing Talk
Prior to the 2015 NFL Draft, Hayes Pullard wrote an article for The Players’ Tribune talking about why NFL teams should draft him. Coming out of USC, he was a highly productive player who racked up 377 tackles, 25.5 tackles for a loss, six sacks and three interceptions over the course of his four-year starter career for the Trojans. However, concerns about his size led him to go all the way until the seventh round of the 2015 NFL Draft before he heard his name called.
For Browns fans, the “Smart Linebacker Who Makes Plays in Space” did just that on Thursday night. Despite not seeing action until the second half, Pullard made his presence known. He had a big-time stop in the fourth quarter on a 2nd and 5 play which essentially saved a first down because there was a lot of running room behind him. Pullard also had a big stop on a screen play on 2nd and 11 earlier in the fourth quarter—thwarting Colt McCoy’s plan for a 5-yard loss.
With fellow rookie Nate Orchard struggling at the outside linebacker position earlier in the game and the Browns without Barkevious Mingo for the foreseeable future, Pullard could earn himself more time with the linebackers. Though many feel he is on the small side for outside linebacker, his natural instincts were on full display and could be a major asset to this team.
Did We See the Beginning of Johnny Manziel Progress?
After a rookie season to forget, which included poor play on the field coupled with an absolute disaster off the field, Cleveland Browns fans had no clue what to do expect from Manziel in year two. As camp began, reports began to leak out that Manziel was much improved—putting his head down and putting in the work to be an NFL quarterback. And after one preseason game, it is safe to say the work is paying off.
Now, this isn’t to anoint Manziel the starter of the team, because he is far from it. But the second-year player out of Texas A&M looked much more comfortable staying in the pocket and going through progressions, something that was a foreign concept to him in college and his rookie season. Manziel finished the game 7-of-11 for 42 yards and added another 14 yards and a touchdown on the ground during five series at quarterback.
With McCown continuing to be sharp, this will allow Manziel to sit back and learn during his second season and continue to progress. There were still moments where Manziel locked on his primary receiver and forced a couple of passes, but overall it was a much improved performance for the former first-round pick.
Danny Shelton is Unblockable but the Run Defense was Rough
Okay, so this was something many assumed coming into the preseason, but we saw it first hand on Thursday night. Shelton combines excellent power and push at the point of attack, forcing the offensive line to double and triple team him in order to slow him down. Though the run defense did not look improved, Shelton was a force to be reckoned with when he was in the game. If the rest of the line can get it figured out, Shelton is going to open up a lot of holes this season.
As for the rest of the line, the Browns disappointing run defense from a year ago was gashed once again. On the night, they allowed 37 rushes for 153 yards and two touchdowns on the ground for an average of 4.1 yards per-carry. What is even worse than that is the first two running backs in the game, Alfred Morris and rookie Matt Jones, put up 13 carries for 80 yards with the main defensive units in the game. Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil is going to have to get fixed asap or the defense could face the same problems as a year early in 2015.
• Undrafted rookie wide receiver Darius Jennings made an early case to make the roster. He hauled in a difficult pass from Connor Shaw for a 22-yard gain and finished the night with two catches for 28 yards. He also had a big-time kick return of 54 yards, looking electric and setting the Browns up with excellent field position.
• Second-year cornerback Justin Gilbert was burned time and time again starting for Joe Haden. He redeemed himself late with a nice two-play series to stop a touchdown drive, but overall Gilbert looks just as lost as last year.
• Johnson Bademosi also struggled in coverage, leaving this writer to wonder how long it will be before the team moves on from the special teams standout.
• The team’s best offseason acquisition may be punter Andy Lee, who pinned the Redskins deep in their own territory all game long.