Typically, the third preseason game is regarded as a "dress rehearsal" for NFL teams. With the start of the regular season only a couple weeks away, the Browns' best opportunity to provide a glimpse into the near future was washed away in both a late August downpour and kick return pileup against Philadelphia.
Of course, beyond the elements, it's hard to have a dress rehearsal when the actors aren't available.
The Browns played without a dozen contributors, including starters Eric Steinbach, Mohamed Massaquoi, Josh Cribbs, Chris Gocong and T.J. Ward. Because of these absences, both head coach Pat Shurmur and defensive coordinator Dick Jauron were forced to alter their respective game plans, rather than present what could be a finished product.
It's becoming obvious that Shurmur's new offense should prove more efficient than previous incarnations governed by Brian Daboll and Rob Chudzinski. However, the rookie head coach's scheme is predicated on providing a clean pocket for quarterback Colt McCoy along with offering a mixture of pass routes. Against Green Bay, these opportunities were constantly present, but have declined in frequency over the past two games.
At Philadelphia, McCoy fell into a 2010 pattern of quickly checking down to his running backs and tight ends in the face of the Eagles' pass rush. Not helping matters were a variety of either too-short curls or forever-developing deep routes by the Browns' tattered receiving corps. The result was an offense that never found the kind of rhythm evident against the Packers. When pinned deep on their own side of the field, the passing game looked almost impotent.
However, another realization about Shurmur has to regard the play caller's adaptability. Considering the injuries to Cribbs, Massaquoi and Carlton Mitchell, Shurmur mixed in two tight end sets and split both Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty as wide receivers. The combination of Ben Watson and Evan Moore doubled up on the right side of the Browns' line could prove intriguing as the season develops. Watson has the strength to get open over the middle of the field, while Moore's height can create downfield mismatches.
Regardless of the calendar, there is little variety usually shown by NFL defensive coordinators during the preseason. In this manner, Jauron is no different than any of his counterparts. However, in a stark contrast from Rob Ryan's manic schemes of the past, there are even fewer bells and whistles found from the Browns' 2011 defense.
Jauron's scheme relies heavily on the defensive front four getting pressure – which in Cleveland features two rookies in Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard and a seldom-used talent in Jayme Mitchell. However, for most of the first quarter, this unit was able to chase Michael Vick and knock around the Eagles' star quarterback. Yet, as the first half wore on, the explosiveness shown by both Taylor and Mitchell early in the game had disappeared. Both players looked spent during second half drives.
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The only bit of variety displayed by the defense against Philadelphia came on occasional blitzes from linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and Scott Fujita, along with an effective corner rush from rookie cornerback Buster Skrine. Outside of these plays, the Browns' defense often resembled the dreadfully slow units of past years. In particular, Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy conjured painful memories of flailing Browns' defenses of the past trying to cover screen passes and shake off second-level blockers.
Speaking of which, it's worth asking whether current Philadelphia rookies such as Jamar Chaney and Casey Mathews will ultimately represent the archetype Browns' linebacker of the future. Considering Browns' GM Tom Heckert's Eagle ties, one of 2012's top priorities in Cleveland could be finding two athletic linebackers capable of the durability and versatility not found in veterans Fujita and Jackson.
Speaking of Heckert, credit has to be given to the Browns' GM for finding offensive lineman Jason Pinkston late in April's draft. Pinkston has effectively replaced the Steinbach at least in terms of run blocking.
Pinkston's strength and leverage could even be considered superior at this point in the preseason; however, the rookie has been beaten badly on quick pass rush moves. Elsewhere on the offensive line, veteran Joe Thomas mauled his share of Eagle defensive ends – while Tony Pashos was finally penalized for dropping his right leg some five yards into the Browns' backfield.
Regarding the team's injuries, some familiar pessimism has to be tempered. With NFL players basically left on their own during the locked-out offseason before making a mad, cramping return to training camp – injuries were bound to happen. In the Browns' specific case, only Steinbach, Jackson and possibly Gocong look to be critical absences. Yet, given the nature of the current NFL climate, a team like the Browns will likely not have a true 53-man roster settled until a few weeks into the regular season.
In fact, it's possible to lump the third and fourth preseason games together in this fashion. Since there is little need for the likes of Cribbs and Ward to further expose themselves, both Shurmur and Heckert are simply evaluating the fringes of an eventual final roster – which means that only the bodies strewn about in yet another kick return pileup will ultimately change.