Browns-Lions: What (Else) to Look For
Football has finally returned and expectations are high. But remember that the preseason usually creates more anticipation than substance. As a preseason opener primer, don't get sucked into only focusing on Brandon Weeden's statistics, the backup quarterback derby or even the final score. Instead, here are five more subtle developments to watch.
1. Getting From Point A to Point B
Typically, it's not the most exciting thing to watch in football, but keep a close eye on how fast the Browns' offense operates – from the sideline to the huddle that is. Rookie Brandon Weeden will be experiencing his first "live" NFL action and will be attempting to process a more sophisticated style of relaying play calls and efficiently getting his offense out of the huddle. While Weeden has played in front of massive college crowds and ran a variety of formations, this first professional step cannot be overlooked.
2. Getting Rid of the Ball
So far during training camp, Weeden has been compared to Derek Anderson in terms of his size and arm strength – a comparison that has both its merits and limitations, but is mainly based on our thin reference of seeing NFL-sized quarterbacks in Cleveland. Anyway, look for Weeden to enhance Shurmur's offense if indeed he is a decisive, quick-triggered quarterback. Similar to Anderson sparking the Browns' offense after relieving the indecisive Charlie Frye in 2007, Weeden could quickly elevate Shurmur's offense to competency and help turn his offensive teammates into viable weapons.
3. Helping Out
Most NFL offenses are pretty vanilla throughout the preseason – with a slight exception coming during the third week "dress rehearsal." In the Browns' specific case, I can't imagine any dramatic schematic changes – especially considering Weeden's inexperience. Regardless, keep an eye on right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and more importantly, any tight end who lines up next to the rookie. Last season, the Browns' weakness at right tackle forced Alex Smith to become an extra blocker – effectively negating any formation that could have included an extra wide receiver or tight end such as Evan Moore. With improved blocking, Shurmur should become more comfortable in putting another playmaker on the field and using more three-wide receiver sets.
4. Base Defense
For everyone who bashed GM Tom Heckert for signing (only) Frostee Rucker in the offseason, at least pay attention to what Rucker does Friday night. Typically, a Dick Jauron defense features complementary defensive ends. If Jabaal Sheard is more of a pass rusher first, Rucker fits the much desired need for a run-stopping defensive end. Browns fans who are caught up in fantasy football numbers will probably not notice that Rucker should help upgrade the Browns' run defense – particularly in sealing lateral gaps. Also, don't look for the end/tackle tweener on obvious passing downs.
5. Meet the Future Starters
Injuries are a part of NFL life and currently, the Browns' defense is banged up. Look for several rookies and untested young players to play significant early roles, including John Hughes, James Michael Johnson and Eric Hagg – three players who could be opening day starters. But also keep a close eye on Benjamin Jacobs and Craig Robertson, two young linebackers who could find themselves a play away from contributing deep into the regular season. Considering the Browns' traditionally thin linebacker depth, we could be looking at December's starters.