Browns vs. Lions Q&A with Jeff Ridson
The wait for football is nearly over as the Cleveland Browns will kickoff the 2014 pre-season tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. vs. the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Since Carmen Policy’s stroke of genius in 2002, both teams have faced off every pre-season in what is called the Great Lakes Classic, aka, “The Battle of the Barge”. This fine looking trophy means very little to both teams in the grand scheme of their respective seasons, but it could be important for the guys battling for a roster spot. That being said, I anticipate both teams will be mostly focused on preserving their starters, finishing the game with the health of their rosters intact, and executing their new offenses / defenses efficiently.
What to Watch For – The Browns
As camp has progressed it’s been apparent that the Browns defense is ahead of the offense in terms of their cohesiveness and execution. This is typical in many training camps when switching coaching staff’s and schemes, especially before the pads go on. It will be interesting to watch the offense closely tomorrow to see if they can begin to form the chemistry and rhythm needed to sustain drives and move the chains.
It all starts with the QB, and for many the most intriguing position battle so far in Browns training camp has been the QB battle. Many in the local and national media have speculated that Manziel getting reps with the first team during practice this past week means that he’s gaining an edge on Brian Hoyer. While that still remains to be seen, the truth is that those reps have always been part of the coaches’ plan to evaluate both quarterbacks. Regardless of what “team” it’s with, coaches and fans alike will be watching to see how Manziel plays in his first NFL game and how Hoyer looks and moves coming off his knee surgery last fall. While the competition is very close at the moment a solid performance from either Hoyer or Manziel could begin to tip the scale in this battle.
Another noteworthy position has been the offensive line, particularly the right guard position. The Browns have brought in a slew of waiver wire acquisitions and I’ll be watching all the linemen to see how they are adapting to the new zone-blocking scheme and how well they are able to move in space. While his named is pretty much cemented in as the starting left guard, I’m excited to watch rookie Joel Bitonio in his first NFL action.
This week we learned that Josh Gordon will be suiting up to play vs. Detroit, and although his appeal hearing has concluded we still don’t know the details regarding his availability for the 2014 season. What we do know is that there is a logjam behind him on the depth chart. Talented veterans like Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins, Nate Burleson, Travis Benjamin and Anthony Armstrong lead the group likely to make the roster. Still, there’s been plenty of positive chatter surrounding first year players like Willie Snead, Taylor Gabriel and quasi-first-year receiver Charles Johnson. I’m hopeful at least one of those younger receivers can step up to show they can play; contribute in game situations; and are worthy of a roster spot.
Another position to watch will be the 2nd and 3rd defensive back rotation. Buster Skrine and Justin Gilbert have been pushing each other for the starting CB2 spot in what’s turned out to be a great camp battle. I’m also looking forward to seeing how 4th round pick, Pierre Desir looks in his first live NFL action. I think he can become a big time contributor for this defense and the buzz is he’s really come on strong these last couple of weeks. Meanwhile players like T.J. Heath, Josh Aubrey, Isaiah Trufant, Leon McFadden and Aaron Berry will be looking to make a splash every chance they get.
The Browns also figure to unveil rookie LB, Chris Kirksey who has been receiving rave reviews from the coaches thus far in camp and figures to beat Craig Robertson for the starting job next to veteran Karlos Dansby. I recently shared my thoughts on Chris and feel he can be a very good player on the interior of our defense.
Lastly, I am eager to see how well the Browns run the ball against a stout Detroit defensive line. I’m also eager to see how much they use Ben Tate, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. All three have been playing very well in camp and figure to all make the final roster. Returning backs Chris Ogbonnaya, Dion Lewis and Edwin Baker will need to show they are versatile and effective enough to earn a roster spot.
What to Watch For – The Lions
M >>> The Browns over-hauled their coaching staff including a new head coach and staff, plus a new GM. The team has quite the buzz right now, particularly around the defense, but lately our offense has shown some promise too.
I know the Lions suffered the loss of your late owner, William Clay, and similar to Cleveland, you overhauled the coaching staff. Last year the Browns won the trophy but you spanked us in regular season play... what's been the word or buzz out of Detroit so far this off-season?
J >>> The buzz has been sort of muted. The new coaching staff is more low key. Jim Caldwell is trying to make the Lions a more professional and focused group, and that means less off-field news. That's a good thing. The failure to get an extension with Ndamukong Suh and refusing to pick up Nick Fairley's option has led to a lot of uncertainty with the future of the defense, and that has muted expectations too.
M >>> What's been your take on the Lions’ first team offense and defense so far through training camp?
J >>> The offense is going to be very exciting to watch. Adding Golden Tate and Eric Ebron dramatically upgrades the receiving options, and new OC Joe Lombardi isn't shy about using every available option. His scheme is from New Orleans, where the goal is to create matchup advantages instead of relying on great players to make plays. Now the Lions have those great playmakers but also a more advantageous scheme. It wouldn't be a surprise if they lead the league in scoring.
Defensively, it's still a 4-3 but one that will more closely resemble Baltimore's. That's where new DC Teryl Austin (and Caldwell) are from. The front line will do less Wide 9 and more open and closed end operating. There will also be three LBs on the field a lot more, and the third LB is impressive rookie Kyle Van Noy. Last year the Lions used 3 LBs less than 30% of the snaps, but that will go way up this year. The corners will play more aggressive press-man coverage, and the buzzword in practices has been "controlling the release" of the receivers.
M >>> How are the new coaches doing with implementing the playbook and their philosophies? Players buying in?
J >>> The playbook installation remains a work in progress. The defense is ahead of the offense, but that's more a function of a lot more moving parts and more divergence from the old scheme. So much is placed on Matthew Stafford making the right read quickly and being in concert with his receivers. It's looked fantastic at times but there are still some miscommunications.
As far as players buying in, there is palpable enthusiasm on defense. It's a more proactive and diverse style and that clearly excites the players. They also appreciate being treated with universal respect and the absence of the coach's favorite system that pervaded under Schwartz.
M >>> What have been some of the key roster battles so far in camp? And from those battles, who are some of the players that you feel need to have solid performances on Saturday to continue their quest to make the team?
J >>> There are three real battles to watch: right tackle, third wideout, and kicker. At right tackle, neither LaAdrian Waddle nor Corey Hilliard have been great in camp. Waddle is more talented but hasn't shown it thus far. Kevin Ogletree has elevated his game and looks comfortable as the third wideout, but Ryan Broyles looks as healthy as he can get and he offers more of an underneath and over-the-middle style. Both with play a lot but they're looking at a difference of about 25 targets, so it is important. The kicking battle is a dead heat between 7th round pick Nate Freese and Giorgio Tavecchio.
There are some depth battles going on too. Every CB spot after starters Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay is wide open. Jonte Green and Cassius Vaughn can really help themselves with a strong game against Cleveland; they've been impressive in camp. The offensive line depth is still unsettled, especially inside, where third-round rookie Travis Swanson has struggled and young upstart Rodney Austin continues to impress with his athletic prowess. Defensive line depth is very, very strong but not quite sorted out yet too.
M >>> What position group is your strength right now and which is your weakest link?
J >>> Biggest strength is defensive front seven. Suh and Fairley both are in the best shape they've been, and they're both playing for new contracts. While Ziggy Ansah remains on PUP as he recovers from his shoulder, Jason Jones looks completely healthy and as quick as ever. He's an underrated piece who will start at closed-side end but also see a lot of action inside too. Devin Taylor, Larry Webster and George Johnson are all physical marvels. The average size of the defensive ends is over 6'4" and 270 pounds and that includes effective veteran Darryl Tapp, who is well below those marks.
Biggest weakness is undoubtedly the depth at quarterback behind Matthew Stafford. Most people point to the secondary, but there is a lot more talent and potential there than at QB. Dan Orlovsky is the #2 but he's been terrible in two of the three practices I've attended. I don't use that word lightly either, but he's been terrible. Kellen Moore sorely lacks arm strength and is one of the least impressive athletes in the league, but thus far he's probably been a touch better than Orlovsky. Undrafted rookie James Franklin almost never gets reps, and when he does he shows why he isn't getting more work. Ideally the #2 and #3 QBs, if the Lions keep three, are not currently on the roster.
M >>> Who has been the biggest disappointment AND who's been the biggest surprise so far in training camp?
J >>> The biggest disappointment is a tough question to call at this point. A pair of rookies, third round center Travis Swanson and fifth round defensive tackle Caraun Reid, are both a lot farther away from being NFL ready than many thought. Reid has had a few positive moments but he's not going to make the active roster, and he was supposed to be the fourth DT. It's been pretty hushed, but middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch has not been great either.
Biggest surprise is defensive end George Johnson, who has taken advantage of Ansah's absence and really impressed. He's got a lightning first step and has given the right tackles fits. After losing about 20 pounds and polishing his footwork, the young journeyman has made a very strong bid to make the team. Mikel Leshoure has also been a pleasant surprise as the fourth RB, a role that will get about 50 touches during the season.