What a difference a year makes.
One year ago, the Browns traveled to Green Bay and played an awful game. Four interceptions. No running game. Unable to stop the run. Terrible blocking. Dropped passes. No passion. No fire.
The Browns went into the regular season and were dreadful for 10 games. Then, things started to turn, leading to four consecutive wins to end the season.
Fast forward to this past weekend. The Browns had problems, but played with confidence and professionalism. It looked very different than a year ago. Very different.
After the scrimmage, I expected the Browns to come out and try to establish the run. I expected them, frankly, to not move the ball very well.
Boy, was I wrong!
I also thought the defense would show improvement and continue some of the gains we saw last December. Wrong again.
When you consider that the Browns won their final four games without any semblance of a passing game (remember 20 running plays in a row?), seeing the Browns move the ball effectively through the air with both Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace at the helm, you have to be encouraged. The young receivers did some good things. Evan Moore is shutting up the critics and played with the #1s over Robert Royal. The offensive line and Lawrence Vickers did some nice blocking. The draft class showed some real promise.
Yet, we have to balance all of that with the fact that the defense was ineffective much of the time and could not get off the field on third down.
Here are some random thoughts about what I saw:
• September is still a ways off, but I think the Browns just might be OK with Delhomme and Wallace. I had my doubts about both signings, but Delhomme brings an experience and confidence that the Browns have not had in a long time. Wallace throws better than I expected and his mobility will give opponents fits.
• After blasting John St. Clair for looking bad at the scrimmage last week, I admit that he had a better than OK game.
• The kick coverage units were fabulous. Way to go, Brad Seely, getting these guys to play at this level already when many of the guys on these units may not even make the team.
• Phil Dawson is one of the best, end of story. Nailed it from 57.
• Ahtyba Rubin is going to be a player to watch this year. If he continues to step up his game, he will break out. Everyone wrote off Robaire Smith after his injury, but this guy continues to play at a high level.
• Brian Robiske still has a ways to go, but this was a nice indication of positive things to come. Mohammed Massaquoi made nice plays early as well.
• The rookies in the secondary had a good first game, but were not without issues. Love the hard hits from T. J. Ward, but you gotta wrap up! He did better in that department as the game went along. The Packers first unit picked on Joe Haden pretty mercilessly, and he wasn’t horrible, but they certainly moved the ball against him. Haden fared much better against the backups. Hey, this is a learning process, and better for these guys to take some lumps now. There is still plenty to be encouraged about with these guys.
• Shawn Lauvao started and did pretty well. He whiffed on a play that led to a sack, but once again, this is a learning process. Every repetition helps.
• I am not a big Abe Elam fan. This game didn’t change my mind. Meanwhile, Brandon McDonald has had his problems, but is not as bad as many on the OBR think. He had another interception and clearly has worked on his tackling. If he can be a solid #3 at corner, it will help.
• Marcus Benard continues to play well. He had a good preseason last year, got hurt, then made some noise at the end of the year. I like his chances to play a role. Titus Brown had a similar season and was ahead of Benard early last preseason. While he still looks to have potential, I think Benard has passed him by.
• Eric Barton may have valuable experience, but he was behind every play. He looked worse than last year. I’m wondering if he is done. The injury to D’Qwell Jackson might be the only thing that saves him, and even that may not be enough.
• Titus Adams had some nice plays in the scrimmage, but I did not like his game here. Perhaps his injury will make it all irrelevant.
• Colt McCoy has a long way to go. He holds the ball too long and has made some terrible throws. Once again, this playing time will be valuable later on.
• Brett Ratliff is inconsistent, and I still don’t care for his play, but he did make a few nice throws. He also made some terrible ones.
• James Davis was quiet until late in the game, but he had a nice run and made some good blocks on special teams. Chris Jennings once again tried to run backwards and got himself in trouble. Davis is clearly ahead in this battle.
• Alex Smith made some plays. He has had a reputation as an underachiever, so let’s see how the preseason plays out, but so far so good.
• The Browns got very little pass rush without blitzing.
• The backup offensive line is not great. Pat Murray and Scott Kooistra were the best of this group. Casey Bender was bad. I didn’t care for Billy Yates, either.
• The backup defensive line was really bad. The only one of this crew that stood out was Swanson Miller. He might be a valuable backup or rotation player.
• I was sorry to see Jonathan Haggerty injured. I’d have liked to see more from him.
• Saving the wildcat for when it counts. Good.
A year ago, I felt the coaching staff did not have the team ready to play. A year later, the Browns came out and were all business. Going on fourth down on the road on the opening drive showed the confidence this team has. The opening drive was so well executed. This is a massive improvement over last year.
My biggest worry is the defense. In the final six games of last year, the defense looked good at times and terrible at times. In the games where weather was a factor, the defense used the assist from Mother Nature to dominate opponents. When the other team could not throw, it evened things out for a Browns team that had no passing game. But when the weather was not a factor (at Kansas City, at Detroit), the defense was terrible. In Green Bay on a pleasant summer evening, the defense once again struggled. The Packers are a good team for sure, but the defense is a concern. Getting some players like Shaun Rogers, Eric Wright, and David Bowens back will help, but how much?
The other thing to consider is that the Browns play two of the worst teams in the NFL a year ago the next two weeks. This may have been the only game in the preseason that will allow the Browns to gauge their progress. You have to like this game as a starting point.
The season is short. Bark hard!