The game against the Colts certainly took some of the wind out of the sails of the Browns and some of the enthusiasm out of fans. In their first test on the road, they had problems keeping up with the Colts. Some of the issues that showed up for the Browns are minor and will be fixed while some of the others have been there the entire season and are likely to persist through the entire season. Rob Chudzinski and many other head coaches will take this type of game and use it to motivate their team and emphasize how much work they still have to do, but it was not the complete disaster some might suggest.
Injuries played a huge role in this game as the Browns were resting a significant number of players in hopes of having them ready for the Miami Dolphins. Some of those injuries were far more significant than others. The absence of a few players provided an opportunity for some trying to make the roster or increase their role an opportunity a shine.
For anyone who was not sold on how good Jabaal Sheard transitioned to the 3-4, this game should hammered that point home. Paul Kruger had a great game and terrorized the right side of the Colts offensive line while Quentin Groves showed that while he has a great deal of value to this team, he is not a starting caliber pass rusher. When Groves can take on half the man, he can use his speed and strength to work around the corner and be an effective pass rusher. The times opponents were able to stay in front of him and take him on head on, he was unable to shed the block. With all due respect to Mary Kay Cabot, this is the reason he is a 29 year old player with 4 of his 6.5 sacks coming last season and not a player who can start for a number of other NFL teams. He is a great fit in Ray Horton’s scheme as the fourth outside linebacker and will certainly have an impact this year, but Sheard and Barkevious Mingo are there for a reason and a much better option.
In line with this, the Browns secondary will largely go as far as the front seven can take them. There will be adjustments to help cover up some of the issues and disguise to protect certain players, but good quarterbacks will do what Andrew Luck was able to do in this game; find the weak point and exploit it. T.J. Ward was not used how he will be when the regular season gets going and Joe Haden is Joe Haden, but if the other corners or free safety spot are deemed vulnerable, that is where the ball is going to go. If the Browns pass rush is held up or if the quarterback is able to use their legs to extend plays, (both of which happened tonight) the coverage is going to be in trouble. Not only do they have personnel concerns but when the Browns send six, they can only use five to cover, so there are some big holes to exploit.
Leon McFadden, the third round rookie, was finally able to suit up for a preseason game and it looked it. McFadden missed a tackle on the opening kickoff that allowed the returner to get a bigger return. He was picked on a little bit by Luck, though he was out there competing. The injury he has been dealing with and the missed time have been really problematic for his development and rather than hoping he could be a player that was fighting for playing time early, they are in a position where they have to ease him in and hope he pick it up quickly as they go. McFadden had to start somewhere and while this was not the debut he was hoping to have, it was not the end of the world either.
On the other hand, popular whipping boy, Buster Skrine had a solid showing in his opportunity and the continued injury that has kept Chris Owens out of action. Owens was considered a favorite by many to win the job opposite of Haden, but being unable to stay on the field could allow Skrine to take the job much to the chagrin of many Browns fans. Skrine has never been as bad as most fans believe, but he certainly struggled in stretches last year. He has not been a great player this year, but he has improved and might do a better job than people think. It is unlikely that he is going to the Pro Bowl anytime soon, but he is far from the waiver wire fodder many expected. Part of what this coaching staff liked about him like the last one, is that he is willing to be physical at the line of scrimmage and is not afraid to tackle the ball carrier.
Greg Little was more effective in this game than he was against the Lions making one catch that bailed Brandon Weeden out and catching two other passes while the first team offense was in there. Little needs to continue to work on separation to create more opportunities and the fumble was unfortunate, but there is growth there. Josh Gordon, meanwhile, had a down game for him all things considered. He caught two passes but was targeted three other times and dropped a pass. The difference in the offense when Gordon is effective and having an impact compared to when he is not is pretty obvious.
Chris Ogbannaya showed how quickly he is growing into the fullback position and how much he can contribute from that position. He had a terrific boss block that de-cleated the opponent in the hole on one play while he caught a pass for five yards later. It certainly does not hurt Ogbannaya that there is virtually no competition worth mentioning going against him, but even if there were, he has really acclimated himself well and been effective when given opportunities.
There are two undrafted rookies out of Stephen F. Austin that made an argument for why they should not only survive the roster cut on Tuesday, but why they should ultimately hold down a roster spot when the final cuts are made. Josh Aubrey has made the most of his time in relief of Ward, making an impact in every game he has played. Jamoris Slaughter has struggled to get on the field and actually left the game after having an issue with his groin. Aubrey’s roster spot will likely be dependent on how many safeties they ultimately keep but he is someone who can be good on special teams and could be worth holding onto to develop for the future.
Cordell Robersonvnot only looks like he might make the roster because of his play but because of the role he can potentially fill. When the Browns signed David Nelson as a free agent, he was brought in because of his size at 6’5” 215lbs. Unfortunately, Nelson has been barely able to participate in any camp as he has suffered various problems including a deep bone bruise. As much as the Browns might like to keep him, they may not be able to due to the fact he cannot contribute in a meaningful way. Roberson, at 6’4” 205lbs, brings a nice combination of size and speed and has more upside than a player like Jordan Norwood or Josh Cooper.
Last, Jamaine Cook was able to have a decent impact in the game and will at least get a shot to show what else he can do in the preseason finale against the Chicago Bears. The injury to Dion Lewis was extremely disappointing for the Browns as well as for Lewis. Cook brings many of the same qualities as Lewis did in terms of quickness and size, so he the Youngstown State product was immediately brought back in when Lewis was injured. Cook had two carries and three catches averaging 7 yards per touch. Cook may ultimately be competing with backs that will be available after cuts, but the Browns seem to want a player with that skill set on the roster.
Three players showed that they cannot be counted on in any meaningful way when the regular season gets started and it is difficult to justify them on the team at this point. Oniel Cousins was beaten out by the equally uninspiring Rashad Butler for the job of being a swing tackle at least for the time being. As a result, they had Cousins slide over to take reps at right guard in hopes of making it so Garrett Gilkey would not be pressed into service in a starting role as a rookie. Cousins went out and looked worse than the incredibly talented but wildly inconsistent Gilkey. The worst of Cousins’ night was on a pull when he went to the left and met Robert Mathis. Despite giving up somewhere around 70lbs, Mathis wrecked Cousins without budging an inch. If the Browns want a guard who can keep Gilkey on the bench, it is not Cousins, so whether it is the waiver wire or another trade somewhere, they will have to keep looking. And the reality is, this move with Cousins was more of a situation where they kind of knew what to expect but wanted to see what he could do since he was here anyway.
The other player who is just brutal when the starters are out there is Kellen Davis. Davis has all of the size a team would want in a tight end at 6’7” 265lbs, looking the part of a power forward. The problem is he cannot catch the ball consistently and struggles to be an effective blocker. The Browns were extremely thin at tight end coming into the season and Gary Barnidge not playing showed just how weak that position group is. It remains to be seen where the Browns stand on Davis or how they feel about the position as a whole, but it is a position they should be looking at for other options now, but certainly when the draft comes up next season.
Speaking of Rashad Butler, he got in there later in the game and was dismantled from start to finish. The Browns would probably like to carry a third tackle on their roster, but they do not have anyone who can do the job. If they have an injury to Joe Thomas, Mitchell Schwartz would move over to left tackle. If Schwartz were to get hurt, they would probably go with Ryan Miller. Beyond that, the Browns only have guards worth keeping on the roster as backups; Gilkey, Jason Pinkston when he is healthy, and then Miller who can double as a guard or tackle. It is difficult to justify holding onto anyone else for the active roster as an offensive lineman.
Getting players back healthy such as Sheard, Mingo, Davone Bess, Owens, Desmond Bryant, Gary Barnidge, and even Brandon Bogotay will make a difference to how this team looks, but if the Colts game showed anything, it is that the Browns are not a great team yet. They do have issues to be addressed both during this season and into the offseason. As much of a difference as hiring Chud already has made, this team is unlikely to make the playoffs. Hopefully, Chud can use this game’s struggles to get the team to get better, but the Browns are likely to have a few games like this during the regular season. They should be much better this year but are aiming for next year to be the year when they are ready to make the playoffs and build from there.