What to watch for in the preseason finale vs. the Bears

(Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
(Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images) /

A look at what fans can get out of the final and normally less than captivating fourth preseason game as the Cleveland Browns take on the Bears.

As far as preseason finales go, this one is up there on the intrigue scale. After a busy week for the Cleveland Browns, the organization finds itself just about ready to begin another season but still searching for answers. 

The most critical uncertainty moving forward is the play of quarterback DeShone Kizer. After being named the starter following a mediocre performance in more than a half of football in Tampa Bay, the Notre Dame alum has the weight of the franchise on his shoulders.

But even though it doesn’t always seem like it, there are more questions surrounding this team than the quarterback situation. The secondary, for example, has lost a Pro Bowl cornerback in Joe Haden, as he has signed with Pittsburgh after he was released. While the unit is deep enough to overcome this loss, it puts another position up for grabs. 

All of this and more are what fans should be watching for as the Browns square off with the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Thursday night.  

Will anyone help Kizer’s cause? 

There is a lot on Kizer’s plate as the entire organization takes a leap of faith to make him their leader. This makes the final preseason game another opportunity for the 21-year-old, instead of an opportunity to get injured at the most inopportune time as it seems to be for the rest of the league’s signal callers. 

Last week, Kizer handled the opportunity to start a preseason game with composure and confidence. Yet statistically, he was sub par, completing just 6 of 18 pass attempts and failing to find the end zone. 

When evaluating Cleveland’s offense as a whole though, it was difficult to find much fault in Kizer’s performance. It is clear that the linemen, receivers and running backs did not do the young quarterback any favors. This must change if Kizer is going to be successful in this offense as it is currently composed. 

As for Kizer himself, he won’t play much in the final preseason game. Still, this opportunity to grow and fine tune his play prior to what will be another experiment at the position for the Browns is valuable. Unfortunately, how he fares isn’t completely in his hands. 

Final offensive line organization 

The Browns pretty much know who their linemen are going to be, but now it is a matter of organizing them. Some uncertainty still makes the final preseason game significant for this unit as they continue to jockey for position. 

At this point, the way the starters currently line up on the unofficial depth chart prior to the game should be the way the season starts. Joe Thomas, John Greco, JC Tretter, Kevin Zeitler and Shon Coleman should get the nod from left to right. But even with matters clearing up with the Cameron Erving trade, competition is still ongoing.

Second and third-string players with experience competing for backup jobs include Spencer Drango, Anthony Fabiano and Austin Reiter. With the starters exiting early in this contest, these backups will be the center of attention for the majority of the game. Fans should watch for versatility and discipline as the final depth chart is put together.

Running back vs. wide receiver 

There is some flexibility when it comes to roster composition, and a perfect example is the Browns this season. They have a decision to make on offense which will undoubtedly shape the way they play this season.

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Normally, teams keep three running backs on the roster, but due to a combination of strong performances by running backs not expected to make the roster and Duke Johnson‘s new role as a slot receiver, Cleveland is considering keeping four backs and one less receiver.

The positives and negatives to this unconventional move are clear. On one hand, an extra running back ideally should help the running game and give the team another pass protection option, which is beneficial to a young quarterback.

But on the other hand, keeping one less receiver in an already thin group of receivers could backfire.

Whatever is decided, fans should pay close attention to running back Terrence Magee as he battles with receivers such as Rannell Hall, Richard Mullaney and Josh Boyce for this coveted roster spot. This inter-position battle should be intriguing.

Battles in the secondary 

Joe Haden is history, which doesn’t bother a whole lot of fans with the way his tenure in Cleveland was going, but it does make everything a little bit more complicated in the secondary. 

Briean Boddy-Calhoun will now presumably step into a starting role, but veteran Jason McCourty could challenge him. The winner of this mini-competition which should be decided based on this game’s performance will start opposite to Jamar Taylor, but the runner-up will still receive ample playing time in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ scheme.

The mentality that each defender prepares like a starter and plays during games makes the battles behind the starters all the more important. Darius Hillary, Marcus Burley and others may still be fighting for jobs, and one more is open thanks to Haden’s departure. All of this will make even the second half of this exhibition compelling for the roster spots that will be decided.

Special teams count 

What good is the final exhibition game if the starters barely play if at all? Many NFL fans wrestle with this question. The answer, though it may still be debatable whether or not four games is too many, is simply the battles not on the radar. 

Every team’s roster is composed of 53 players once final cuts are made. Only 22 players start on offense and defense, leaving 31 spots open for less glamorous roles. With the final roster cuts coming, this game is the third and fourth stringers’ last attempt at impressing the coaching staff who will be making difficult decisions involving their NFL futures in the coming days. 

The way for players on the bubble to really make an impression is by excelling on special teams. So for fans who pay close attention to these final roster spots which are currently on the line, watch the plays in which special teams is involved especially closely.

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Cleveland would like to improve their special teams in 2017, and the way to do that is by filling these final roster spots which will be on the line in Chicago with players who can make the key block or tackle on these overlooked plays.