There was a point in the first quarter of Thursday’s National Football League preseason game involving the Cleveland Browns and the Buffalo Bills when the Browns were without, by my count, 22 players because of injuries. The Bills, meanwhile, entered the evening with over a dozen men, including five running backs, on bike duty instead of on the football field. Those who tuned into ESPN to see an exhibition football game were instead treated to what was a glorified uncontrolled scrimmage in which rules about not hitting quarterbacks were eliminated for four quarters.
The game, as it was, had to go on, and the opening half of play was ugly on both sides of the football field. Journeyman veteran Cleveland quarterback Josh McCown had a rough outing against a good Buffalo defense, but it would be inaccurate to claim that McCown was working with what was a true first-team NFL offense. McCown floundered and tossed a pair of interceptions when facing a ferocious pass rush, and the offensive line of the Browns will, when the games start to matter, have to do better to protect the 36-year old. Those with hot takes about the future depth chart of the Browns should save their time and their breaths, because McCown is, so long as he is healthy, the starting quarterback heading into this weekend, Week 3 of the preseason and Week 1 of the regular season;
as he should be.
Browns fall to Bills: Manziel takes more steps
There were six instances in which Manziel left no doubt that he has made strides in his play and maturity from where he was last December. He twice made smart reads at the line of scrimmage before taking the snap, and he changed a blocking scheme to open things up for running back Terrance West. The three biggest offensive plays of the evening were made by Manziel, and they were results of a combination of the old “Johnny Football” molding with this version of Manziel 2.0.
The 37-yard completion to Darius Jennings in the third quarter, a pass that traveled around 45 yards in the air, silenced those worried about Manziel’s arm strength. His technique on the pass left quarterbacks coaches and purists cringing, but Manziel did well to square his upper body up as it needed to be before he unleashed the bomb. Pro quarterbacks, even the best in the business, don’t always look pretty making similar completions.
The touchdown pass Manziel tossed to Shane Wynn was, to date, the best play the second-year QB has made since being drafted by the Browns because it was what fans and critics of Manziel have been wanting to see from him. Manziel planted his feet, progressed through his options, stepped up into the open pocket, planted his feet and won the one-on-one battle with his arm.
Manziel conjured up memories of his days at Texas A&M in the final minute with a play that won’t count in the stats because of a penalty. The main takeaway from this play was that Manziel kept his eyes down the field even though he had room in front of him, and he then completed the pass across the field for what should have been a first down.
There may be a light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe none exists. Those who don’t see the glimmer of hope should remove the sunglasses, because Manziel continues to take positive steps in the right direction.
Browns fall to Bills: The backfield
The competition for the starting gig in the backfield of the Browns took an interesting turn on Thursday. West, who has gotten himself of the doghouse of the Cleveland coaching staff by (allegedly) showing up carrying excess weight and because of his social media habits that those running the team could do without, got the start against the Bills, and he failed to impress early on. His foot movement behind the line of scrimmage brought back nightmares of the days of Trent Richardson wearing brown and orange.
West nevertheless continued to receive the carries, and he seemed to pick up momentum as the game progressed. He picked up a couple of first downs, he hit the hole with aggression for the first time since last November, and he picked up a couple of first downs. Isaiah Crowell made a SportsCenter highlight with a fierce stiff arm, but he ended the night with only 14 yards on 5 carries. West, meanwhile, picked up 42 yards on 11 rushes.
Rookie Duke Johnson continues to be M.I.A. because of a lingering hamstring injury that has been far worse than what was originally thought. It is thus West and not Crowell who has to be considered to be atop the depth chart after Thursday’s game.
Browns fall to Bills: Defensive depth
Some supposed analysts chose to point out immediately after the game that the Cleveland defense surrendered noticeable amounts of yardage to an offense, a unit being led by quarterback Tyrod Taylor, missing several playmakers. What was, more often than not, a base and vanilla defense bent but did not break in scoring situations, and the Bills only found the end zone in garbage time long after any and all starters had left the field. The line that separates analyzing from looking for reasons to be upset is fine.
Two rookie defensive linemen stood out against the Bills, and one is quickly becoming a familiar name among the Cleveland fan base. Danny Shelton finished the game with a single tackle, one for a loss, but he again showed his ability to blow up opposing offensive lineman. Xavier Cooper twice got to the quarterback, and he was the only player in the game to finish with multiple sacks. The Browns have more cornerstones for a great defense than what was on the roster in August 2014.
Cleveland now has to find a remedy to all of the muscle strains that are plaguing the team’s locker room.