One down and three preseason games to go for the Cleveland Browns following a 20-17 home loss at the hands of the Washington Redskins on Thursday evening. Just as with any National Football League team at this stage of the process, there was some good for the Browns, some bad, and some downright ugly. Most importantly, the Browns avoided any significant injury concerns — a boast that cannot be made by the Redskins heading into the second weekend of August — and the Cleveland offense offered multiple glimpses of hope that those who have referred to the unit as a lost cause may have prematurely buried it.
Redskins defeat Browns: McCown and Manziel
One could not have asked for much more from veteran quarterback Josh McCown during his single drive of the game. He completed all five of his registered passes, and his deep ball down the left sideline to speedster Travis Benjamin that resulted in a 35-yard pass interference penalty was a better pass than fans of the Browns saw from either Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel at any point of the 2014 preseason. The 36-year old turned the clock back and surprised some with his quickness and agility when he bailed out offensive lineman Cameron Erving, who was beaten inside almost immediately after the snap, by remaining on his feet and scrambling before locating a wide open Benjamin for Cleveland’s only passing touchdown of the evening.
Second-year pro Johnny Manziel was a night-and-day difference from where he was a calendar year ago. Gone was the Texas A&M product who looked to first make plays with his legs, and in its place was a poised quarterback who confidently completed his reads, zipped passes where they needed to be, and one who looked comfortable in a stripped-down scheme put together by offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. Just as impressive as was his 12-yard scamper into the end zone were the duo of third-down plays that saw Manziel live to fight another day rather than attempt to force the matter via an ill-advised pass or with his feet.
As much as Manziel has improved from his horror-show of a rookie campaign, there is no question who is the leader of the offense so long as he is able to line up under center in Week 1 of the upcoming regular season. McCown has the confidence of those around him, he has the arm to make the necessary throws in an offense that is meant to rely heavily on the rushing attack (more on that later), and he was, simply stated, better than Manziel on Thursday night. On to the next for both quarterbacks.
Redskins defeat Browns: Danny Shelton debuts
Stats often lie in pro sports, and that was the case for Thursday’s outing as it pertains to rookie defensive tackle Danny Shelton. Shelton’s single tackle of the evening does not leap off of the page of a box score, nor does it speak to how much he dominated in battles up front while featuring for the first-team defense of the Browns. The athleticism that he continues to show for a player who checks in at 6-foot-2 and 339 pounds cannot be taught at any level. Regimes of the past have set the Browns back years with several lackluster first-round picks. Some of those players may be on the team’s roster right now. Early returns are showing that the Browns have seemingly gotten it right with Shelton.
Redskins defeat Browns: The ugly
Three different things stand out as problems that could plague the Browns if they are not rectified before the games begin to matter, starting with a rushing attack that is supposed to be the backbone of the Cleveland offense. Here are the numbers for the running backs wearing orange and white against the Redskins on Thursday night:
Terrance West: Four carries for 10 yards.
Timothy Flanders: Five carries for 8 yards.
Isaiah Crowell: Four carries for 6 yards.
Jalen Parmele: Three carries for 3 yards.
Cleveland’s leading rusher on the evening: Johnny Manziel, who had 14 yards and a touchdown on two carries from scrimmage.
Rumors began circulating among Cleveland insiders last weekend that the Browns were considering signing much-maligned running back Ray Rice to help bolster the team’s rushing attack with rookie Duke Johnson sidelined because of a hamstring injury and neither West nor Crowell cementing themselves atop the depth chart. Head coach Mike Pettine, general manager Ray Farmer and owner Jimmy Haslam have not yet eliminated the possibility of the Browns signing Rice, and those watching Thursday’s preseason game can understand why that is the case following what they witnessed.
As worrisome as was the Cleveland rushing attack was the fact that a run defense that was overrated during the second half of the 2014 regular season barely showed up at all against the Redskins. The lowlight of the evening occurred on a fourth-and-one play in the first quarter when Washington running back Alfred Morris went untouched for an 18-yard gain on what would, had the game mattered, been the type of run that could break the back of a defense that allowed a total of 153 yards on the ground on opening night of the preseason. Pettine, a defensive coach for the majority of his pro life, had to cringe with every missed tackle that he saw.
Last and certainly least on the defense of the Browns was second-year cornerback Justin Gilbert, who followed up a diastrous rookie year with as bad a first quarter as you will hopefully see from any Cleveland defensive back this year. Gilbert was thrice burned by Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III and targets of the Redskins, and he barely managed to remain in the play when a perfectly-placed deep ball thrown by RG3 went through the hands of a wide open Pierre Garcon just two-and-a-half minutes into the game. That moment earned Gilbert instant criticism from veteran Tashaun Gipson, who berated Gilbert before Garcon began his jog back toward the offensive huddle.
Gilbert only began resembling a pro cornerback once the Washington backups took the field. His habit of not being able to turn his hips correctly at the proper moments, a problem that theoretically should have been solved in practices and film sessions by now, plagues him early into his second year in the NFL, and there were no signs when he was playing against a first-team offense that Gilbert has made any noticeable strides since December 2014. Manziel is going to make headlines and be the talk of sports-talk radio shows and television programs such as SportsCenter because of his past. Gilbert is far behind Manziel at this point, and the cornerback’s lack of progress is beginning to set of alarms.