20 Minutes To Kick-Off, What to Watch For Against Lions

Optimism continues to grow in the city of Cleveland and among Browns fans, but players know there’s still a long way to go to achieve their ultimate goal of a Super Bowl. Tonight’s preseason presents another opportunity for the team to get better and against a very similar team in the Detroit Lions. While the Lions aren’t the defending champions, expectations are growing in Detroit for one of the more young talented teams in the NFL.

Preseason games tend to be a tad boring for some fans, but there’s quite a bit to be excited about while watching the game tonight if you’re a Browns fan.

Can Colt McCoy continue to make progress in the west coast offense?

By now, you should all aware of the McCoy’s near-flawless performance against the Green Bay Packers last week, in route to a 27-17 win. If you’re not, his stats looked like this: 9 for 10 passing, for 135 yards with 1 TD and 0 INTs. His 152.1 passer rating was as near perfect as you can get.

After his exceptional performance against the Packers, word started to spread that McCoy spent a little time with former Packer legend and west coast offense extraordinaire, Brett Favre. Favre, who played under current Browns President Mike Holmgren in Green Bay, mastered the offense now being installed in Cleveland. Looking to accomplish the same objectives as Favre (wins, titles, rings), McCoy flew down to Mississippi to ask the future Hall of Famer quarterback all the questions he wasn’t able to ask his new head coach (Pat Shurmur) due to the lockout.

The knowledge McCoy gained from Favre appears to be paying off already. Common sense should tell us McCoy isn’t going to complete 90% of his passes all year, but last week’s game has certainly set the bar for tonight’s game against the Lions. Don’t expect McCoy to put up duplicate numbers from the Packers game. You can, though, expect McCoy to continue to flourish in this offense by using his poise and leadership. The more confident McCoy is, the better the Browns will be.

Colt’s projected stats: 12/18, 180 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT

Against the Lions, McCoy may be facing a depleted secondary. Cornerbacks Eric Wright (groin), Chris Houston (groin) and John Wendling (knee) are all game-time decisions for Detroit.

Can the defense continue to improve as a unit?

The front office’s decision to hire Dick Jauron as defensive coordinator during the offseason, meant that the Browns would be switching from a 3-4 scheme, to the 4-3. In last week’s victory over the Packers the defense certainly played well, but showed there was still plenty of work to be done.

The first team defense did more than hold their own against Green Bay starting QB Aaron Rodgers, but weren’t able to record a sack on the Super Bowl XLV MVP. Despite a combined sack from starting defensive ends Jayme Mitchell and (rookie) Jabaal Sheard, the lack of pressure from the first team defense was certainly a reason for concern.

A lot is expected out of a defense that is, overall, extremely young. Rookies Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard are certainly feeling the pressure since they were thrust into the starting line-up, but played well. Taylor is expected to team with Ahtyba Rubin to plug up the middle of the defensive line (they combine for 665 lbs), while Sheard is expected to start opposite of veteran Jayme Mitchell.

While depth at the position remains a concern, the linebacking core played well for the Browns. Expected starting OLB Chris Gocong missed last week’s game with an injury, but back-up Kaluka Maiava stepped into his place and gave a solid performance. D’Qwell Jackson, who has missed much of the last two seasons with injury, played extremely well as starting MLB. Jackson has the potential to be a star in Cleveland’s new 4-3 defense if he can remain healthy.

OLB Scott Fujita saw limited action against the Packers, as did many of the starters, but his leadership is going to be crucial for the younger guys as the Browns look to establish depth among their linebackers.

Rookie LB Brian Smith is continuing to make a name for himself for the Browns. Smith was having a solid camp prior to the first preseason game, and was responsible for creating the only turnover for the Cleveland defense. Late in the 3rd Quarter against Green Bay Smith blitzed up the middle and smacked third-string QB Graham Harrell, causing a fumble. Fellow back-up LB Titus Brown, scooped up the fumble and returned it 49 yards for the score. Both Smith and Brown should make the roster as back-ups but with injuries and lack of depth, could find themselves in key roles for the Browns defense this year.

Detroit’s offense is one of the more talented offenses in the NFL and should prove to be a great test for the Browns defense. Lions QB Matthew Stafford is an up-and-coming star if he can remain healthy. Stafford’s played in only three games last season but looked good last week against the Bengals, going 6-7 for 71 yards and 2 TDs. A young, but talented Cleveland defense will have their hands full with all the weapons Stafford has in his arsenal, including Calvin Johnson, Brandon Pettigrew and Jahvid Best.

The most intriguing match-up on the field tonight will be…

Cleveland’s first-team o-line vs. Detroit’s first-team d-line.

The Browns are said to have one of the better offensive lives in the NFL. Anchored by LT Joe Thomas, the Browns offensive front did their job against the Packers “ones” last week, not allowing a single sack on QB Colt McCoy.

Tonight the Browns face a potentially dominating d-line for the Detroit Lions. DT Ndamukong Suh has made a name for himself among the dominating d-lineman around the league, in only his second year in the league. Earlier this week Suh was fined $20,000 by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for his hit on Bengal’s rookie QB Andy Dalton.

Teaming up with Suh on the Detroit d-line, is former Cleveland Brown Corey Williams and dominant DE Kyle Vanden Bosch. Expected to also make an impact along the d-line for the Lions, is rookie DT Nick Fairley, who was Detroit’s first round pick in this year’s draft. Fairley is out for the preseason, however, with a foot injury. Even with Fairley out, the Lions have a unit on defense that opposing teams have to take seriously.

Making his first start tonight is rookie G Jason Pinkston. Pinkston is starting in the place of Eric Steinbach who is out with a hamstring injury he suffered during practice. Corey Williams is going to test the rookie and will give the former Pitt Panther a great idea as to where he stands as a starter in the NFL so far. Another young guy who’s going to have his hands full is starting RG Shaun Lauvo, who will be in charge of containing Ndamukong Suh. Lauvo is having a great camp so far, and will also have the opportunity to gauge his ability against one of the more dominant DT in the league.

If the Browns first-team offensive line can finish the game without giving up a sack for the second straight week, Browns fans will have yet another reason for optimism to start the season. While Steinbach is expected to return quickly and remain the starter, tonight’s starting experience for Jason Pinkston will go a long way in establishing crucial depth along the o-line.

Rookies to Watch…

– Phil Taylor: Taylor should, no doubt, be the starter along side Rubin come opening day. Earlier this week, however, a few rumors started to surface about Taylor being “lazy” in practice. It’s a reputation Taylor also had during his time at Baylor. The Browns can not afford to waste anymore first round picks, as they’ve made it apparent that building through the draft is the way they’ll go. Not saying Taylor is a waste, but the rookie better step it up if he wants to be a starter in the NFL.
– Jabaal Sheard: Sheard teamed with Jayme Mitchell last week for his first (half) sack as a Cleveland Brown. Sheard has been going against Pro Bowl LT Joe Thomas during practice, hoping that the battles between he and Thomas will greatly improve his game. Rumors started early in camp that Sheard was being dominated by Thomas. Those rumors, however, have since simmered. Look for Sheard to continue to improve tonight against Detroit.

– Buster Skrine: By now, nearly every Browns fan knows who Buster Skrine is. Skrine was drafted in the fifth round of April’s NFL Draft by the Browns, and the rookie from Tennessee-Chattanooga has already captured Cleveland Head Coach, Pat Shurmur’s eye. Cornerback is another area where depth could become a concern for the Browns, but Skrine is sure to make the roster due to his hustle and speed. Last week against the Packers, Skrine only had one tackle but had two passes deflected – a stat that is more telling of a corner’s play.

– Greg Little: There’s been a lot of hype surrounding rookie WR Greg Little, and for good reason. Little has displayed decent hands and playmaking ability. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of game Little has against a potentially depleted Detroit secondary. Last week against the Packers Little was targeted five times, recording two catches for 20 yards. A play no one seems to be talking about pertaining Little, however, didn’t even concern catching the ball. With back-up QB Seneca Wallace in the game and facing a 3rd and 9 situation, Wallace scrambled towards the sideline to pick-up the first down. Seeing his QB scramble, Little turned and found the first defender he could find. Unfortunately for LB Vic So’oto, he was that defender. Little delivered a hit that knocked So’oto clear off his feet.

Other things to look for against the Lions…

– Head Coach Pat Shurmur told reporters that the first team units will probably play the entire first half of tonight’s game, or 20-25 plays.

– RB Montario Hardesty was hopeful to play in tonight’s game after returning to practice this week for the Browns. However, it doesn’t appear Shurmur is ready to let Hardesty play and is still being cautious with his knee.

– Rookie RB Armond Smith (Union College) saw quite a bit of action last week against Green Bay. Smith rushed 10 times for 41 yards and displayed a nice burst through the line. Expect to see more of Smith tonight with Hardesty already ruled out, and starter Peyton Hillis potentially sidelined with a tweaked hammy.

– Suh vs. McCoy. Cleveland QB Colt McCoy is all too familiar with Detroit DT Ndamukong Suh from his college days. Suh’s Nebraska Cornhuskers faced McCoy’s Texas Longhorns in the Big 12 Title Game a few years ago, where Suh was in McCoy’s face all night long. Suh was credited with 4 1/2 sacks in that game, a game McCoy’s Longhorns won 13-12 on a controversial FG situation to end the game.

Injuries…

Questionable: LB Scott Fujita, LB Chris Gocong, S Usama Young, S T.J. Ward, RB Peyton Hillis

Out: RB Montario Hardesty, LG Eric Steinbach

One last thought….

The Detroit Lions currently have seven former Cleveland Browns on their roster: RB Mike Bell, RB Jerome Harrison, OG Isaac Sowells, DT Corey Williams, CB Anthony Madison, CB Brandon McDonald, CB Eric Wright

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