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Browns Look to Improve Against the Philadelphia Eagles (Week Three)

The Cleveland Browns travel to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles tonight in a preseason match-up. It’s week three, which means that both teams’ starters are likely to see a majority of the snaps – probably well into the 3rd Qtr. at least. For the Eagles, it’s their first opportunity to prove that dreams can still come true for their fans, after their “Dream Team” (courtesy of back-up QB Vinny Young) took a spanking from in week two against the Steelers.

For the Cleveland Browns, it’s the fans first opportunity to see what kind of progress second-year runningback, Montario Hardesty, has made since an ACL took him out of commission during the final preseason game last year against the Bears. Cleveland will potentially be without a fair amount of starters, so tonight is yet another opportunity for a few back-ups to establish their spots on the depth chart.

Tonight’s game should have a “regular season” feel to it. It’s going to be a solid test for the Browns, on both sides of the ball. So, what to look for?

How well will Montario Hardesty play…and how long will he be in the game?

When the Browns traded up into the second round of last year’s NFL Draft to select the former Tennessee Volunteer, it was with the idea that Hardesty would be able to put his injury-plagued past behind him and become the unquestioned starter for the Browns. After tearing his ACL in the last preseason game of 2010 against the Chicago Bears, Hardesty was forced to watch newly acquired runningback Peyton Hillis rush for 1177 yards and 11 TDs.

It was an extremely long road back, but Hardesty has finally made it. New Head Coach Pat Shurmur has been extremely cautious with Hardesty this offseason, which raised two questions for me: Was the precautionary approach to Hardesty due to lingering affects from ACL surgery? Or were they being so careful with Hardesty because he’s runningback of the future?

We’ll see tonight how well Hardesty’s knee holds up against the Eagles “Dream“ defense. It’ll be important to see if Hardesty avoids favoring his knee and makes all his cuts without hesitation. I’d expect to see him play a majority of the first half, especially with Peyton Hillis (back) and Brandon Jackson (toe) questionable.

Without doubt, it’s a big night for Hardesty and his knee, as well as the future of the runningback position in Cleveland.

Can QB Colt McCoy continue to improve and lead the Browns offense?

I know I know – I asked this question last week when the Browns took on the Detroit Lions but it’s not a question I feel has been answered quite yet.

Since their return in ’99, the quarterback position has been one of constant controversy for the Browns. We’ve seen 16 different starters at the position (including McCoy) and establishing a true starter at QB has been quite the hassle.

So far, McCoy looks to be that guy. I mentioned last week that it’s critical for Browns fans not to expect for McCoy to go out and put on a show every week like he did against the Packers in week one. (9/10 passing, 135 yards, 1 TD and 0 INT). Against Detroit, the second-year pro snapped back to reality – sort of.

Detroit’s defensive line was in McCoy’s face all night long due to a pretty dismal performance from the Cleveland o-line. However, it gave us a chance to see how McCoy handles pressure. McCoy did a phenomenal job side stepping the rush and scrambling to find the open receivers. If there wasn’t a receiver open, the ball was thrown out of bounds. The point here is simple: McCoy wasn’t flustered by the pressure, and made smart decisions all night long. McCoy finished the Detroit game 10/18 for 96 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs, and left the game with a 21-13 halftime lead.

This week McCoy will have his opportunity to display his skill-set against an Eagles secondary that should rank among the top five in the NFL. With Pro Bowl caliber corners in Dominique Rogers-Cromartie, Asante Samuel and Nnamdi Asomugha lurking in the Eagles secondary, McCoy’s accuracy will be crucial for the Browns.

If Colt can put up solid numbers once again, against this secondary, then there will be little question as to who the Browns starting quarterback will be for years to come.

Can the offensive line bounce back after a disappointing performance against the Lions?

One of the more intriguing match-ups to watch during last week’s game against the Detroit Lions, was the Browns o-line vs. the Lions d-line. The winner? Detroit’s D-Line. To be fair, the Lions will have one of the best d-lines in the NFL this year. Seeing McCoy under so much pressure was a bit of a letdown, however, because the Browns are thought to have one of the better offensive lines in the league.

Against the Eagles, the Browns o-line will once again face a stiff challenge. With the additions of Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins along the d-line, the Eagles will probably have a top ten defensive line in the NFL.

It’ll be interesting to see if the Browns starting offensive line can step it up tonight, and rebound from a mediocre performance in last week’s game.

Will the young guys on defense step up against talented Eagles offense?

Depth is going to be a major concern all year for the Browns, especially at wide receiver and linebacker. With projected starter Chris Gocong yet to play in a game and Scott Fujita missing last week’s game, the Browns need to – at a minimum – establish depth at outside linebacker.

D’Qwell Jackson has been a terror for opposing offenses so far this preseason, which is huge for the Browns defense. Jackson has missed the previous two seasons with a pectoral injury, but has made huge strides in his game since his return. It’s been said that Jackson should flourish in Cleveland’s new-look defense as they switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme.

So far this preseason, Titus Brown (LB) and Brian Smith (LB) have made names for themselves among the Browns linebackers. Brown returned a fumble for a score against the Packers, one in which Smith caused. Also playing a consistent game of football is Kaluka Maiava (LB). Maiava has played well in place of the often injured OLB Scott Fujita.

In the secondary, Buster Skrine has followed-up his training camp hype with solid performances on the field. So far in the preseason, Skrine has recorded four total tackles and two passes deflected. What’s more noticeable about Skrine, though, is his speed and his nose for the ball. A potential match-up against the speedy WR Desean Jackson will be interesting, should the situation arise.

Getting a look at safety is UDFA out of Oregon State, is James Dockery. Dockery has had an impressive offseason so far, and his play on the field has backed-up those rumors. In the Browns last preseason game against the Lions, Dockery five total tackles (four solo) with one of those tackles for a loss.

Player to Watch: WR Jordan Norwood

Norwood has been extremely impressive so far for the Browns, not only as a wide receiver, but in the return game as well. His 20-yard punt return last week against the Lions set-up the Browns offense for their second score of the game. The second-year pro out of Penn State, who is expected to start in the slot, has tallied just 3 catches for 36 yards but has recorded 4 punt returns for 72 yards.

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