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Browns at Bears: Final Preseason Game Preview

For the 5th time in as many seasons, the Browns and Bears will meet in the preseason. The Browns won last year's meeting, 13-10 on a last second FG by Phil Dawson.

Remember how excited everyone was that football was finally back? The lockout really screwed a few of us up – excited about preseason games? Geesh.

Come Thursday night, the preseason officially ends for the Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears when the two teams get together at Soldier Field in Chicago.

Finally, the real football season is just days away.

It’s easy to write this game off as the “Scrub Bowl” due to the fact that a majority of the playing time – if not all of the playing time – will go to the back-ups trying to make one last impression to try and make the team.

But for a team like the Cleveland Browns, depth has to be a real concern to start the season. The Browns have been plagued with injuries since the lockout was lifted at the end of July.

Team President Mike Holmgren and GM Tom Heckert don’t seem to be too worried though, as the team has yet to add depth of any kind via free agency or the waiver wire.

That could mean one of two things – 1) They’re waiting to see what players are cut by other teams, or 2) They’re satisfied with the players they have on the roster.

Let’s say it means they’re satisfied with the talent they have on the roster, Thursday’s game against the Bears could potentially reveal who the primary back-ups will be to, at least, start the season.

The Browns and Bears met for the final preseason game of the 2010 season. Then rookie QB, Colt McCoy, had a stellar game going 13-13 in pass attempts for 131 yards with zero touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Montario Hardesty, also a rookie at the time, was supposed to be wrapping up an impressive preseason. Hardesty was having a solid game against the Bears – with 7 rushes for 25 yards and a touchdown – before disaster struck and his rookie season was lost due to an ACL injury. Hopefully the Browns can leave Chicago with a healthy roster this time around.

So what do you look for in an otherwise boring football game?

Well for starters, there are a few back-up spots to be had on the team, that could mean significant playing time for some players. There are also a couple players to keep an eye on throughout the game.

Jason Pinkston’s Playing Time at Left Guard

With original starter, Eric Steinbach, lost for the season with a back injury, the Browns will turn to rookie offensive lineman, Jason Pinkston to fill his spot – at least for now. After being drafted in the fifth-round (150th overall) in this year’s NFL Draft, Pinkston was not expected to come in and start right away. Adapting to his role as a starter is going to take time, which is why I expect Pinkston to see a fair amount of playing time against the Bears, even if the starters don’t play. After all, ‘game experience’ is important in the NFL and Pinkston has very little of it.

If the rookie is, in fact, Cleveland’s future at left guard, it’ll be interesting to see how well he competes against Chicago’s starters and/or back-ups on the defensive line. Should Pinkston go out of his way to have a horrible game against the Bears back-ups, I suspect Holmgren and Heckert will take the time to reach out to a few veterans looking for jobs.

The Running Back Position

Once thought to be a solid unit for the Browns, the running back position is suddenly in ruins.

Peyton Hillis is still going to be the starter to start the season, though the team’s plan to lower his workload may need to be altered.

Former Green Bay Packer, Brandon Jackson, was one of the team’s top free agent signings this offseason. It was Jackson, not Montario Hardesty, who was expected to share carries with Hillis in the Cleveland backfield this season. However, Jackson can now be seen around camp walking among the “walking wounded” in a cast for his once rumored turf toe injury. Rumors are now beginning to circulate that Jackson, like Steinbach, will be played on the team’s Injured Reserve list, thus ending his first season as a Cleveland Brown before it even got started.

The problem with Hardesty isn’t his capability to play the position, it’s his inability to stay healthy. While at Tennessee Hardesty missed quite a few games with knee injuries, so when his season was ended due to a serious knee injury it wasn’t much of a surprise.

Like I said, Hardesty was having an impressive preseason last year before the injury but that’s really about all we’ve seen of the, now second-year pro. The talent is certainly there, it’s just a matter of health for Hardesty. If he can stay with the team for a full season, injury free, the Browns could have one of the better running back tandems in the NFL. If not, there isn’t a lot to choose from beyond Hardesty.

Should Jackson indeed wind up on the IR, the team will once again be left with two options. They can wait and see who gets cut from other teams and try to build depth behind Hillis that way, or they can choose from what they have on the roster in Quinn Porter and Armond Smith.

The stats (after three preseason games) appear to tilt in Smith’s favor. So far, Smith has rushed for a combined 20 attempts for 145 yards and a TD. 81 of his 145 rushing yards came on one play against Detroit, when Smith used his speed to breakaway from everyone on the field for his one and only TD of the preseason thus far. Smith hasn’t had many opportunities catching the ball, with only 2 receptions for 24 yards.

Porter doesn’t quite seem to have the stats to match-up with Smith, as he’s rushed for 42 yards on just 10 carries. He also only has one catch this preseason, against the Lions for 18 yards.

At first glance, it should be a no-brainer as to who the Browns use as their third-string running back. However, despite Smith’s stellar preseason stats, he has managed to leave the door open for Porter by fumbling the ball. After three games, Porter has fumbled once but the team managed to maintain possession. Smith, on the other hand, has fumbled a total of three times and lost two of them. After his impressive 81 yard scamper for a score, Smith fumbled the ball the next two times he touched the ball with the Lions gaining possession on both occasions.

I think it’s safe to say that both backs will get a lot of looks Thursday in Chicago. Their performances could decide who sees the field come gamedays, and who is delegated to the practice squad.

Special Teams

Yes, if you’re a fan of the Cleveland Browns, you may want to pay attention to how well the special teams unit performs on Thursday.

The NFL’s new rule stating that teams must kickoff from the 35-yard line has already changed the return game, as more and more touchbacks are expected to be seen this season. This limits the chances players like Browns kick returner, Joshua Cribbs, have to make their normal jaw-dropping returns.

However, since they’re trying to impress Head Coach Pat Shurmur during the preseason, some of the guys who are just trying to make the team can be seen returning the kicks from as deep as 15 yards into the end zone. Certainly this won’t happen during the regular season, as players will “get smart” and simply knee the ball when necessary.

Last week against the Eagles, the Browns special teams unit was dreadful. This was particularly concerning because the Browns have had pretty good special teams units the last couple seasons.

A blocked field goal was bad enough, but then Cleveland’s punt and kick returners fumbled the ball on more than one occasion with the Eagles recovering two.

I think Jordan Norwood will emerge as the team’s number one punt return guy, due to his elusiveness and big play capability. Cribbs should keep his spot as the team’s kick returner, but you could see a combination of Norwood/Buster Skrine/Joe Haden/James Dockery back there with Cribbs.

Whoever the Browns have returning kicks, they’ll be fine. The fumbles are certainly a worry, but the special teams unit as a whole must improve. That also includes kicker Phil Dawson, who hasn’t showed consistency on kickoffs.

A Legitimate Back-Up at Linebacker Must Emerge

The Browns got some disappointing news after the game in Philadelphia. During the game, primary back-up linebacker, Titus Brown, left the game with an ankle injury.

Now, because of what’s been called a high ankle sprain, Brown is going to miss some substantial playing time. This may prove to be a critical blow to the depth at the linebacker position for the Browns. Titus was a solid preseason before the injury and was expected to be a key contributor for the Browns on defense.

After Titus Brown, the team’s best back-up linebacker is probably Kaluka Maiava. However, with projected starter Chris Gocong missing time due to a neck injury, Maiava has started every preseason game for the Browns and has thrown his name in the ring to be a potential starter for the defense this season.

Outside of those two, there really isn’t much to talk about. Undrafted Free Agent Rookie, Brian Smith out of Notre Dame has had a solid preseason. It’s hard enough to count on a rookie as it is, let alone one that went undrafted.

Auston English is a young and talented player who is listed as a defensive end. However, English played linebacker during his college days in Oklahoma. It will be real interesting to see who steps up to claim their spot on the roster among the linebackers. If no one does, hopefully the Browns have a player on speed dial.

Who Will Make the Team at Wide Receiver?

This game could prove to be critical for a few guys trying to make the team as a wide receiver.

With weapons at other positions, such as tight end and running back, the Browns will probably only keep six wide receivers.

Of those six, you can probably count on Mohammed Massaquoi, Joshua Cribbs, Brian Robiskie, Jordan Norwood and, obviously, Greg Little to all make the team.

I will say this, however, if I were Mohammed Massaquoi, I would be really – really – worried about my playing time.

It’s looking more and more like Greg Little is better than the third-round in which he was drafted in during this year’s draft. Had Little seen any playing time whatsoever during his senior year at North Carolina, he probably goes in the first-round. Holmgren and Heckert may have seen the potential in Little to be a star, but probably not this soon.
Robiskie has shown that he has decent hands, or at least good enough for the west coast offense. Head Coach Pat Shurmur has said that Robiskie is quietly having a great offseason and should be a key contributor on offense.

Jordan Norwood is probably going to be the team’s opening day starter at the slot position. Norwood has wowed coaches with his elusiveness and the yardage he gains after a catch. It helps, too, that he is capable of making plays on special teams as a return guy as well.

Carlton Mitchell is a receiver who never even sniffed playing time last year under Eric Mangini. Mitchell, much like Massaquoi, has missed substantial time due to injury this offseason. In the long run, Mitchell is probably just as likely to get cut as anyone else, although I think the coaches would like more than a year to develop Mitchell as a receiver. After all, they knew Mitchell was a raw talent coming into the league before he ever even stepped foot on a practice field.

Joshua Cribbs is obviously going to make the team, there’s no doubt about that.

That leaves Massaquoi and Demetrius Williams (sorry Rod Windsor) to battle it out for the sixth and final receiver spot.

Massaquoi finally returned to practice this week after missing pretty much the entire offseason. Based on Massaquoi’s performance last year, he is far from the type of player who can just show up to games and make an impact for his team. He’s entering is third season in the league and with the Browns and has amassed 1107 yards on 70 catches for 5 touchdowns.

Williams isn’t exactly a proven veteran, but he’s a veteran nonetheless. He only has 63 receptions, for 1008 yards and 4 touchdowns so far in his career. Now in his fifth year in the NFL, it’s time for Williams to decide which way his career is going to go: Step-up and be a solid contributor for a ball club? Or fall by the wayside like so many before him have?

Ultimately, I think the team decides to keep Massaquoi even though he’s well behind compared to the other “locks” at receiver. I wouldn’t, however, be surprised if Massaquoi is released or traded at some point during the season to make room for another receiver – or any player for that matter.

So there you have it. I know, it’s probably going to be a pretty boring game and the end result really has no affect on what kind of success the Browns will have this year, but at least now you have things to look for during the game.

Still, it’s an important game for a lot of the young guys that are still trying to make the team. The big thing for the Browns is to come away from this game without adding another name to the injury list. If the starters play, which is suspect that they will, it will probably only be for a series.

There’s a lot of positions out there that are up for grabs. It’s ultimately up to the coaches, who stays and who goes, but it’s up to the players to decide what kind of impression they’re going to leave for the coaches to think about.

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2 Responses to “Browns at Bears: Final Preseason Game Preview”

  1. denolakes says:

    This will be a yawn fest . . .

  2. Very much so! But…as a writer, you look for ANYthing that might make the game worth watching. As you can see, there’s very little there.

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