Five things to watch as the Cleveland Browns play their second preseason game tonight at Washington…
1. Quarterbacks. Duh. Brian Hoyer starts, and coach Mike Pettine has promised chances with the No. 1 offense for Johnny Manziel, too. Perhaps you’ve heard about all of this. There are other battles, too, including a couple at linebacker as Christian Kirksey tries to take Craig Robertson’s starting spot and three outside linebackers — Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo and Jabaal Sheard — go for two spots. The Browns need all three to be good, and chasing Robert Griffin III for at least two series should be a good test.
2. Catch the ball. Sounds simple for NFL wide receivers, right? It hasn’t been. The offense has been downright brutal much more than it’s been explosive or efficient through camp, and a good number of the good passes each quarterback has thrown have been dropped. Josh Gordon has been in and out of practice and may or may not be in the plans. Behind him, the Browns have some experience and a bunch of question marks. There are jobs to be won, but more important there are plays — simple plays — that need to be made.
3. Slowly but surely. The Browns are going to run the ball. More accurately, the Browns are going to have to run the ball. And it is still too early — new coaches, new system, QB battle, etc. — to draw any conclusions on any facet of the offense. Monday night, we’re likely to see a little of the speedy Travis Benjamin, a still-developing receiver but undoubtedly a big-play threat, and tight end Jordan Cameron, who missed the preseason opener due to a shoulder injury. Cameron has looked really, really good in camp when he’s been healthy. He’s in a contract year, and if Gordon goes he’ll have to be the top option. The smart play is to limit his reps in this game with a long season ahead, but he’s going to be a focal point going forward and it’s time for this offense to start building something.
4. Justin Gilbert, you’re on the clock. Gilbert has been impressive in camp and has been pushing for the starting right cornerback job. Now, Buster Skrine is out due to thumb surgery and three other cornerbacks didn’t make the trip to Washington due to various ailments. So, Gilbert’s preseason debut will not include lots of reps but chances to cover the likes of Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson. It’s going to be really good practice for what’s to come.
5. What matters besides the quarterbacks? To the coaches, plenty. And that includes special teams, blocking schemes, cutting down penalties, etc. But to those watching — and it might be the most-watched NFL preseason game EVER — the quarterbacks matter. A decision looms as far as the Opening Day starter, but more importantly the Browns need to move the ball into the end zone. Hoyer is confident. Manziel is gaining, but has admitted he’s not there yet. There’s a school of thought that says Manziel could excel in this environment. Hoyer knows what’s at stake, too, and should deliver a poised performance. At first blush, it seems wild to say first one to score a touchdown wins. But given the environment and what’s happened to this point, maybe that’s true.