NFL team preview: Cleveland Browns
The primary mission for the Browns in training camp was settling the quarterback situation, and that happened quickly when Jake Delhomme justified the faith that team president Mike Holmgren showed in him.
Delhomme earned the job in OTAs and minicamp and then kept it going through the first week of training camp. He played only one series against the Packers in the first preseason game. He completed 6 of 7 passes for 66 yards on a touchdown drive.
By the time the Browns finished their third preseason game, Delhomme was set for the real games to begin. He completed 38 of 48 passes for 345 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in the preseason. He is as far removed from the eight touchdown-18 interception season he had with the Panthers last year as Charlotte is from Cleveland.
"Being in a new place is the biggest factor in putting last season behind me," Delhomme said when his preseason work was over. "It’s funny. I was texting my wife and she said, ‘Good job. That smile was back. I like seeing that.’ We’ve been together a long time — since high school.
"I believe in having fun. We’re out there playing a kids game. I’m having a whole lot of fun."
Quarterback is set, but the Browns have some major concerns on defense. While Delhomme was tearing up opponents, starting quarterbacks were shredding the Browns secondary. Aaron Rodgers, A.J. Feeley and Matt Stafford combined to complete 30 of 36 passes.
Opponents threw 96 passes. The Browns produced one sack. A sack isn’t the only statistic that matters, but the Browns did not get much pressure on the quarterbacks.
The Browns traded Kamerion Wimbley, their 2009 sack leader, to the Raiders in the offseason for a third-round draft pick. But it wasn’t like they traded Lawrence Taylor. Wimbley had a pedestrian 6.5 sacks last season.
Next was David Bowens with 5.5 sacks. He missed the first two games with a knee injury. Bowens is wise. His experience and flexibility are valuable. But he is not a lock to make the team this year.
Corey Williams tied for third with four sacks last season. He plays for the Lions now. The Browns are looking for others players to produce.
"We don’t really look at pass rush as a function of one guy," coach Eric Mangini said. "We look at pass rush as a function of good defense. Last year it was 16 different guys who had sacks. That, to me, is the way it’s going to set up because based on their (pass) protection, based on the things that they’re doing, there are ways to beat it."
Asked how Rodgers, Feeley and Stafford could complete 83 percent of their passes, mostly against the starters, Mangini said players are out of position.
Nevertheless, he says the defense is playing better than a year ago. He stopped short of making a prediction, but he expects the Browns to improve on their 5-11 record last year.
"I don’t think we’re that far off, judging by the ways we’re running the plays, but it doesn’t work that way," Mangini said. "If you’re not in the right spot and you’re playing a good quarterback … you can’t be a little off and have it be successful."
The Browns are relatively healthy, with the possible exception of nose tackle Shaun Rogers. Rogers is on PUP list with an ankle injury, and there is no guarantee he will be ready for the season opener.
COACHING: Eric Mangini, 5th year (28-37), second with Browns (5-11).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 5-11 (last in AFC North); the Browns finished hot by winning their last four games.
PREDICTING: 2010 regular season record: 6-10 (last in AFC North); improvement might not show in the record.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Safety Nick Sorensen suffered a concussion in a helmet-on-helmet collision with a Lions player in the third preseason game. Losing Sorensen even temporarily is a blow to the Browns’ special teams. Coach Eric
Mangini could not say when Sorensen would return to action.
"Nick has played defense, but really he has found a niche that he does really well," Mangini said. "In addition to that he has versatility on special teams. He plays on all of them pretty much but in addition to that he is a good person and he is a good teammate.
"You’re constantly looking for core teams guys that are versatile and he has been that. Often you see guys hang around a long time whether it is with their original teams or with other teams in that role."
Blake Costanzo led the Browns with 14 special teams tackles last season. Sorensen was second with 13.
–RB James Davis could get caught in a numbers game. He would be fourth on the depth chart behind Jerome Harrison, Peyton Hillis and rookie Montario Hardesty plus fullback Lawrence Vickers. Last year coach Eric Mangini started the season with Harrison, Davis and Jamal Lewis plus Vickers.
–PK Phil Dawson needs to score 115 points to pass Don Cockroft (1,080) and move into second place on the Browns’ all-time scoring list.
–LS Ryan Pontbriand (2003) is the longest-tenured Browns draft pick still on the roster. He was a fifth-round pick by Butch Davis in 2003.
–RB Jerome Harrison fumbled twice all of last season. He fumbled in back-to-back preseason games. Coach Eric Mangini pulled him aside and told him, "When you have the football in your hands you have the whole team in your hands."
–QB Jake Delhomme will be the ninth quarterback to start a season opener for the Browns in 12 years. The others are Ty Detmer, Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn.
–CB Sheldon Brown has appeared in all 128 games he has played in since he was a rookie in 2002. It is the second-longest streak among NFL defensive backs.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK
Rd. 1/7, CB Joe Haden, Florida — Haden was feeling his way in minicamp, but he improved steadily since training camp opened and is now playing instinctively. He is challenging for a starting job. He is listed as Sheldon Brown’s backup at right corner.
Rd. 2/38, S T.J. Ward, Oregon — Ward has been starting since the beginning of training camp. He hits hard, but he might have some difficulty with tall tight ends.
Rd. 2/59, RB Montario Hardesty, Tennessee — A knee injury prevented Hardesty from playing in the first three preseason games. He is quick and explosive and could still end up challenging Jerome Harrison for carries if not a starting job.
Rd. 3/85, QB Colt McCoy, Texas — McCoy is making rookie mistakes, such as intentionally throwing the ball out of the end zone on the final play of a preseason game the Browns were losing. He won’t play unless Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace are injured.
Rd. 3/92, OG Shawn Lauvao, Arizona State — Lauvao is starting at right guard. He was in a battle with Floyd Womack at the start of training camp, but a knee injury took Womack out of the competition. Lauvao can also back up Alex Mack at center.
Rd. 5/160, S Larry Asante, Nebraska — Asante will get most of his playing time as a rookie on special teams.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Jake Delhomme. Backups — Seneca Wallace, Colt McCoy.
Delhomme and Wallace will be a two-man show. Delhomme is the clear starter, but Wallace will sub for him and line up with Josh Cribbs in Wildcat situations. Delhomme was 38 of 48 passing in the preseason. His leadership in the locker room and on the field is welcomed by his teammates. It is a contrast to last season when players did not know week to week whether the starter was Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn. Delhomme is convinced last season’s eight touchdown-18 interception fiasco in Carolina was an aberration.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter — Jerome Harrison. Backups — Peyton Hillis, Montario Hardesty, James Davis, FB Lawrence Vickers.
Harrison in preseason did not show the fire that made him one of the most productive runners in the league at the end of last season. Plus, he fumbled twice. He said he is not worried. Hillis won’t push Harrison for a starting job, but Hardesty might. Hardesty missed the first three preseason games because of a bone bruise in his right knee. He might start slowly. Hillis has speed and can catch the ball. He should be a short-yardage specialist behind Vickers. Davis is insurance and won’t get many opportunities if the backs ahead of him stay healthy.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Benjamin Watson. Backups — Evan Moore, Robert Royal.
Watson is a huge upgrade over last season when Royal was the starting tight end. Watson is fast enough to draw coverage down the middle. Even when he isn’t catching passes he opens space for the wide receivers. He and Moore could catch 30 passes apiece in the tight end-friendly offense being run by offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. Royal is primarily a blocker, but he is one of the best on the team and was a large part of the run surge at the end of 2009.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie. Backups — Josh Cribbs, Chansi Stuckey, Bobby Engram, Carlton Mitchell.
With all the criticism directed toward the Browns’ receivers last year, team president Mike Holmgren decided the real problem was at quarterback. Therefore the only players added were 37-year-old Engram and Mitchell, a sixth-round draft pick likely to end up on the practice squad. Robiskie was the most improved offensive player through minicamp and continued that trend in preseason. There will be some games when Cribbs starts depending on the package being used. He also has developed into a reliable receiver. The Browns scored 11 touchdowns through the air last year. That number could double. Stuckey can move the chains on third down.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Joe Thomas, LG Eric Steinbach, C Alex Mack, RG Shawn Lauvao, RT Tony Pashos. Backups — T John St. Clair, G Floyd Womack, G/C Billy Yates, T Scott Kooistra.
The Browns set out to upgrade the right side of the line and are happy with the results of adding Lauvao and Pashos. Pashos is a bulldozer, and if the Browns stick to the ground Jerome Harrison and Peyton Hillis will be following him. He battled a shoulder injury in August. St. Clair and Womack are reliable backups, but Womack missed all preseason with a knee injury and St. Clair missed more than a week with a personal issue. Thomas is a three-time Pro Bowler. His quick feet make him difficult to beat. Steinbach is steady. Mack has settled in and should be the Browns center for 10 years.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LE Kenyon Coleman, RE Robaire Smith, NT Ahtyba Rubin. Backups — E/NT Shaun Rogers, E Brian Schaefering, E Derreck Robinson, E Clifton Geathers.
After the draft Holmgren said not every problem could be fixed in one year, and the defensive line is the prime example of what the Browns president was talking about. Smith is in his 11th season, Rogers his 10th and Coleman his ninth. Rubin, in his third year, and Schaefering, a first-year player, are the exceptions. Rogers was on PUP. and missed all preseason. He might be the best athlete on the team, but he is coming off a broken ankle. When he will start playing is uncertain. Smith led the defensive linemen with 62 tackles last season. Coach Eric Mangini will take that again. The line in a 3-4 doesn’t have to lead the team in tackles, but Mangini wants them — particularly Rubin — to tie up the blockers so the linebackers can flow to the ball.
LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB Scott Fujita, SLB Matt Roth, MLB Chris Gocong, ILB Eric Barton. Backups — OLB Marcus Benard, ILB Kaluka Maiava, ILB Blake Costanzo, ILB D’Qwell Jackson, OLB/ILB David Bowens, OLB Jason Trusnik.
Fujita was the big free-agent acquisition for general manager Tom Heckert. Fujita is valuable because he can play inside or out. He is starting outside according to the depth chart, but early in the season he might be inside more while Jackson recovers from a pectoral injury. Fujita did not overwhelm in preseason. He missed a tackle on the goal line in Green Bay. The Browns traded Kamerion Wimbley in the offseason and Bowens faces a reduced role. They totaled 12 sacks last year. Roth and Benard are the Browns’ best pass-rushing linebackers. Trusnik has flexibility to move in or out. Costanzo led the Browns in special teams tackles last season. This unit overall is slow. Barton and Bowens are in their 12th season. Coach Eric Mangini says the defense is built for power. Positioning on each play is critical because the Browns are not quick enough to recover from repeated mistakes.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Eric Wright, RCB Sheldon Brown, SS T.J. Ward, FS Abe Elam. Backups — CB Joe Haden, CB Coye Francies, CB Brandon McDonald, S Larry Asante, S Nick Sorensen, CB/S Mike Adams, S Ray Ventrone.
The secondary was revamped, not just because the Browns yielded 22 passing touchdowns last year but because tackling has to improve. Haden and Ward, the top two draft picks, demonstrated in preseason they can take a ball carrier down. Haden could replace Wright as a starter, but whether he starts and Wright is the nickel back — or whether their roles are reversed — the secondary is better off than last year. Brown replaced McDonald as the right corner. Brown might have difficulty staying with speedy receivers, but he covers better than McDonald. Depth is strong with Adams able to play corner or safety. McDonald is a reliable dime back. Ventrone and Sorensen are key players on special teams. Sorensen might be inactive in early games because he suffered a concussion Aug. 28 in a preseason game in Detroit.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Phil Dawson, P Reggie Hodges, LS Ryan Pontbriand, KOR/PR Josh Cribbs.
Year in and year out, special teams is the Browns best unit. That could be tested in 2010 because Dave Zastudil, the punter since 2006, is on injured reserve. Dawson will surpass 1,000 career points this season barring injury. He has made 83.3 percent of his field goal tries (229 for 275) and has kicked 12 game winners for a team that had only two winning seasons in 11 years. Pontbriand is so automatic on his snaps that holder Hodges sets up inches short of eight yards on each field goal try because when he does he catches the ball with the laces in the same precise location each time; Hodges does not have to spin the ball before setting it down. Returning kicks and punts is what Cribbs does best. He has returned eight kicks for touchdowns and two punts for TDs. His role on offense has increased as a receiver and in various Wildcat roles. The coaches don’t want to spread him so thin he is diminished as a return specialist.