In a battle of hard-nosed football teams led by defensive gurus, Rex Ryan and the Bills triumphed over Mike Pettine and the Browns, 11-10, in the second game of the preseason on Thursday evening.
The game was far from pretty, as the teams combined for just 21 points (15 in the fourth quarter), 463 yards of offense, and 17 penalties.
While the Browns performed poorly in some aspects (pass blocking, receiving), several players stood out in the loss. Here's what you need to know:
1. Quarterback quandary: Josh McCown played the entire first half, and did not look good against a fierce Bills' pass rush. Often pressured in the pocket, McCown made a few ill-advised decisions, tossing two picks. The blame for his first interception rests on the shoulders (or hands) of Gary Barnidge, but the second was definitely McCown’s fault, as he lofted a high pass into double coverage. McCown finished 7-of-10 with 57 yards, but the veteran played much better last week. On the flip side, Manziel performed quite well in the second half, particularly in the fourth quarter. The second-year signalcaller made several nice throws, including two impressive tosses during an 11-play, 96-yard touchdown drive stretching from late in the third quarter into the fourth. Forced out of the pocket on one play during the drive, Manziel lofted a beautiful pass to Darius Jennings for a 37-yard gain. Two plays later, Manziel connected with Shane Wynn for a 21-yard touchdown pass. Granted, Manziel’s performance came against mostly second-teamers and McCown remains entrenched as the undisputed starter. But Manziel is slowly beginning to look like an NFL quarterback.
2. Improved defense: The Browns’ rush defense showed significant improvement on Thursday. Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil countered big Bills’ offensive sets with four-man fronts, and it worked well. The Browns' defensive line clogged the line of scrimmage well, occupying blocks so the team’s linebackers and defensive backs could flow to the football. Safeties Donte Whitner and Ibraheim Campbell made nice tackles in the first quarter, while Randy Starks blew up the Bills’ backfield on a couple of plays. One caveat: the Bills are severely depleted at running back. But either way, it was nice to see the Browns defend the run.
3. Great ground game: Both Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell showcased flashes of potential on Thursday evening. Terrance West received the majority of the carries in the first half, turning nine attempts into 28 yards. West showed some shiftiness out of the backfield in the first quarter, dodging would-be tacklers to turn negative plays into positive ones. The second-year back converted on fourth and one with 2:45 left in the second quarter, following his linemen for a four-yard pickup. Crowell didn’t look half bad, either, rushing four times for 18 yards. Crowell’s best run of the night came with 5:45 left in the second quarter on a 2nd and 7 carry to the right side. Crowell stiff-armed Preston Brown and dashed 13 yards for a first down. Neither West nor Crowell has earned the "bell cow" role yet, but each stepped up tonight.
4. Truly offensive line: Rex Ryan’s blitz schemes confused the Browns’ first string offensive line, leading to limited time in the pocket for Josh McCown. The middle of the offensive line posted a below-average performance on passing plays, as the Bills consistently found ways to pressure McCown. The best example of the unit’s ineffectiveness against the Bills’ stout pass rush came midway through the second quarter. Marcell Dareus used a bull rush to push past Alex Mack, hitting McCown in the ribs and earning a sack. On the plus side, Joe Thomas looked phenomenal as always at left tackle.
5. Blitz party: Mike Pettine and Rex Ryan took turns using complicated blitzes on Thursday evening. Both teams used a high number of blitzes for a preseason game, which rarely feature complicated schemes. Manziel looked flummoxed on a pair of plays early in the second half, but he adjusted well as time elapsed. On the other side of the field, the Browns relentlessly pursued EJ Manuel. The Browns even dialed up an all-out blitz on 4th and goal with under two minutes left. O'Neil likely won't be so aggressive in the regular season, but it's certainly something to watch.
6. Wynn for the win: Shane Wynn might be tough to cut. Wynn danced past a number of defenders and burst through an opening for a lengthy punt return in the fourth quarter. However, due to a penalty on the Browns, the play was called back. But don’t think that the coaching staff didn’t notice. As mentioned above, Wynn also hauled in a nice touchdown from Manziel in the back of the end zone. While the Browns’ depth chart is crowded at wideout, the coaching staff will have a tough time releasing the speedy Wynn, who could be a valuable special teamer.
7. Finally, some depth: Armonty Bryant, Nate Orchard, and Xavier Cooper all looked impressive in the second half. Bryant shed blockers nicely throughout the nice, contributing on a number of tackles. Orchard often cleaned up messes in the open field, making a few nice tackles on Manuel and others. Cooper contained the edge well, even picking up a big third down sack with under a minute left in the third quarter. On the offensive side, tight ends EJ Bibbs and Rob Housler played well, combining for four catches and 51 yards. The Browns seem to finally have depth at a few positions.