The third preseason game often offers the best early look into a team’s regular season fortunes.
If that’s the case, Cleveland Browns fans should be encouraged.
In Saturday night's "dress rehearsal" game, the Browns dominated the Buccaneers, 31-7, at Raymond James Stadium.
A pair of lengthy offensive drives represented the highlights of the night, while to Duke Johnson (concussion), Pierre Desir (concussion), and Charles Gaines (groin/hamstring) were the lowlights. The Browns played well overall, though the team certainly has issues to fix before week one.
Here’s what you should take away from Saturday’s win over the Bucs:
1. Hot and cold offense: Josh McCown and the offense started off the game well with a lengthy touchdown drive, but soon slowed down with four consecutive drives without a first down. The Buccaneers had no responses for the Browns at the start of the game, as the Browns used a combination of short passes and runs up the middle to slowly drive down the field. Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo utilized a variety of looks on the 16-play, 80-yard drive, using the shotgun four times, the pistol once, I-formation four times, and a single-back seven times. Brian Hartline finished off the drive with a beautiful 3-yard touchdown grab.
The Bucs quickly adjusted following the first drive. The Browns generated little offense on their next four drives, failing to pick up another first down until late in the half. With an opportunity to practice the two-minute offense late in the half, the offense stalled out, as McCown took a brutal hit to end the drive. To the unit’s credit, McCown and first teamers ended the night on a positive note with an 11-play, 78-yard touchdown drive to begin the third quarter.
Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West each ran well tonight. Crowell finished with 8 carries for 27 yards, while West ended the night with 7 rushes for 26 yards. Each recorded a rush of 10 or more yards, an encouraging sign for an offense built on the ground game.
2. Aggressive defense: The Browns’ defense started strong, playing aggressively in the first three drives of the game. Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil dialed up a blitz on the first six plays of the game, a continuation of last week’s aggressive playcalling strategy. The blitzes were not your typical vanilla preseason blitzes, either: O’Neil called several double A-gap blitzes and brought Joe Haden from the corner on another play.
The blitzes proved effective, as the Bucs ran just 10 plays on three drives in the first quarter. The Browns’ front seven consistently penetrated the Bucs’ offensive line and caused Jameis Winston to toss an interception to Charles Gaines to end the first quarter.
3. Johnny McCown? Undisputed starter Josh McCown played like his backup for much of the night, scrambling out of the pocket on multiple occasions. McCown ran the ball three times tonight, nearly causing heart attacks all across Northeast Ohio. He absorbed several big hits throughout the night, the scariest coming on the offense’s final play of the first half. Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander popped McCown outside of the pocket while McCown was looking for a receiver on third down on a dangerous play for the Browns.
Despite the heart-stopping hits, McCown emerged unscathed. He finished 17-of-23 with 117 yards and two touchdowns. The coaching staff would be wise to sit McCown against the Bears on Thursday.
4. Hybrid scheme: For a team running a 3-4 defense, the Browns used a lot of four-man fronts on Saturday. By my count, the Browns lined up with four down linemen on 24 of 29 defensive plays in the first half. Paul Kruger played with his hand in the dirt for much of the first half, rushing the quarterback on most passing downs.
With the Browns' wealth of defensive linemen, the team’s frequent use of a four-man front is a storyline to watch moving forward.
5. Benjamin, Baby: Thanks to several big plays, Travis Benjamin likely secured a roster spot tonight. The fourth-year wide receiver exploited a nice hole on a punt return in the first two minutes of the game, dashing 53 yards for a touchdown. The 25 year old also made a pair of nice catches on the first drive of the game.
Benjamin bailed out Josh McCown with a skillful nine-yard catch on 3rd and 4 with 6:22 left in the first quarter. Five plays later, Benjamin made another nine-yard catch, this time for a first down inside the five yard line. Benjamin also made a pair of catches in the third quarter, showing elusiveness in the open field.
6. Stout second-string: The Browns’ second defensive unit held its own against quarterback Mike Glennon and the Buccaneers. The Browns’ backup secondary did not play all that well, but the front seven dominated the line of scrimmage in the third and fourth quarters.
Defensive tackle Jamie Meder played particularly well in the fourth quarter, sacking Glennon once and stuffing a Dominique Brown run on the next play. Meder tied for the team lead with five tackles, one tackle for loss, and one sack. Considering the Browns’ depth at the position, Meder might not make the roster, but he will at least warrant serious consideration.
7. Rookie Report: The team’s rookies played well tonight, though both Duke Johnson and Charles Gaines sustained injuries and did not return. Johnson notched one carry for four yards on the team's second offensive play of the game, but exited later in the half after taking a brutal hit on a short third down pass. McCown threw late to Johnson, and the rookie paid the price, as he headed to the locker room for further evaluation. During his postgame press conference, head coach Mike Pettine confirmed that Johnson sustained a concussion.
Gaines played quite well in the first half, hauling in an interception on the Bucs’ third drive of the game and batting down a pair of passes on two third down plays. He left the game at the end of the second quarter with a hamstring injury. Pettine called it a "soft tissue" injury to Gaines’ groin after the game.
On a positive note, Danny Shelton continued to dominate in the middle of the defensive line. The defensive tackle repeatedly clogged the middle, allowing the linebackers to make plays in the backfield. Shelton also flowed to the ball well all night.
The team’s other first round pick, Cameron Erving, did not see any first string reps tonight. Following the first drive of the third quarter, the Florida State product played the remainder of the game. Erving didn’t stand out negatively or positively.
Also quiet was Vince Mayle. The wideout did not have any catches tonight. Fellow fourth round pick Ibraheim Campbell played well on the opposite side of the ball, racking up five tackles, one tackle for loss, and one sack.
As a whole, the team’s rookies are a bright spot so far this preseason.