The preseason is halfway over.
On Thursday evening, the Cleveland Browns lost to the Atlanta Falcons, 24-13, in a game showcasing all the reasons to be optimistic and pessimistic about the 2016 season.
As you might have noticed, this Talking Points piece comes late this week. That’s my bad, as I had work commitments on Thursday and Friday. Since this piece is a couple days late and the game has been thoroughly analyzed, I’ll keep this week’s version short and to the point.
1. Terrelle Pryor is the real deal, but don’t call him a star yet. Pryor has work to do, but he’s making great strides.
As you’ve likely seen, Pryor burned cornerback Desmond Trufant, the least thrown-to cornerback in the NFL last season, according to WEWS. Robert Griffin III placed a perfect throw to the speedy wide receiver convert for a 50-yard touchdown strike.
But here’s the thing you might not have realized: Pryor wasn’t open.
At the time RG3 released the ball, Trufant blanketed Pryor. But once the ball was in the air, Pryor flew past Trufant and hauled in the pass.
What does this mean? The play speaks more to Pryor’s straight-line speed than his route-running. Some might take that as a negative, but Pryor’s speed will be utilized often on this type of play in Hue Jackson’s offense. Pryor will need to adjust if corners start jamming him at the line, though.
The touchdown also speaks to RG3’s confidence in his quarterback-turned-receiver.
2. Besides the two big plays, the Browns’ first-team offense looked iffy. RG3, Pryor, and Barnidge did very well. The rest of the offense? So-so.
Save for the big pass plays, the Browns’ offensive line, particularly in the second quarter didn’t look so great without Joe Thomas.
When RG3 enjoyed time to throw, the former Washington quarterback showed off his arm strength and his quick legs. RG3 did scramble away from pressure several times, but subjecting your signalcaller to heavy duress is not a great idea.
The running game improved slightly, as Isaiah Crowell showed shifty moves hitting the holes. Duke Johnson did not run as well in his three carries, though the blocking was not great on his runs.
The play of RG3 and Pryor outshined problems with the Browns’ offense, including an inability to execute screen passes throughout the evening. The team does have some time to figure these things out, however.
3. As expected, tackling remains a problem. The Falcons utilize a zone blocking scheme, crafted by our old friend Kyle Shanahan. His backs enjoyed plenty of success against the Browns’ 3-4.
By my estimation, the problem with the Browns is not the front seven. Sure, the inside linebackers could do a better job of shedding blocks. But to the backers’ credit, the outside linebackers mostly did a nice job of setting the edge on the play side, with the exception of Joe Schobert, who had a tough time on the first few plays of the Falcons’ first drive of the third quarter.
The problem is missed tackles in the secondary.
Justin Gilbert missed several tackles, Tramon Williams whiffed on a tackle, and Jamar Taylor even missed one early on. The first-team secondary struggled.
The problems continued in the second half. Rahim Moore, Sr. dove instead of squaring up on Brandon Wilds’ 32-yard touchdown run. Derrick Kindred probably did best of the Browns’ second-team defensive backs, but even he led with his head dangerously on one play.
The Browns need to focus on this problem this week in practice.
4. Robert Griffin III has the freedom to run, and he’ll use it. True to his word, Jackson is letting his quarterback run.
RG3 took off and ran three times against the Falcons, gaining 36 yards in a smart fashion. Browns fans can take solace in RG3’s newly learned ability to slide after a run.
Obviously, preseason games are a little slower and cannot be taken as an indicator of success for the regular season. But RG3 had fresh legs and did not hesitate to take off and run. The oft-injured QB did not seem gun shy at all in the face of the Falcons’ pass rush.
When RG3 can show off his mobility, the offense has another dimension to keep a defense on its heels. That is valuable for the Browns.
Now, the Browns’ offensive line need to keep their quarterback healthy.
5. Carl Nassib could be a special player. The rookie defensive end showed some skills on Thursday, perhaps enough to break into the starting lineup next week.
Kindred dominated the top of the stat sheet, but Nassib made plenty of plays. The former Nittany Lion made a special play late in the third quarter, coming free off the edge, forcing the quarterback to fumble, and recovering the fumble.
Nassib caused problems for the Falcons’ tackles for much of the second and third quarters, showing speed and tenacity from the edge.
Not much can be said of Nassib that hasn’t already been said, but the young player could be a productive player for the Browns this year.
6. Third down plays plagued the Browns against the Falcons. For whatever reason, the Browns couldn’t cut it on third downs.
Perhaps it’s a sign of things to come, and maybe not. But the Browns’ offense couldn’t produce on third downs, especially when calling a run play. The Browns finished the day 1-of-8 on third down conversion chances.
On the other side, the Falcons were money on third down. Atlanta converted 11-of-17 chances, far too high a number for the team’s liking.
The problem on defense was the Browns’ apparent inability to set the edge on third down. The Falcons enjoyed particular success when running outside, also using the flats to pick up a first down on 4th and 2 early in the fourth quarter.
One game doesn’t mean much in the preseason, but it’s something to watch moving forward.
7. The Browns saw another mixed day on special teams. It’s still early in the season, so mistakes will be made, but the kicking competition has to be heating up.
Travis Coons missed an extra point on the Browns’ second touchdown, adding an interest twist to the competition at kicker. We haven’t heard much about rookie Patrick Murray, besides cleveland.com stories on his proficiency in Gaelic Football. But could he threaten Coons’ job?
Hopefully we’ll see more of Murray next week.
Andy Lee continued to flash his big foot, booming five punts for an average of over 55 yards. The veteran will be one reliable played the Browns can depend on.
That’s it for Talking Points this week. Stay tuned for more coverage this week on DBN!