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Defensive dominance, bubble watch, and observations from Browns’ 5-0 win over Eagles

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Dawgs By Nature Deputy Editor Michael Hoag examines the Browns’ defensive playmaking, injuries, bubble players, and gives other observations from their 5-0 preseason win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Say it with me, it’s only the preseason, but the Cleveland Browns shut out the defending Super Bowl champions at FirstEnergy Stadium in the all-important “dress rehearsal” third preseason game.

Well, they shut out a team resembling the defending champs, I guess.

The Philadelphia Eagles were missing a ton of starters, including their left tackle Jason Peters, some key defensive linemen, nearly all of their wide receiver group, and backup quarterback Nick Foles—yeah, the Super Bowl LII MVP—started again in place of recovering NFL MVP candidate Carson Wentz. Philly’s quarterback played more like the Foles we thought we knew on Thursday night, and much, much less like the guy who majestically toppled the New England Patriots last February.

Was the defensive bullying we witnessed because the Eagles laid an egg, or was it because the Browns defense smacked them in the face and shut them down?

Swarming, aggressive defense creates shutout against defending Super Bowl champs

Honestly, the answer is a combo of the two, along with the Eagles’ missing pieces, but it’s impossible not to laud Cleveland for its defensive tenacity and playmaking ability.

Myles Garrett, Genard Avery, Christian Kirksey and Terrance Mitchell—and really, all Browns defensive backs—brought a level of intensity that forced an otherwise finely-tuned looking Eagles offensive into a calamity of errors that kept them from putting a single point on the board.

The Eagles got within striking distance on four separate occasions, but they were denied every time. Their fourth-down attempt following their first drive fell short on a dump to tight end Zach Ertz from Cleveland’s 38-yard line. That came after a 10-play drive where Foles led the depleted Eagles offense easily into the brink of scoring position.

Their next chance ended with Mitchell’s forced fumble after he forcefully ripped the ball away from running back Matt Jones on the 27-yard line. Then, after a nine-play, 66-yard drive, Jamie Collins side-stepped into and intercepted a poor decision by Foles as he tried to force the ball to Ertz near the goal line, ending another hopeful scoring chance for the Eagles.

Jake Elliott’s missed 33-yard field goal midway through the third quarter squandered the last opportunity Philadelphia had to put up any points, as the Browns shut them down the rest of the way.

They added seven total sacks, scoring two of the Browns’ five points when Garrett touched a fallen Foles in the end zone for a safety.

Red-zone offense struggles continue

While the Browns defense played mostly lights out, and made up for it by forcing turnovers when they weren’t, their offense was a stark contrast.

If the Browns could have gotten anything going offensively—they put up only three points, themselves—this one could have been a laugher. They did have a couple chunk plays, but Baker Mayfield’s red-zone interception and a bizarre four-consecutive passing attempts after pushing the ball to 1st-and-goal from Philadelphia’s 1-yard line ended their two most promising drives of the night.

We’re going to attribute that odd end-zone play-calling by offensive coordinator Todd Haley as him wanting to work on his offense’s short goal-line passing game. Because if not, eesh, that was just horrendous decision making by the team’s new play caller.

But this makes me think of something I noticed while attending training camp this season. Outside David Njoku and some incredible plays by Jarvis Landry, the Browns starters have not really had much success in throwing the ball near the goal line.

Now, Josh Gordon’s return may help this exponentially. His big frame and athletic ability will give Taylor a new weapon, one he can trust to win the contested battles Landry was losing—and incessantly complaining about, while drawing exactly zero flags—against the Eagles on that drive.

The fact Haley went to the pass four straight times tells me this is something he’s also at least a little bit concerned about.

Injuries beginning to pile up

Kevin Zeitler, E.J. Gaines, Trevon Coley, Seth DeValve, Damarious Randall, and Antonio Callaway were all held out of Thursday night’s game, and the Browns may have lost another key player.

Rookie corner Denzel Ward was down on the grass for five minutes, helped off the field, and sent back to the locker room for testing on an apparent back injury. Coach Hue Jackson said he’ll have an MRI on his back to determine the severity of the injury, but it did not look good, at all. It’s possible Ward was held out as a precaution, but that’s wishful thinking until we hear anything back from his test.

It looked like Taylor his non-throwing wrist was cracked in half while falling to the ground after his 4th-and-goal pass was batted back into his face. Taylor returned later with a glove on his left hand, but not after Mayfield filled in temporarily, giving him his first real action with the team’s first-team offense—which, by the way, should never come in a real game situation. Taylor needs the snaps, but so does his backup, for nothing else but for the unfortunate situation where Taylor is injured and unable to re-enter a game. Although, Mayfield’s unlplanned entrance into the game was a valuable exercise for the young quarterback. Having to come in cold off the bench is the life of a backup, so it was good he got a taste of it in a real game scenario.

Starting right tackle Chris Hubbard was also banged up, but he quickly returned to the game.

Then Mayfield threw that red-zone interception and was nearly concussed by right tackle Shon Coleman’s thigh. He passed concussion testing in the sideline tent, but he did not return to the game as Cleveland’s backup offensive line was getting demolished by Eagles backups.

Injuries are part of football, and most injured Browns should be ready for Week 1, but it would have been nice to have seen the full squad together at least once before then. And if Ward isn’t ready, the Browns defense may be in some trouble from a depth perspective. Although Mike Jordan filled in nicely in Ward’s absence, I don’t think anyone is too excited about the possibility of Mitchell and Jordan playing meaningful snaps together on the outside in games that matter.

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My Standouts from Bubble Watch

  1. WRs C.J. Board and Derrick Willies—Another preseason game, and more big plays from Board and Willies. Both bring different skill-sets to the table, and Willies has freak size, but the Browns probably won’t keep both on their 53-man roster. One of the two must go, unless John Dorsey decides to keep Jeff Janis instead of either of them for special teams purposes—although, he hasn’t been very impressive in that area, either.
  2. DB Denzel Rice and Jeremiah McKinnon—McKinnon and Rice have been huge surprises this preseason, and during camp, and both helped their causes on Thursday against Philadelphia.
  3. K Zane Gonzalez—Let’s give the returning Browns placekicker some love. Gonzalez has been battling Northeast Ohio native Ross Martin for the honors of, let’s face it, a very busy kicker job in Cleveland. Gonzalez booted a perfect 54-yarder from the FirstEnergy Stadium grass, an impressive kick that would’ve easily been good from 60-plus yards. It seems that, despite some flashes by Martin in camp, this is Gonzalez’s job to lose.
  4. LBs James Burgess Jr. and B.J. Bello—I have been really high on both Burgess and Bello for some time, and they continue to make plays. Burgess sniffed out a screen and blew it up for a loss, while Bello led the team in tackles again and notched a sack that forced the Eagles to burn their final timeout with 13 second left in the fourth quarter. There might not be a difficult decision to make if the Browns just hold onto both at final roster cuts.

Potential Surprise Bubble Watch Stock Down Guys

  1. OTs Shon Coleman and Greg Robinson—Both of these guys have had plenty of hype at some point in their careers, and Coleman was the team’s projected starting left tackle heading into training camp. But after another poor performance, it’s hard to imagine the Browns finding value in keeping either of them on their roster. They might decide to cut ties with both and either keep rookie Desmond Harrison, or potentially explore the waiver wire after roster cuts for backup tackles after next week’s preseason finale.
  2. DE Nate Orchard—Orchard looks the part but has been dreadful this preseason and seems to have drawn the ire of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (but who doesn’t, really?). Orchard’s going to have an uphill battle as he fights for a roster spot next week.
  3. DL Chad Thomas—Thomas, a defensive end at Miami (Fla.), has been playing strictly on the interior defensive line with third-stringers, and he didn’t look like he belonged in the league last week against Buffalo. Thursday night against Philadelphia wasn’t much better. It’s unlikely Dorsey will cut his third-round pick, especially after he missed so much of the summer with a hernia and has been eased back into things since. But it’s not impossible. Next week may or may not matter for that decision, but he is one player to watch closely in the preseason finale.
  4. DB T.J. Carrie—Playing from the slot against the Eagles, Carrie had a solid stop on a screen play, but was turned around and lost his man—as he has been all preseason and training camp—for a huge 29-yard completion on 3rd-and-long. While I don’t think Carrie is in real danger of losing his job, he’s looking less promising than many anticipated when he was signed to a four-year, $31 million deal this offseason. About $15 million of that salary is guaranteed, by the way. Lets hope the Browns can stay healthy so Briean Boddy-Calhoun will not have to play safety, allowing him to play most of those snaps from the slot this season.