Friday , 19 September 2014

Nate Ulrich: Several key members of Browns offense need to build confidence, momentum in preseason

The importance of preseason games is routinely discounted by NFL players, coaches and observers.

I confess I don’t put much stock into them.

But a comment Browns veteran wide receiver Nate Burleson recently made reminded me why exhibition contests can be valuable.

“The preseason, for me, is a big deal,” said Burleson, who’s been playing in the NFL since 2003. “I like it because it helps me with my confidence and creates momentum for me for the regular season.”

Burleson needs to regain his mojo because a strained hamstring has forced him to miss the first two preseason games. He’s not the only one, though.

The entire starting offense could use a boost.

“We need to improve a lot,” All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas said. “Obviously, we haven’t scored a touchdown in the preseason yet, with the No. 1s at least. We’re just over two and a half quarters, and that’s going to have to change.”

The Browns hope it changes when they host the St. Louis Rams at 8 p.m. Saturday in their third preseason game, which is often referred to as a “dress rehearsal” because it’ll be the most extensive playing time the starters receive.

Coach Mike Pettine said the starters will play about a half and some of them might make appearances in the third quarter depending on how the game unfolds. He said he also plans to use the starters some in the exhibition finale Aug. 28 against the Chicago Bears.

The tune-ups are obviously for the Sept. 7 regular-season opener at Pittsburgh.

Although the starting defense has been strong thus far, as evidenced by its three takeaways and goal-line stand Monday night against Washington, the offense would probably feel much better about its impending matchup with the Steelers if it snapped out of its funk before the real games begin.

In addition to Burleson, several players need to be jump-started for various reasons. Some key members of the starting offense immediately come to mind.

1. Quarterback Brian Hoyer

Named the starting quarterback over rookie Johnny Manziel on Wednesday, Hoyer no longer has the weight of the most-discussed position battle in the NFL suffocating him. Perhaps the lifted burden will help Hoyer regain the form he showed last season when he led the Browns to back-to-back wins before suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

So far, he hasn’t been himself. Through the first two preseason games, Hoyer has completed just 8-of-20 passes (40 percent) for 108 yards and a passer rating of 57.9.

He has never been known for arm strength, but usually he’s been able to lean on accuracy. That’s why his high, off-target throws have raised some eyebrows as of late.

Hoyer insists the ACL injury hasn’t affected his accuracy. Pettine said he hasn’t detected any mechanical issues caused by the knee.

Still, there’s no doubt Hoyer has some rust he needs to knock off and some trust, even if it’s subconscious, he could stand to gain in his knee. It takes time for players coming back from serious injuries to rebound not only physically, but psychologically as well.

The Browns need Hoyer to clear those hurdles sooner than later.

2. Tight end Jordan Cameron

Coming off a sprained AC joint in a shoulder, which he suffered Aug. 2 during an intrasquad scrimmage at the University of Akron, Cameron struggled in his preseason debut Monday night.

For example, he ran too deep on a route, Pettine said after reviewing film, causing an incompletion because he wasn’t in the right spot for Hoyer’s pass. He was targeted three times and finished without a catch. He and Hoyer tied for last among full-time starters in ProFootballFocus.com’s grades from the second preseason game.

The Browns need Cameron to match the production from his Pro Bowl season last year, especially because of the drug suspension All-Pro receiver Josh Gordon has appealed (the NFL has yet to issue a decision).

3. Gordon

Gordon belongs on this list, even though there’s a good chance he’ll be forced to miss at least part of the season anyway. He’s tallied three catches for 40 yards, but PFF has him with a dropped pass in each exhibition game.

The real issue is his head’s not in it right now. Pettine conceded Gordon is distracted and hasn’t put forth the type of effort the Browns want on each play.

4. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz

PFF gave him the highest grade of any Browns player on offense Monday night because he impressed with his run blocking.

But Schwartz allowed a sack when linebacker Ryan Kerrigan pushed him back and grabbed Manziel. Technically, Schwartz also surrendered a sack on the first play from scrimmage, but it really wasn’t his fault. Center Alex Mack snapped the ball too soon, and Kerrigan zoomed around Schwartz before any offensive lineman other than Mack was ready.

Still, Schwartz was penalized twice for illegal hands to the face in the preseason opener.

5. Wide receiver Miles Austin

Austin, like Cameron, would be counted on heavily in Gordon’s absence.

In the preseason opener against Detroit, he had one catch for 13 yards and a dropped pass. Then he disappeared Monday. He played 19 snaps against Washington, according to PFF, but didn’t surface in the box score. Not even a target. Nothing.

Nate Ulrich can be reached at nulrich@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.

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