By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
Updated at 12:05 a.m.
The Browns’ new, giant video boards in FirstEnergy Stadium debuted Saturday to rave reviews. They are brilliant and radiate energy all over the field.
Sadly, the same can’t be said of the Browns’ offense.
It was fingernails-on-chalkboard time again for the unit headed by newly named starting quarterback Brian Hoyer.
In seven possessions, which included two in the third quarter on which he didn’t attempt a pass, Hoyer generated 101 yards and seven points.
The St. Louis Rams kept the Browns’ winless in preseason with a 33-14 shellacking.
“It’s just disappointing,” said coach Mike Pettine. “You only get one chance to make a first impression. I’m disappointed for our fans.”
The victory was costly to the Rams. They lost starting quarterback Sam Bradford to an injury to his surgically repaired left knee in the first quarter. Four other Rams starters left the game with injuries in the first half, including Bedford native Roger Saffold.
The second half devolved into a “money sign” standoff between two of the most talked-about rookies in the NFL.
First, it was Johnny Manziel, in relief of Hoyer, scoring on a seven-yard run and diving over the goal line. He jumped up and flashed his trademark money sign finger rub with both hands to the fans behind the west end zone.
“The crowd was great, electric,” Manziel said. “That’s for those guys. That’s not for me.”
Manziel’s second series ended with Rams rookie pass rusher Michael Sam – the first openly gay player in the NFL – celebrating a sack of Manziel with the same money sign. The game ended with another Sam sack of Manziel.
“If you’re going to sack Johnny you’ve got to do that at least once,” Sam said of money pose.
In his first outing since Mike Pettine ended the competition with Manziel, Hoyer was 10 of 16 for 84 yards.
He was sacked twice, once when miscommunication with, he said, receiver Miles Austin, resulted in an ambush by Rams rookie Aaron Donald and a Hoyer fumble. Hoyer also was intercepted once when he didn’t see linebacker Alec Ogletree camping in front of Austin.
The touchdown – first of the preseason for the first-team offense – came with 37 seconds left in the first half when Hoyer delivered to Andrew Hawkins from five yards out. It completed an eight-play drive covering 37 yards, which was set up by a 68-yard kickoff return by preseason sensation Taylor Gabriel.
“Obviously, it was good to finish a drive,” Hoyer said. “We’re all just trying to come together. It’s going to come. We will get better. I don’t doubt that.”
Hoyer started with a quick-pass attack, completing his first three throws. But he had to throw the ball away on his first third-down try.
Following that was a three-and-out series, an interception on his fourth play of the next series, and a ball through Austin’s hands on the next third down, before the short series touchdown ending the first half.
Pettine’s assessment of Hoyer: “I don’t think he played well enough, but that was across the board.”
Pettine said his plans are to play Hoyer and the first-team offense for about one quarter in the preseason finale Thursday against the Chicago Bears.
“I expect to play. I need to play,” Hoyer said.
Pettine gave Hoyer two more opportunities in the third quarter, but they were short-lived – the sack/fumble, and three handoffs – before bringing in Manziel.
If Pettine was looking for a receiver to step out of the pack, he had to be disappointed. None emerged. Josh Gordon dressed but did not play.
Manziel made some short completions on an ill-fated possession in the fourth quarter. He was 10 of 15 for 85 yards.
The offensive struggles, routine as they are by now, were bad enough. But the play of the defense in the first half was bitterly disappointing to Pettine and everyone else expecting better.
The Rams had scored 31 points in two preseason losses. They put up 20 against the Browns’ No. 1 defense and converted 7 of 10 third downs.
“We’ve got to play smarter – just better situational football, awareness of the down and distance,” Pettine said in quotes distributed after halftime. “Seven-for-10 on third down, that’s unacceptable, just way too inconsistent there.”
Second-year cornerback Leon McFadden, subbing for Joe Haden, who didn’t play with a minor foot injury, and rookie Justin Gilbert had a brutal first half. More concerning was the fact that pass pressure from the front seven was virtually non-existent.
McFadden and safety Donte Whitner were beat by Bradford on a third-and-25 flame-throw to Kenny Britt on the 11th play of the first series.
Two plays later, on only the second appearance of a pass rush, Bradford suffered the injury to the left knee that he had surgically repaired last year.
With defensive end Armonty Bryant storming in on him, Bradford released the ball. Bryant had the presence of mind to let up without much contact, but Bradford’s left knee, protected by a brace, appeared to twist as he tried to maintain his balance. Bradford tumbled to the ground in evident pain.
The hopes of the Rams to contend may have crumbled with him. After getting checked on a trainer’s table behind the Rams’ bench, Bradford limped to the locker room with two medical personnel at his side.
The assault on the Browns’ first-team defense continued, nonetheless.
Replacement quarterback Shaun Hill connected with Britt for 32 yards with Gilbert’s back to the ball on the next drive. Receiver Brian Quick’s drop in the end zone, just in front of Gilbert, saved a touchdown and led to a field goal.
No. 3 quarterback Austin Davis came in and beat Gilbert twice, once on a 19-yard crossing route to Chris Givens, and then just inside the goal line on a 6-yard touchdown pass to Quick.
Late in the half, Gilbert was victimized again when Davis tossed a short pass to Givens on a shallow cross. Gilbert whiffed on the tackle about five yards beyond the line of scrimmage and Givens sprinted 75 yards for a touchdown.
Gilbert rallied in the second half, however, with a breakup in the end zone of a pass for Stedman Bailey and then a leaping, one-hand bat away of a Davis deep ball for Givens.
"Not his best night," Pettine said of Gilbert. "He's got to know that's what the NFL will be about for him, at least early."
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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