Browns coach Hue Jackson conceded he’s concerned about his team in all three phases, and he should be after the starters were dominated Friday night during a 30-13 loss to the host Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the third preseason game for both teams.
The Browns’ Sept. 11 regular-season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles is right around the corner, and Thursday night’s exhibition finale at home against the Chicago Bears is their last chance for a real tune-up.
Jackson said he may play his starters in the fourth and final preseason game, but he hasn’t made a decision yet. In the meantime, he’s refusing to accept the notion that there are too many deficiencies to correct before Week 1.
“I don’t think the sky’s falling at all. I think what you see is a young football team. You’re going to see some [problems], especially early until they get well-grounded,” he said Saturday during a conference call. “There were some good things, and obviously there were some things that were concerning. And we’ve got to continue to work at it.
“I never said we were going to be a juggernaut today or yesterday. I think we’re going to keep working at this thing, and when the games start being played here in a couple weeks, that’s when we’ve got to be at our best.”
The bad outweighs the good by a ton across the board.
On offense, poor pass protection contributed to quarterback Robert Griffin III taking five sacks in just two quarters of action.
“It’s not just the line. I’ll be the first to tell you that,” Jackson said. “Sometimes receivers need to be in the right place. Sometimes guys get rerouted and all of a sudden you might have to hold the ball a little bit here and there.”
Jackson gave votes of confidence to the two biggest question marks on the offensive line — center Cameron Erving and right tackle Austin Pasztor.
Jackson said Erving’s play is meeting his expectations. Erving surrendered one sack.
“Cam’s doing a lot of really good things,” Jackson said. “He’s a young player who’s ascending who I think is going to be a tremendous football player for us.”
Jackson said he’s going to stick with Pasztor as the starting right tackle “for right now.” Pasztor was called for holding twice (one was declined), and he allowed at least one sack.
“Austin did some good things, but unfortunately he had a holding call,” Jackson said. “We can help him that way by doing certain other things to help him. But I thought he did some other good things in the run game, and he did some other things pretty good in the passing game.”
Griffin completed two deep passes to wide receiver Josh Gordon, a rare bright spot for the Browns, for 87 yards and a touchdown, but didn’t do much else. He finished 8-of-14 passing for 119 yards and a touchdown with a passer rating of 108.9.
“He did some really good things under duress obviously,” Jackson said. “Obviously, he continues to find ways to make plays down the field, and he’s putting the ball in the right spots and putting his eyes in the right spots. He took some hits last night that were unfortunate. We always want to do a better job of protecting our quarterback.
“He stood in there, he kept his poise and made some plays. But I just think he’d be the first to tell you as a unit, we’ve got to play better, and it’s just not him. It’s the whole offense.”
Running backs Isaiah Crowell (eight carries for 39 yards, 4.9 average) and Duke Johnson (three carries for 22 yards, 7.3 average) were sources of optimism.
“I love the big [passing] plays, but I feel like we can’t be a team that just relies on big plays offensively,” Jackson said. “We need to sustain drives and that gets back to running the football. I thought Crow had some really good runs in there at times, but it was nothing sustainable that we can kind of hang our hat on. ... I did see some flashes of some things that I think we can build from.”
As for the defense, it’s a gigantic mess despite improving tremendously against the run (the Bucs had 32 carries for 76 yards, 2.4 average).
“We’re certainly not at the point that I desire or the level I want us to be,” Jackson said. “We defended the run better, and I think were a little bit better at tackling [than the first two preseason games]. But we had some miscommunication that needs to get cleaned up.”
Those communication issues led to blown coverage. Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston cruised to 16-of-25 passing for 259 yards and two touchdowns. His passer rating was 125.3.
The Browns didn’t have a sack. They were credited with five quarterback hits compared with 10 for the Bucs.
“We keep working at our technique and our fundamentals,” Jackson said. “We keep understanding protections better and how people are trying to protect us so that we can have an opportunity to get home to the quarterback.”
The Browns mixed and matched their defensive linemen while employing a four-man front in the nickel package the vast majority of the game. They didn’t use starting nose tackle Danny Shelton until midway through the first quarter. He played into the third quarter and forced a fumble.
“Nothing’s going on with his playing time,” Jackson said. “... There’s times in nickel that we play him, and there’s times that we don’t. So it’s not so much his playing time. I just think he was out there in certain situations with a group. We’re evaluating and trying to see what’s going to be the best fit for all of our guys. I think Danny did some good things and improved in some areas last night.”
Jackson added it’s time to settle on a starting D-line to allow the players to find a rhythm.
Two other areas bother Jackson. His team allowed a pair of huge punt returns — one for a 73-yard touchdown and one for 43 yards — and racked up nine penalties for 68 yards.
“Am I concerned about some things that have shown up on offense, defense and special teams? Absolutely,” Jackson said. “That’s what we’re here for. We’ve got to get those things fixed.
“Our coaches and players understand that there’s a lot of work to do. This is a tough game. Success is not going to come easy, and we’ve got to put in the work and stay on top of every detail. Every successful team does this, and we’ll be no different.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.