TAMPA, FLA.: The Browns held their own and maybe even had an edge this week in two joint practices with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but those performances didn’t translate to their third preseason game Friday night at Raymond James Stadium.
“We didn’t play as well. That’s for sure,” coach Hue Jackson said after the Browns lost 30-13 to the Bucs and fell to 0-3 this preseason. “I’m not going to say we left it on the practice field, but I know we didn’t play like I think we could play. We’ve got a lot of work to do still, and that’s what I told our team.”
The Browns’ starters were bullied in every phase during their “dress rehearsal,” the exhibition game in which the first-stringers traditionally receive more playing time to prepare for the regular season.
The results of exhibition games are meaningless, but this one was not a feel-good experience for the Browns. The starters played for the first half and were dominated by their counterparts from the Bucs.
So what’s more realistic: what happened in the joint practices or what happened in the game?
“Somewhere in between,” Jackson replied. “I don’t think tonight was how good we can play everywhere. We sprung a leak a lot of different places, so we’ve got to get better.”
It remains to be seen whether Jackson will play the starters in the Sept. 1 preseason finale against the Chicago Bears at FirstEnergy Stadium. Most coaches rest the starters in the fourth and final exhibition game, though Jackson may want to give them another tune-up for their Sept. 11 regular-season opener at the Philadelphia Eagles. Jackson said he hasn’t made a decision one way or the other.
“I know we’ll be ready to play against Philly no matter what coach decides,” starting quarterback Robert Griffin III said.
In his 2016 preseason debut, wide receiver Josh Gordon was one of the Browns’ few bright spots. After sitting out the first two exhibition games while recovering from a quadriceps injury, Gordon caught two passes for 87 yards and a touchdown in an otherwise dismal first half for the Browns, who trailed 27-10 through two quarters.
There’s obviously a problem with this. Gordon will serve a four-game suspension to begin the regular season, so the Browns won’t have the 2013 All-Pro selection in a real game until they host the New England Patriots on Oct. 9.
The much-anticipated premiere of Gordon, Terrelle Pryor and rookie first-round draft pick Corey Coleman as a receiving combination occurred. But they were only on the field together for two plays and three snaps, with Coleman in the slot (an offensive holding call negated one play). Pryor had two catches for 15 yards. Coleman, who made his NFL preseason debut coming off a hamstring injury, had one grab for 9 yards, but it was wiped out by a pass interference penalty on Pryor.
CBS, which televised the game, reported Coleman and Pryor appeared to exchange words during a drive in the second quarter.
The bottom line is Gordon stole the show, but the Browns players who’ll actually be available in the first quarter of the season had better get their acts together if they hope to win any games early in Jackson’s tenure.
After the Bucs and Browns traded field goals of 48 yards by Roberto Aguayo and 35 yards by Patrick Murray on the two first possessions, Tampa Bay rolled for the rest of the first half.
The Bucs scored 24 unanswered points, making a mockery of the Browns defense and special teams.
Jackson’s offense did little to fire back as Griffin found himself under pressure early and often as the O-line struggled. Griffin took five sacks and finished 8-of-14 passing for 119 yards and a touchdown. He posted a passer rating of 108.9.
Jackson insisted the sacks were caused by poor pass protection, not Griffin holding the ball too long.
“Please. That’s not it at all — we’re not holding the ball too long,” Jackson said. “We’re getting sacked. We’re not physically doing some things that we can do in my opinion, so we’ve got to go back and fix that. One of our goals is for our quarterback not to get hit like that. So I didn’t think Robert was back there holding the ball too long or looking for more than what was there. I think sometimes things weren’t there, then all of the sudden somebody fell off of [a block]. We didn’t do a good enough job.”
Griffin didn’t blame the offensive line for the five sacks.
“My big guys up front, they’re straining their butts off to protect us, and we’ve just got to get the ball out faster and make sure all 11 guys are on the same page on each play and we just can’t hurt ourselves,” Griffin said. “Early in drives, we can’t have penalties that put us behind the eight ball, and we’ll clean that up and that will be our focus for the next couple of weeks.
“My big guys up front, I trust them. They’ve done a great job for me all training camp, and in the preseason games I know they’re working their hardest to protect me, so I trust those guys up front.”
Gordon made a spectacular play to give the Browns’ starters their only touchdown. With the ball in the air, he maneuvered at the goal line to gain position on four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes and caught Griffin’s 43-yard pass for the score with 1:53 remaining in the second quarter. He was wide open earlier in the game when he caught a 44-yard pass from Griffin to set up Murray’s field goal.
Griffin has shown this preseason he has the long ball down pat. The other areas of the passing game remain a work in progress.
“It starts with me,” Griffin said. “I just have to make sure that when the intermediate throws are there I make them, when the long ball throws are there I make them, and when the quick game throws are there I make them. So it all starts with me, and I’ll make sure that gets cleaned up.”
Added Jackson: “We can’t just live by the long ball, though. It’s good. We’re scoring. We’ll take that. But at the same time, we’ve got to have other elements of our offense show up and play good.”
The Browns frequently experimented with their defensive starters. They employed their nickel package for the vast majority of the time, using cornerbacks Joe Haden, in his 2016 preseason debut coming off March 16 ankle surgery, and Justin Gilbert on the outside with Jamar Taylor in the slot.
They mixed up personnel on the D-line and often used four-man fronts. They didn’t play starting nose tackle Danny Shelton until midway through the first quarter and left him in the game in the third quarter, when he forced a fumble, after most of the starters were off for the night.
None of it stopped the Bucs’ starters.
“I thought there were some better things done in run defense early in the game,” Jackson said. “That was an improvement. I still think we’ve got to get our hands on the ball more in the secondary. Our back-end guys, we’ve got to do a better job than what we did tonight.”
Rookie defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah said the Browns were caught off guard by the no-huddle, hurry-up offense the Bucs ran.
“I know we practiced with them, but we weren’t expecting the fast tempo they came out with,” Ogbah said. “But it’s just little details we need to keep working on. It’s an easy fix. We’ve just got to keep working on it in practice. “
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston capped a 12-play, 82-yard drive by scrambling and finding running back Charles Sims wide open in the front of the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown with 2:28 left in the first quarter. Browns inside linebacker Chris Kirksey was late to catch up to Sims in coverage.
Griffin and Co. responded with a three-and-out, and Adam Humphries returned the ensuing punt 73 yards for a touchdown, giving the Bucs a 17-3 lead with 15 seconds left in the opening quarter. Marlon Moore hustled to pursue Humphries to no avail.
“It’s disappointing for all involved,” Jackson said of the punt return for a touchdown.
Meanwhile, punter Andy Lee merely jogged instead of attempting to stop Humphries. Jackson did not look happy when CBS’ cameras showed him talking to Lee on the sideline after the play.
“[I took issue with] his pursuit,” Jackson said. “Let’s be very honest. We’re out there to play. If there’s another guy that has the ball, your job is to go get it. And the second time [he had a chance to pursue a returner] he did that [in the third quarter], so that was improvement. That’s something to build on. The first time he understood in his conversation with me that’s not how we pursue it, and he made amends for that. So on we go.”
Then the Browns went three-and-out again, and the Bucs countered with Aguayo’s 21-yard field goal. Griffin absorbed two sacks during the next series, and on the third play after the Bucs took control, Winston connected with wide receiver Mike Evans for a 34-yard touchdown pass over Taylor, who’s been the starter opposite Haden for less than a week. The Browns secondary had a breakdown in communication on Evans’ touchdown.
Gordon hauled in Griffin’s touchdown pass after the teams exchanged three-and-outs, but it was too late for the Browns’ starters to save face. They were manhandled, and Griffin was sacked again on the team’s last possession of the first half for good measure.
“I don’t think it’s discouraging,” Griffin said. “I think we did get better in some areas of what we were doing, and we’ll get back and watch the tape and fix what we didn’t do well. But it’s not discouraging at all. We know what we can do. We just have to make sure we go out on game day and do it. That will be our focus, and I’ll lead that charge. I’ll make sure I play better so that we can play better as an offense.”
Despite the outcome of the dress rehearsal, Jackson doesn’t think all of the progress made during the joint practices earlier in the week was spoiled.
“That experience is still in the bank, but I think we all understand that playing the game is what’s important,” Jackson said. “The practice part of it was that. Then the game, we’ve got to get that part of it right.
“We’ve got to get better in a hurry. I’m not discouraged. I think a lot of people get discouraged in these situations. I’m not because I really truly know what’s in the locker room, and we’ve got to work. We’ve just got to understand how hard it is and how accountable you have to be to each other on every play and just what you’ve got to do in order to play winning football. That’s my job, and I feel very comfortable and confident that we’ll get that done.”