June 28, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Offense no longer plays it close to the vest


Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan kept things close to the vest during the Browns’ first three preseason games.

He had no choice but to open up the offense in their exhibition finale Thursday — with satisfying results.

Starting quarterback Brian Hoyer and backup Johnny Manziel each directed first-half touchdown drives during Cleveland’s 33-13 victory over the Chicago Bears at a half-full FirstEnergy Stadium.

“We needed that,” running back Ben Tate said. “We’ve been making so many mistakes the last couple of games, it was just good to get a rhythm going. This game was basically us going down the field and not making any mistakes. That’s what it’s supposed to look like.”

The solid showing was precisely what the Browns’ offense needed, one day after losing Pro Bowl wide receiver Josh Gordon to a season-long NFL suspension.

Yes, it occurred against Chicago’s second- and third-team defenders, many of whom will be out of the league this weekend.

And yes, it took place in the ultimate sports throwaway scenario, the final night of the NFL preseason.

But it still counted on the scoreboard, which had been scarily silent over the past three weeks.

“It was great because it shows us what we’re capable of, and that’s been the most frustrating part about this preseason,” Hoyer said. “To go out there and just do it against a different team is important. It gives us a good feeling heading out of the preseason.”

Hoyer went 6-of-8 for 69 yards and a 100.5 passer rating in his one drive, which culminated in a 1-yard TD run by Ben Tate. Those numbers nicely sum up his evening, but they don’t tell the best part of the story.

The North Olmsted native converted all three of his third-down opportunities — connecting with Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron and diminutive wide receivers Andrew Hawkins and Travis Benjamin — and rolled out on a fourth-down throw to find fullback Ray Agnew.

Hoyer even absorbed a helmet to the solar plexus from Bears safely M.D. Jennings, bouncing up off the grass before the referee could announce the roughing the passer penalty.

“We said tonight wasn’t about them, it was about us,” Hoyer said. “They were nameless and faceless opponents. It was good to go down and have an 85-yard drive (over 13 plays) and just execute and get in the end zone.”

Though Hoyer and wide receiver Miles Austin are still struggling to get on the same page, Shanahan gave a glimpse of what the first-team offense will look like in the regular season. He called seven passes and five rushes, briefly showcasing every weapon in his Gordon-less arsenal.

Once the starters reached the end zone, Browns coach Mike Pettine gave them the rest of game off. Manziel entered and received four first-half possessions, along with one to start the third quarter. “Johnny Football” finished 6-for-17 for 83 yards, completing a 1-yard TD pass to tight end Jim Dray late in the second quarter. He also rushed for 55 yards on four carries, fumbled once and generally ran circles around myriad soon-to-be former Bears.

“I know they rested a lot of their guys, but we wanted to have success and play to our standards,” Pettine said. “It was a risk/reward situation, but I think we showed some good chemistry on offense and we came out of it healthy. I’m thrilled because the checklist we had tonight, we accomplished.”

Obviously, Cleveland still has a lot of work to do in adjusting to life without Gordon. There is little chance the offense will look crisp in the season opener Sept. 7 in Pittsburgh, simply because you can’t replace a game-breaking talent this late in the summer.

But the Browns are going in the right direction, which wasn’t the case against Detroit or Washington or St. Louis. It will be fascinating to see what Shanahan has in store to expedite the process in time for the Steelers.

“You’re not going to replace a talent like Josh, who is one of the top five receivers in the NFL, with just one player,” Pettine said. “The good thing is everybody on the team kind of knew the (suspension) was coming and prepared for it. I think you saw their hard work pay off tonight.”

Contact Brian Dulik at brisports@hotmail.com.