Browns’ QB battle heats up tonight

The Browns’ quarterback derby will hit the back stretch tonight in the preseason opener against the Detroit Lions.

The home-stretch run will be in nine days in Washington against the Redskins. Shortly after that we should know whether Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel will start the regular-season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Make no mistake about the fact that it is a legitimate competition. Brian Hoyer being given the start tonight at Ford Field is more a ceremonial nod to a veteran of six seasons than it is an affirmation of a frontrunner status.

Coach Mike Pettine’s response when asked which position battle he’s most anxious to see spoke volumes.

“Beside the quarterbacks?” he said.

Those words were spoken in a way that indicates he has no idea which of the two will prevail. It was assumed that Hoyer would be the man when training camp opened, but it’s now a close race – not because Manziel has consistently performed well, but because Hoyer has regressed.

Here are some of the position battles that will be of particular note against the Lions:

1. QUARTERBACKS: Hoyer took a step backwards this week, while Manziel has looked better. It’s interesting that Hoyer’s slide began when Manziel was given reps with the first team for the first time last Monday. It’s still Hoyer’s job to lose, which will put pressure on him in the two deciding preseason games. That’s a good thing. You want a quarterback who stands up strong to the challenge.

2. RUNNING GAME: This is the key to the entire offense. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan builds his system around a productive zone-blocking run scheme that sets up play-action and bootleg passes. The results to date have been shaky, with the defense winning the majority of battles. The line is comprised mainly of athletic, quick-moving players, which is perfect for zone blocking. Running backs Ben Tate and Terrance West need to show that they can make quick, decisive cuts when a hole opens.

3. RECEIVERS: This was the biggest area of concern entering camp. With Josh Gordon likely being suspended a part if not all of the season, Shanahan needs to develop several receivers who will work well with whoever starts at quarterback. Miles Austin has looked good so far. The only question is whether or not he can stay healthy. Andrew Hawkins has caught passes all over the field from the slot and has quickly become a quarterback’s best friend. Not much has developed beyond those two. Nate Burleson hasn’t caught anyone’s attention. Charles Johnson and undrafted rookie Willie Snead IV have had their moments and could be battling for one spot.

4. STOPPING THE RUN: Early indications are that the defense will be better up the middle with Karlos Dansby at inside linebacker and Donte Whitner at a safety. Ahtyba Rubin has moved back to the nose after a season at end, which further strengthens the middle. Having a healthy Desmond Bryant is another plus. The key player in the equation is rookie inside linebacker Chris Kirksey, who’s looked much better than the incumbent Craig Robertson. If Kirksey continues to develop, he could join Dansby and give the defense a solid one-two inside punch.

5. THE PASS RUSH: It seems as if the Browns have been searching for a strong pass rush for decades, probably because they have been. Outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo is supposedly bigger (the high 230s), but it’s hard to tell. His attitude is great. Now he must show he’s a new man on the field. Paul Kruger was a high-priced, under-achieving outside linebacker last season. He’ll never be a dominant pass rusher, but anything better than last season would be a plus.

6. THE VAUNTED SECONDARY: The additions of Whitner and rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert (eighth overall in the draft) make this potentially the team’s strongest area. Gilbert has looked sensational. Teaming him with Joe Haden and moving Buster Skrine inside to the slot would give the defense a fine group of cornerbacks. A recent move that seemed minor at the time but could pay dividends was the signing of 10-year veteran safety Jim Leonhard, an admitted fan of Pettine. Leonhard is as smart as they come, especially in Pettine’s and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s system. He’ll back up Tashaun Gipson and play on sub packages. You can never have enough crafty vets like Leonhard.