Under the microscope

CLEVELAND – The time for playing tricks with the roster has all but come to an end.

When the Browns host the St. Louis Rams tonight at First Energy Stadium, it will be pretty much all starters on deck for what is normally the dress rehearsal for the season opener. That means starting quarterback Brian Hoyer will play at least one half, as will most of the other healthy starters.

Backup quarterback Johnny Manziel worked with the second team in practices and will likely play the third and perhaps part of the fourth quarter. Getting playing time for Manziel is significant when considering that coach Mike Pettine said on Sirius NFL Radio Friday that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan could add a Manziel-specific package and go with a two-quarterback system.

Pettine will follow a slightly different script than most of the other 31 head coaches in the NFL. Because of a lengthy quarterback competition and the overall lack of offensive continuity, his plan is to play the starters (offensively, at least) more than normal in the final preseason game Thursday against the Chicago Bears.

It was downright bad on the offensive side in losses to the Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins. Other than signs of promise when running the ball, the unit struggled through the air with both Hoyer and Manziel in the game.

Not all the blame should be directed at the two quarterbacks. Receiver Josh Gordon has been there in person but not mentally as he awaits word on an appeal of a suspension. Receiver Miles Austin has looked decent in practices, but Pettine is being careful to protect him in preseason games because of a history of hamstring injuries.

The result has been a collection of bad performances by a cast of free-agent receivers (rookie and veterans). If statistics were kept on dropped passes in practices, the Browns might be leading the NFL.

Among the things Pettine will keep a close watch on tonight will be the play of the receiving corps. Are they running the proper routes and adjusting when needed to when the quarterback is under pressure and on the run? Are they going hard for passes that aren’t on target, and, most importantly, are they catching the ball?

“I think it’s a big night for them,” Pettine said. “We’ll see who can step up and make some plays. I talked yesterday about how the NFL is all about being productive and making plays. The third game is typically one that’s game planned a little bit. It’s as close to the regular season as you’re going to see. I think we’re all looking forward to the guys going out there and competing.”

With the regular season set to start in 15 days, Pettine can only count on Austin and slot receiver Andrew Hawkins at this time. Having Gordon’s appeal reduced from a year to eight or less games would be a positive, but more help is needed to make this a NFL-ready group.

“After that (Austin and Hawkins), I see it as wide open,” Pettine said. “(Nate) Burleson’s been struggling with the injury and then you’ve got some young guys that have stepped up. Taylor Gabriel has had a really good camp for us; is really going to make it a difficult decision. Travis (Benjamin) has really done a good job working his way back in. You can see he’s really starting to trust the knee again.”

More than anything there’s a need to simply put the ball into the end zone. Two preseason games have produced only one touchdown on an 8-yard shovel pass from Manziel to running back Dion Lewis.

The passing game will be effective only with assistance from the ground game. Expect offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to rely heavily on running plays, which is the stated backbone of the offense.

“If we’re getting looks where it’s calling for the ball to get thrown outside then we’ll take advantage of it, but we always want to have the ability to run the football,” Pettine said. “I’ve said that from day one. I think that’s critical that, regardless of the weather, if you have a lead at the end of the game, you’ve got to be able to take time off the clock and the best way to do that is running the football. It’s something that we want to be a cornerstone of what we do.”

Picking up the offensive pace is necessary as Pettine tries to instill confidence into the offense. Having the quarterback situation settled could be the first step towards achieving that goal.

“I wouldn’t say relief, but like I had mentioned it’s nice to have consistency in the guy that’s taking the snaps with the first team because I think it gives everybody a chance to grow,” offensive tackle Joe Thomas said. “That’s how you get better. It’s difficult switching between guys because you never really gain that consistency between the guys that you’re playing with, but I’m sure that’s the same for him working with none of the first-string receivers.”

It’s time for the offense to begin carrying its share of the burden.