In one half of football Friday, there was a step forward and a step backward for the Browns defense.
On the positive side was an improved performance against the run, an area that proved troublesome in the previous two preseason games. Doug Martin, the NFL's leading rusher in 2015, broke off one double-digit run but found little room on his other carries in Friday's first half at Raymond James Stadium.
But for a team working to fine-tune every part of its operation before the Sept. 11 season opener in Philadelphia, the negative of allowing so many points and passing yards to the Buccaneers has been the main focus in the wake of Friday's 30-13 loss.
"When you give up 259 passing yards in one half, that is not a team that we want to be," linebacker Christian Kirksey said on a conference call Sunday. "It is definitely frustrating, but this week, we are just striving on getting better. It is still preseason so we are not going into panic mode, but we definitely have some things to clean up."
Kirksey circled third-down defense as the key item on the defense's to-do list. On Friday, one third down, in particular, stood out as a turning point of sorts for a first-team defense that started two rookies and regularly used three others throughout the first half.
With the score tied 3-3, the Buccaneers motored down the field to Cleveland's 10-yard line. The Browns defense tightened up a bit on the next two plays to force a third-and-goal from the 3. It looked like the Buccaneers would have to settle for another field goal after Jameis Winston's pass to running back Charles Sims fell incomplete, but they got a mulligan thanks to offsetting penalties. Winston went right back to Sims on the do-over for a 3-yard touchdown pass, his first of two in the half.
Tampa Bay was 5-for-9 on third downs in the first half.
"We have to get off the field and definitely eliminate some of the passing gains. We have to be more sound in our drops and more sound in our coverage," Kirksey said. "We just have to continue to look in small areas. A couple of weeks ago, we had to look at some tackling, and we tried to improve on that. Now, we need to improve on our coverage. I think we'll be fine, though."
The Browns take on the Buccaneers in Tampa for the third preseason game.
Another big play that hurt the Browns defense, Mike Evans' 34-yard touchdown catch midway through the second quarter, was a product of communication issue between members of Cleveland's secondary. That's another area that will be addressed in the coming days, and some stability to the entire defense as a whole could aid in its improvement.
Browns coach Hue Jackson on Saturday said it was important to put the first- and second-team units together and stick with them in order to develop better chemistry.
"When we are talking about communication issues, that is where some of that comes from. You have a lot of young guys maybe playing at a time, and they hear something and don't react very quickly," Jackson said. "We have to make sure we take the opportunity for error out as much as we can. Now, I think it is about time we put units together and let them play and get these guys ready for the opener."
Over the next two weeks, Cleveland's defense will take a measured, not frantic, approach to ensuring the season opener isn't a repeat performance of the dress rehearsal.
"We just have to dig deep and look at ourselves and say, 'What do we want to be as a defense and how do we want to play?'" Kirksey said. "We are just out here trying to get better each and every day. Once preseason is over and we get into regular season, we are going to hit the ground running."