Browns-Panthers: 5 things to watch for


1)     Cleveland's energy

Normally the game after a team comes out flat, the No. 1 goal all week is to aggressively fly out of the gates. The Browns need to do this. Own the line of scrimmage, make big hits on special teams, sack the quarterback to quiet the crowd, get a big chunk yardage play down the field early in the game. Like coach Mike Pettine said: No one remembers how you start the season, it's how you finish in December. Cleveland needs to be the tone-setter against Carolina, and it needs to set it early.

What to watch for: Josh Gordon. This offense has struggled to generate vertical plays in recent weeks and the 23-year-old is the best target on the roster.

2)     Browns defensive backs vs. WR Kelvin Benjamin

It's rare you can call a rookie the real-deal, but the 6-foot-5 240-pound Benjamin is. The 28th overall pick in the draft needs just 48 yards to reach 1,000 on the season and he's been an even more impactful weapon in the red zone with nine touchdowns. Cleveland's cornerback situation for Sunday's game is still foggy. Joe Haden didn't practice Wednesday (shoulder) and stud rookie nickel back K'Waun Williams (hamstring) hasn't practiced in more than a week. The Browns feel strong about the season Buster Skrine is having and trust him marking Benjamin. But remember, another gigantic rookie receiver, Tampa Bay's Mike Evans, went off for 11 catches, 124 yards and two touchdowns back in Week 8.

What to watch for: Donte Whitner. Expect him to help shade on Benjamin if Haden isn't able to go. It's also been a few weeks since Whitner's been involved in a turnover, a rarity for a player who is around the ball as much as he is. Don't be startled if that changes.

3)     Johnny Manziel

Manziel had the right attitude Wednesday in the locker room, saying "last week is last week, and last week is in the past. It's not about anything having to do with last week. That's in the past." There's no reason to try and explain or dwell on his unpleasant start against Cincinnati. Everything now is about bouncing back against Carolina. Manziel said he will hesitate less this week and strive to make throws quickly from the pocket. "I just second-guessed myself a couple times, and that's when I got myself in trouble."

What to watch for: Manziel not turning the ball over.

"The crossing route to [WR Andrew] Hawkins that got picked off last week was strictly based off me not throwing the ball with a lot of confidence behind it," Manziel said. "It kind of tailed off the throw and it kind of floated off me a little more. You can't do that. If you're going to throw the ball, see your reads, trust what you saw, and then throw it hard and throw it effectively."

Manziel knows where he needs to improve. Now it's about showing it against the Panthers.

4)     The Browns offensive line

Cleveland has run into serious predicaments when facing physical defenses that play in a 4-3 front – exactly what Carolina does. Even though this unit headlines two likely Pro Bowlers in Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio, collectively, it's been just as big of a reason for the murky play on offense. The unit has challenged itself to be better Sunday in Charlotte, finishing off blocks until it hears multiple whistles blowing the play dead.

What to watch for: Mitchell Schwartz. Even though the right tackle gave up a sack against the Bengals, Pettine said it might have been his best game of the season. The third-year pro still hasn't missed a snap in his career, either, joining Thomas and Bitonio.

5)     Barkevious Mingo

The stretch of games Mingo has played between Atlanta and now is arguably the most effective of his career. Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil said Mingo's role in the scheme is do all the dirty jobs that don't produce stats – taking on two blockers, covering tight ends, playing as a decoy in stunt blitzes. Yet Mingo, bum shoulder and all, has still found a way to be near the ball and make plays.

What to watch for:  His improvement as a pass rusher. The Browns pride themselves on pressuring the quarterback but their 29 sacks are tied for 25th in the NFL. Mingo is looking to show he can wrap up quarterbacks when they still have the ball in their hands, even if it is the monstrous Cam Newton.

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