Brian Hoyer vs. The Rams' secondary
The Browns' offensive performances in the first two games has been unacceptable, particularly the passing game. Now that Hoyer officially has the keys to the operation, he'll be the first to admit things need to improve, and quickly at that.
So far in the preseason, Hoyer is a combined 8-for-20, for 108 passing yards, with no touchdowns and no interceptions. The bigger concern is that the offense is 0-for-7 on third-down when the veteran signal-caller is on the field. Even if the Browns have to reveal some more of their playbook, it's imperative for the team to show some significant progress.
But because it's football in August, statistics are quite skewed. Hoyer has been sharing his duties with Johnny Manziel, arguably making it harder to establish stability. Mike Pettine said he's not worried about box scores in the preseason.
"I think I don't get wrapped up in the numbers there," said Pettine. "I think [Hoyer's] had some drops that you could factor in, some routes that were run at the wrong depth, at the wrong angle. It's easy to look at the numbers. I think when you look at the tape, it tells a very different picture."
To the naked eye, accuracy has been Hoyer's issue through the first two preseason games. He missed Andrew Hawkins in the end zone against the Redskins – although Hawkins probably could have made the catch. NFL Network reporter Aditi Kinkhabwala asked Hoyer why throwing on target hasn't been that big of an issue in training camp.
"Well, out in Berea doesn't count," said Hoyer. "Obviously, there's disappointment with not hitting some of those guys in the games, but I think it's something that we're continuing to work on. We get some extra routes. You've just got to do it at game speed, and it'll come. I truly believe that as long as you're working at it."
If you could pinpoint a weakness on the St. Louis roster, it would be their secondary. Cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson aren't exactly known as lockdown defenders. The young pair of corners are athletic and have potential, but they'll bite on play fakes and have been prone to give up big plays.
Look for Hoyer to establish a rhythm early with Jordan Cameron. The Pro Bowl tight end should be used as a security blanket until the kinks of the new offense are all worked out. Whether it's methodically moving the chains, or even taking more chances for a deep completion, the Browns need results on Saturday.
Browns offensive line vs. Rams defensive line
From top to bottom, does any team in the NFL have a better defensive line than the St. Louis Rams?
Defensive end Robert Quinn finished 2013 with 19 sacks, staking his claim as possibly the most elite pass rusher in the NFC. At the other defensive end, not many players can match the consistent energy Chris Long brings every week – seven forced fumbles and 50.5 sacks in six seasons. In the middle, Michael Brockers (6-foot-5, 326 pounds) and Kendall Langford (6-foot-6, 313 pounds) are immovable tanks, who do more than just disrupt the running game. They wear down offensive linemen.
What better test for the Browns' offensive line than this? NFL expert Mike Mayock told ClevelandBrowns.com in June he thinks Cleveland's big boys up front can be one of the NFL's best groups. ProFootballFocus.com has Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio and Alex Mack as the three highest rated Browns offensive players in the preseason. The Browns need to use this strength accordingly.
After dominating the Lion's defensive line in week one of the preseason, the Browns' offensive line took a step back in Washington.
Keeping Hoyer safe in the backfield from St. Louis' ferocious pass rush is the first priority. But secondly, Cleveland will look to show off their zone running game. The offenses success will be predicated first and foremost by having Ben Tate churn out tough yardage. It will be rough against this Rams unit, but a good measuring stick before Week One.
Browns first-team defense vs. themselves
Cleveland's defense should be proud of their performance against the Redskins last week. They got the ball back for the offense on four separate occasions and even scored a touchdown.
But the Redskins ripped off chunk yardage plays, often. Here's what Washington was able to do against the Browns defense last Monday.
Desean Jackson: 23-yard catch; Robert Griffin III 18-yard scramble; Andre Roberts 49-yard catch; Santana Moss 24-yard catch; Evan Royster 24-yard catch.
Jim O'Neil's defense did a tremendous job of buckling down and limiting the Redskins to only one first half touchdown. When the Browns needed to step up, especially on the goal line stand, they did.
While Washington's offense is one of the better in the league, the Browns know they can't let these big plays happen as often. They need their intensity level to match the goal line stand all game long.
Players to Watch
QB Johnny Manziel: With less pressure on the 21-year-old, will he feel more comfortable to take chances? It would be a good guess to say Manziel will come out firing in his first-ever home game.
WR Andrew Hawkins: He's been the Browns' best receiver in terms of getting open. Expect Kyle Shanahan to find ways for Hawkins to make a big play down the field.
RG John Greco: The slimmed down guard held off competition to keep his starting spot. Greco has been pummeling defenders in the run game down the field.
DL Armonty Bryant: Can he make it three straight games recording a sack? Even if he can't, he's going to be a staple of the Browns' rotation to begin the season.
S Johnson Bademosi: Pettine has said he doesn't want to just keep a player for special teams only. Bademosi is an ace on kickoff and punt coverage, but his competition at reserve safety is stiff – Jim Leonhard, Jordan Poyer and Josh Aubery. So far, all three of those players have a strong case for making the final 53-man roster.