The intensity level for the Cleveland Browns 2014 season was amped a notch Saturday afternoon in Akron.
In front of a rocking crowd of 20,673 Browns faithful at InfoCision Stadium, the team took the field for its lone intrasquad scrimmage of the summer. And we learned plenty.
After a three-and-out on his first series of the scrimmage, Johnny Manziel looked as in control of the Browns' offense as he has since joining the franchise in May.
Manziel engineered a 16-play drive on his second possession, the most impressive series during the scrimmage. The march down the field was highlighted by Manziel's nine-yard read-option scramble for a first down and some creative throws near the sidelines.
"We are keeping the chains moving," said Manziel following the scrimmage. "First drive came out a little sloppy. From there, I was proud of my group. Proud of the way that the o-line, the receivers and the running backs played. It was nice."
"We did have some runs in there for [Manziel] that he did," said coach Mike Pettine. "You can tell that's going to be a strength of his, and some of the throws that he made on the run that it certainly is playing to his skillset."
Manziel's throw of the day happened to be all for not. Inside the 10-yard-line with linebackers chasing after him, Manziel bootlegged hard to his right and flung a missile in-between two defenders, landing right in the hands of tight end Gary Barnidge. Unfortunately for the second-team offense, Barnidge's toes were ruled out of bounds. Still, the accurate throw and timing on Manziel's part are things the rookie can build upon.
With the first team, Brian Hoyer did some significant things, too. On third-and-long during his first series, Hoyer found a hole in zone coverage, connecting with Miles Austin for 19-yard reception. If it weren't for Hoyer's knee brace, it would be hard to tell the quarterback was coming off of ACL surgery. Kyle Shanahan had no reservations lining up Hoyer in the pistol formation and the veteran was mobile on throws outside of the pocket.
"I thought Brian, especially in that first series, converted some third downs and was poised in the pocket, stepped up and made some throws," Pettine said.
"It's good to come out and just kind of play in a live situation in the stadium where the calls are coming through your helmet," said Hoyer. You're kind of going through the process. It's good to get out here and do that. I think we got some good work in.
"Obviously, we have a long way to go. Like I talked to you guys the other day, it's really the opening of training camp. We've got another whole week until our first preseason game. In training camp terms, that's a long way to go. We definitely need to improve, but I think we did some good things, and we did some things we need to improve on."
Hoyer and Pettine were both keen to mention something the Browns must improve on: converting touchdowns instead of field goals. The defense buckled down and kept the offense out of the end zone the entire afternoon – even scoring a touchdown of their own. Zac Diles returned a Connor Shaw interception for a touchdown.
"We've got to convert when we get in the red zone," said Pettine. "The field gets tight there. The defense can take some chances, and they did. That's something that we're going to get a lot of work on here. That's a four-point swing. You can't be in the business of just settling for three."
"Whether it was a penalty and a few miscues, you've just got to overcome some things and do what you have to do," said Hoyer.
Miles Austin is the real deal
No official statistics will be distributed from the Browns' scrimmage. Numbers won't be necessary to gage Miles Austin's impact in the passing game.
On Saturday, the 30-year-old receiver was arguably the most consistent player on the field. He was getting open on Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden, gashing zone defenses and running well with the football after the catch.
"We're not at our peek, obviously," said Austin, who wants to see improvement from himself and the rest of the offense. "But I think we shouldn't be at our peek right now, anyway. We should be continually getting better each day and each week."
Pettine had praise for the deceptive way Austin gets in and out of breaks on his routes. The Browns' head coach also thinks Austin's size (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) makes cornerbacks defend him differently. Hoyer seconded those sentiments.
"Miles has been great," said Hoyer. "A guy, who has been in the Pro Bowl, comes in. He knows how the game is played. He knows how to approach everything. He works really hard and he's always trying to improve. We're always talking, and he always almost gets down on himself too much. I'm like, 'Dude, I know you're a good receiver.' I've developed a good relationship with him. I think he's looked great."
Theme of the summer: the defense looks sharp
On the very first play of the scrimmage, safety Donte Whitner blitzed right up the middle and tagged Hoyer in a matter of seconds for a sack. The Browns lined up with four down-lineman on several occasions, presenting some confusing fronts for the offensive line. Coverage inside the red zone was spectacular. And there were a ton of tipped passes at the line.
Notable players on defense:
Jacobi McDaniel: The rookie defensive lineman tipped a pass that led to Barkevious Mingo's interception (much more on that later). A strong and squatty 6-foot, 293-pounder, McDaniel was also a disruptive plug, slowing down the Browns' run game several times.
Jordan Poyer: Filling in at free safety for the injured Tashaun Gipson (knee), Poyer was aggressive. Twice he met receivers in mid-air, colliding with them and knocking the ball away. Gipson's starting spot is locked up – he posted five interceptions in 2013. But with this strong performance and the addition of Jim Leonhard, safety might be challenging the defensive line as the deepest unit on the roster.
Jabaal Sheard: Pound-for-pound, he's the most athletic player on the field. On Saturday he lived in the backfield. We recommend reading our profile on his potential breakout season.
News and nuggets
*Jordan Cameron was held out of most of the scrimmage (shoulder) for precautionary reasons
*Billy Cundiff drilled a 53-yard field goal. He told me he's been able to work on some different things, like long distance kicks, without having another kicker he's battling in camp.
*"I just thought the physicality was good," said Pettine. "I could stand behind it. It was just like the first day in pads – I wanted to hear it from our guys, even though it was against each other."