As injuries pile up across the NFL, the merits of the preseason, specifically its length, have been a hot topic of debate.
Browns coach Mike Pettine suggested three games might be the ideal number, but, at the same time, understood the logistical hangups of an odd number and certain teams only receiving one home game. Offensive lineman John Greco said he knew the pros and cons but couldn't even speculate about a solution because the current structure is all he's ever known.
The consensus, though, on a game like tonight's at Raymond James Stadium remains close to unanimous. In the preseason, there's no more important game than the "dress rehearsal."
"It is a great kind of final test because generally, you don't see a whole lot of playing time in the fourth preseason game," Greco said. "It is kind of like a test heading to see where you are at heading into Week 1."
Pettine said he expects his starters to play through most of tonight's first half. Some, he said, will play into the third quarter, as he gauges their response to halftime adjustments. It will simply depend on the number of plays each side of the ball logs.
"We are going to tell them to be prepared, all of them, to be prepared to go into the second half," Pettine said. "And if it happens, it happens."
Before the Browns decided to rest Johnny Manziel because of his sore elbow, Pettine expected to play the backup quarterback some with the first-team offense in the second quarter. Now, the Browns are expected to play just two quarterbacks, starter Josh McCown and Thaddeus Lewis, while recently acquired Pat Devlin prepares for Thursday's preseason finale at Chicago.
McCown wants to bounce back from his performance last week against Buffalo but he won't overreact if everything doesn't go smoothly against the Buccaneers. As important of a litmus test it is, there's still time.
"I think you just want to go out and get efficient work and continue to build," McCown said. "It is important from that standpoint because you know you are going to be on the field longer and you get an opportunity to get in rhythms and put drives together."
Two things stand out for offensive coordinator John DeFilippo heading into the third preseason game. One, he'll get to see how the team, coaches included, respond to game-planning for the opponent. Two, he's getting back two important pieces on offense, running back Duke Johnson and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, who have both been sidelined with hamstring injuries.
There's no substitute for live repetitions, even if it's just the preseason.
"You're not going to be as good at it as if you do it every day," DeFilippo said. "I'm a big believer in that guys need to be on the field and practicing, working on their craft every day."
The goal for Cleveland's defense is simple: Less is more.
Though the Browns' first-team defense has surrendered just two field goals in the first two games, third downs have been a struggle. Buffalo converted three in a row on a game-opening drive that spanned nine minutes. In the regular season, those snaps add up and can weigh on the shoulders of the players in the fourth quarter.
The expected returns of defensive backs Joe Haden and Tashaun Gipson should only help.
"Our run game, they've been able to stop the run pretty well, but on third-and-5, third-and-6's and third-and-7's, anything like that it's on the secondary to be able to get off the field," Haden said. "The one thing I want us to do is, of course, stop the run and the secondary will be able to make plays on third down to get off the field."