Would you rather lose a preseason game and not play your best, or win it, and have several starters injured?
The Cleveland Browns might not have shined as much as they wanted to in their (33-14) loss against the St. Louis Rams, but nothing dreaded came from the defeat.
For the Rams, starters Sam Bradford, Roger Saffold, Trumaine Johnson and Kendall Langford all left the game with injuries. Johnson's appeared to be the most serious. With a towel draped over his head, the cornerback was removed from the field on a cart.
Heading into the opening preseason game at FirstEnergy Stadium, the microscope was placed squarely on starting quarterback Brian Hoyer. The 28-year-old responded by engineering a smoother version of the offense compared to the first two preseason games against the Lions and Redskins.
Hoyer came out firing quick passes on the opening drive for the offense and three first-downs rapidly followed. Before the half, he led an eight-play, 37-yard touchdown drive, finishing off the series with a five-yard bullet to wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, in traffic.
It wasn't all peaches and cream for Hoyer, though. He threw an interception to Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree and was stripped of the ball on a sack to begin the third quarter. Those two turnovers led to 10 Rams points. Nevertheless, there were enough improvements from Hoyer (10-for-16, 84 pass yards, one touchdown, one interception) and the offense to build upon as the regular season nears.
"It's a good sign," said head coach Mike Pettine. "I think [Hoyer] had his moments, made some good throws. I think there are some plays that he'd want to have back. Missed a few reads, but overall I think he [was] solid."
For the first time during the Pettine era, there were some substantial struggles from the defense.
On their first two possessions on offense, St. Louis' drives went for 15 and 12 plays, respectively. The Browns defense buckled down in the red zone and held the Rams to field goals.
It wasn't the number of plays the Rams were able to reel off that was troubling. It was the constant chunk yardage plays that raised some eye brows. Wide receiver Chris Givens beat Justin Gilbert in coverage, taking a short pass 75 yards for a touchdown. Kenny Britt hauled in catches of 32 and 36 yards, the former on a backbreaking third-down and 25.
Obviously, the secondary felt the ripple effects of not having both starting cornerbacks Joe Haden (foot) and Buster Skrine (thumb) in the lineup. While Gilbert was on the receiving end of several of the Rams' big plays, he also had two critical pass breakups in the end zone that saved touchdowns.
Getting beat in coverage during the preseason might be the best thing to happen to Gilbert. There's still ample time to correct mistakes before they matter.
It wasn't just the rookie from Oklahoma State, though. Pettine knows the Browns must tighten things up.
"We've got to play smarter – just play better situational football, awareness of the down and distance," said Pettine. "Seven-for-10 on third down, that's unacceptable, just way too in consistent out there."
There was one Browns rookie on defense who many NFL teams will start to make note of when they watch film: Chris Kirksey. The linebacker was everywhere on Saturday, amassing seven tackles and a third quarter interception, which set up a Johnny Manziel touchdown scramble.