The two Cleveland Browns Pro Bowlers who will be protecting quarterback Brian Hoyer to begin the 2014 season in Pittsburgh spoke to reporters Thursday afternoon in Berea.
Left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack both concur having Hoyer in total control of the helm will give the Browns a more structured practice setting and to develop continuity.
"It's nice to have consistency in the guy that's taking the snaps with the first team because I think it gives everybody a chance to grow," said Thomas. "That's how you get better.
"[Hoyer] obviously was a huge factor in all of those victories," continued Thomas. "I think the guys that were around here know what he can do and the pressure is on him when it's Sunday and the touchdowns count. We're hoping to see a lot of that same stuff from him this year, as we did from last year."
"It's good to see us choose one guy and run with that," said Mack. "That way you can have one guy get used to the one cadence and stuff. On the other hand, it is good to get a mix of everyone. This is what camp is for – different guys to rotate through and see [and] get used to everyone. Because some else comes in the game, whether it be it a lineman, a tight end, or a quarterback, whoever it's going to be, it's good to have those reps who you've had experience with."
Quietly emerging from the fog of the quarterback competition, is the Browns can now pour all their energy into becoming the smash-mouth team Mike Pettine always talks about. Deciding between Hoyer and Manziel's reps was no longer worth it. Cleveland needs to establish their true offensive identity.
"We want to have the ability to run the football," said Pettine. "I've said that from day one. I think that's critical."
It's no accident Pettine chose to morph the Browns into a running first team when he was hired in January. Rex Ryan carried the style with him from Baltimore to New York and the Jets were making AFC Championship games left and right with the half-decent Mark Sanchez. Mainly, Pettine recognized he already had the key pieces in place on the offensive line in Thomas and Mack. Because without those, a run-first approach is not possible.
The last several years have featured shaky seasons from various Browns quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers. But not at left tackle or center. The Browns haven't seen struggles from that position for all of this decade. In a game controlled on the line of scrimmage, the Thomas and Mack combo is regarded around the NFL as one of the best.
In Pettine's mind, he really struck gold when Kyle Shanahan was made available as an assistant coach. Most offensive coordinators these days game plan for a heavy passing attack. Shanahan is creative in the pass game, but his forte since his days in Houston has been running the football.
There's no doubting the offensive attack under Shanahan is complex in nature. But Thomas and Mack say if the system is executed properly, the proof will be in the pudding.
"Sky's the limit," said Mack. "Training camp is a good time to get some things going, tryout some new things. It's important for us. As a lineman changing to the outside zone getting a lot of those reps, getting used to that, getting practice against that from a couple of different defenses is really important."
It's entirely too early to mention this player is close to Pro Bowl level, but what if Joel Bitonio keeps ascending at the rapid pace he's shown he's able to take on? If that ends up being the case, Cleveland will walk into almost every game knowing they have an advantage on run blocking, on picking up blitzes and on keeping the quarterback safe.
The Browns stuck true to their draft board. They blossoming talent and athleticism in Bitonio. The Browns matched the Jaguars contract offer to Mack, only a few hours after it was first reported.
Thursday Practice Notes
*After watching the Washington game in the class room, Joe Thomas summed up the Browns' offense, and what they most improve on before Saturday.
*"When you turn on the film after the Redskins game like we did it wasn't that we were getting our butts kicked all across the board. It was just execution mistakes," said Thomas. "On offense, it takes all 11 guys doing the right thing on each play, and if you have even one guy that's not on the same page you're just not going to have a successful play."
*More than any other position group, the wide receivers need to show some flair against the Rams. The receiving corps is a hard working, blue collar, mostly undrafted committee, but it's time for someone to separate themselves from the pack. Who can prove they can be a guy to count on to generate not only first downs, but chunk yardage down the field?
*"I think it's a big night for them," said Pettine. "We'll see who can step up and make some plays. I talked yesterday about how the NFL is all about being productive and making plays. The third game is typically one that's game planned a little bit. It's as close to the regular season as you're going to see. I think we're all looking forward to the guys going out there and competing."
*If no receiver does flourish in the Browns' 2014 FirstEnergy Stadium debut, expect the offense to play around with where Jordan Cameron lines up. The small forward of a tight end is listed at 6-foot-5, 249 pounds, but looks even more massive in pads.
*"We can get creative," said Pettine. "When you have a tight end with that kind of skill set you can split him out as the single wide receiver. You can put him in an unconventional position to take advantage of it. It might not necessarily be a speed mismatch, but it could be a body type, jumping ability type mismatch. That's something that he brings to us and we'll look to take advantage of."