November 24, 2014

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Browns quarterback battle between Johnny Manziel, Brian Hoyer looks too close to call after preseason opener

Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel runs the ball against the Detroit Lions Saturday. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel runs the ball against the Detroit Lions Saturday. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

DETROIT — Johnny Manziel entered an NFL game — albeit preseason — for the first time with 7:32 remaining in the second quarter.

He was greeted with a loud chorus of boos by the Ford Field crowd that had been quiet until then.

He exited with 40 seconds left in the third quarter when undrafted rookie Willie Snead let a third-down pass go right through his hands.

Manziel played four series Saturday night and left a legion of Browns fans wanting more.

The Browns opened the preseason with a 13-12 loss to the Lions in Mike Pettine’s head coaching debut. Billy Cundiff kicked field goals of 43, 26, 41 and 41 yards, but the Lions scored the game’s only touchdown with 1:09 left for the comeback victory.

The score is meaningless. The result that will have the greatest impact on Cleveland’s season is the winner of the quarterback battle.

Incumbent Brian Hoyer may have hung onto the lead with a competent, if not exciting, performance. But the race appears too close to call heading into a nationally televised visit to Washington on Aug. 18.

Manziel seems likely to get his shot with the first-team offense, but Pettine said no decision on a starter had been made. When asked if Saturday helped settle anything in the competition, Pettine said he couldn’t answer until he watched tape of the game.

“For me, it was a good start. You have to start somewhere and you have to set a foundation,” Manziel said.

Manziel was more runner than passer in his first two series. He carried three times for 11 yards — he was stuffed on the option on his first third-and-1 — and threw twice for 8.

He continued to use his feet on designed runs and scrambles, finishing with six carries for 27 yards with a long of 16 on a third-and-8 scramble.

“I need to continue to exhaust my progressions a little bit more (before running),” he said.

He was 7-for-11 with his arm for 63 yards and a 79.0 rating. The best throw was a 14-yard in to undrafted rookie Taylor Gabriel.

“I felt comfortable in the pocket,” Manziel said. “I felt like the ball came out well tonight. I’m still working on getting balls out on time better and really time things up.”

He led a field-goal drive and had a possession cut short by a fumble by running back Dion Lewis. He absorbed a number of hits behind the second-team line.

“It’s a football game, it’s physical, it’s part of the game,” Manziel said. “I feel really good. It feels great.”

Hoyer, trying to keep the top spot on the depth chart, started and played three series. He was 6-for-14 for 92 yards and a 65.2 rating, and led a pair of field-goal drives – one against Detroit’s first-team defense — leaving with a 6-3 lead.

Hoyer’s night was a mixed bag.

He missed high over the middle for receiver Josh Gordon on Cleveland’s first possession, was high for 5-foot-7 slot receiver Andrew Hawkins (the pass went through his hands) and was off on a couple of passes to the sideline. He recovered to throw a 22-yard skinny post to Gordon and a 13-yard slant to Miles Austin.

Hoyer was hurt by a pair of drops, one by Austin at the 5-yard line that erased a 29-yard gain. Hoyer also made a good throw to Gordon in the back of the end zone that he was unable to bring down.

“I liked how we got in and out of the huddle on offense, played with some good tempo and moved the ball,” Pettine said. “We’ve got to finish at the end instead of kicking field goals.”

Hoyer played in a game for the first time since tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament on an ugly slide against Buffalo in October.

“I was actually surprised how calm I was before the game,” he said. “I didn’t have any nerves, I wasn’t worried about the leg, I was really ready to go and I felt we moved the ball well. We just kind of kicked ourselves in the butt a few times, we kind of stopped ourselves really. When you get in the red zone you have to score touchdowns.

“There’s definitely a few throws I would’ve liked to have back and put in a better spot. But I also feel like nine months off of an ACL surgery to be able to play and play pretty decent, it’s a step forward. You’ve got to just keep building and keep along that path.”

Cleveland’s first-team defense played three series, allowing a field goal to open the game after a kickoff return to the Detroit 49-yard line. That was the only possession for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo had a sack after using his quickness to beat the fullback. Defensive end Desmond Bryant had a tackle for loss, and inside linebacker Craig Robertson and defensive end Armonty Bryant combined for one.

“We held them to three points,” inside linebacker Karlos Dansby said. “We did what we had to do to get off the field. We executed and trusted one another. Everybody was on the same page.”

Hoyer had the advantage of working with Gordon, the All-Pro receiver who led the league with 1,646 receiving yards last year.

With Gordon facing a possible suspension — a ruling on his appeal could come anytime — Pettine decided to get him some game action. Gordon started and played extensively with the first unit. He was targeted four times and made two catches for 32 yards.

Pettine said he left the game after being “nicked up” but he should be OK.

Gordon hasn’t talked to reporters since news of the suspension broke in May, but posted a picture to Instagram on Saturday afternoon with this caption: “Blessed with an opportunity tonight to do what I was born for.. #ballout #gameday #dawgpound.”

Despite all the conversation about the quarterbacks, the Browns will lean on the run in the regular season. In the first game using coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme, Ben Tate rushed six times for 25 yards, a 4.2 average. Third-round pick Terrance West carried 10 times for 22.

“It felt good. I felt a little rusty out there,” Tate said. “I was happy with how we moved the ball, we scored some points.

“I think it was a good start, especially running the ball. I was happy with how we did.”

Even if the picture at quarterback isn’t much clearer.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.

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