October 22, 2014

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Browns’ offense on the spot against Rams

CLEVELAND — Renovations at FirstEnergy Stadium are ongoing, which is why fans will see construction zones around its perimeter.

Fittingly, the Browns’ offense is also a work in progress, setting up a potentially messy matchup against the St. Louis Rams tonight at 8.

Cleveland (0-2) has not scored a first-half touchdown in its first two preseason games, while St. Louis (0-2) has reached the end zone just once with its starting offense on the field.

“Obviously, we need to improve a lot,” Browns tackle Joe Thomas said. “We’re just over 2½ quarters without a touchdown, with the ones at least, so that’s going to have to change.

“You don’t win a lot of games 7-3 anymore in the NFL, like you could in the old days. We have to get a lot better and we have to execute.”

In an attempt to jump-start the offense, Cleveland coach Mike Pettine plans on playing his starters for at least two quarters tonight, then using them to open the preseason finale against Chicago on Thursday.

That group includes Brian Hoyer, who won the Browns’ almost-annual quarterback derby over rookie Johnny Manziel earlier in the week. The North Olmsted native will make his third straight preseason start, but has only completed 40 percent of his throws and earned a 57.9 passer rating thus far.

Hoyer also hasn’t led his fellow first-teamers to a touchdown, but backup Manziel and fourth-stringer Connor Shaw both threw scores in the fourth quarter last week at Washington.

“We’ve got a new offense, different quarterbacks, a lot of new guys at different skill positions,” said Thomas, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection. “That all plays into it, but it’s not an excuse. We haven’t executed well enough, and that’s the bottom line on that.”

To a man, Cleveland’s players have praised the fast-paced system being implemented by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

Though the Browns rank 26th in the 32-team league in preseason yardage, right guard John Greco said Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme, in particular, will pay big dividends once the games start to count.

“It’s pretty straight-forward, actually, and I think our conditioning is really going to pay off late in games because of it,” Greco said. “We just fly off the ball and run. Everyone here has already picked it up, even though it’s the third different offense we’ve had to learn in three years.”

Running back Ben Tate — Cleveland’s key free-agent signee — has already fit into the system and developed solid chemistry with the offensive line, which figures to be among the best in the NFL.

Tate, a former Texans backup, has gained 76 yards on 16 carries while facing the first-team defenses of the Lions and Redskins. He also has taken a sizeable lead in his battle with rookie Terrance West for the starting spot.

“Our running game has been one of the bright spots so far,” Pettine said. “Ben has run the ball well and he’s run it hard, which you like to see from your veterans, since their opportunities are limited early in the preseason.”

The coach said Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron and wide receivers Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins will be given plenty of snaps with Hoyer tonight. He hopes the trio will help the Browns get into the end zone and get their fans fired up about the season.

“The third preseason game is as close to the regular season as you’re going to see,” Pettine said. “I think it’s a big night for us. We’ll see who can step up and make some plays. That’s what the NFL is all about — being productive and making plays — and we’re looking forward to seeing how our guys respond.”

Contact Brian Dulik at brisports@hotmail.com.

TONIGHT
WHO: Cleveland vs. St. Louis
TIME: 8 o’clock
WHERE: FirstEnergy Stadium
TV/RADIO: Channel 3; WKNR 850-AM, WKRK 92.3-FM, WNCX 98.5-FM

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