Coach Hue Jackson didn’t have the easiest week.
The trying stretch started with a mistake-filled loss at Green Bay in the preseason opener. Then Jackson had to dial back the intensity of practice because of mounting injuries. Finally, the Browns issued a two-week suspension Tuesday to cornerback K’Waun Williams, who was a key contributor and seemingly model citizen in his first two seasons.
But Jackson kept a stiff upper lip and was rewarded with the return of receiver Josh Gordon (quadriceps) and defensive end John Hughes (personal reasons). Neither is expected to play Thursday night, but Jackson is looking for a giant step forward against the Atlanta Falcons in his debut at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Jackson said Tuesday he hadn’t decided on playing time, but the starters will play more than against the Packers, perhaps a half. He’s looking for points, a more efficient running attack and consistency from the offense — the starters didn’t score in two possessions against the Packers — and for the defense to play better against the run and create more turnovers.
Just the latest example of the difficulties facing Jackson as new coach of a team in transition is finding a balance during the four-game preseason schedule. He has competing agendas of preparing the starters for the regular season, evaluating the young players to pick the best 53-man roster and getting to Week 1 as healthy as possible.
“It can be tough because we’re trying to build a team but we’re also trying to evaluate our team and also trying to teach our team how to win and do things the right way,” Jackson said. “We’re a new staff, new everything, and a year from now, we won’t be saying that. I feel good about what we’re doing and where we’re headed, and I understand that this is a process and this is the first part of it.”
While Jackson is looking for his first win with the Browns, here are five things for fans to watch.
RG3, TAKE 2
Quarterback Robert Griffin III wasn’t bad in his Browns debut but he wasn’t good. He was 4-for-8 for 67 yards with an interception at the goal line and a 39.1 rating.
“I didn’t do a good enough job of putting up points on the board and that’s what we want to do,” he said. “So we want to move the ball consistently, put points on the board and then make sure that we’re executing the way that we know that we can and what Coach has put out for us on the game plan.”
Griffin was hit three or four times in 11 snaps in Green Bay, so stauncher protection would be appreciated. It’s not guaranteed, as left tackle Joe Thomas (back) isn’t expected to play, and center Cameron Erving and right tackle Austin Pasztor are trying to find their way with the starters.
“We’re chasing perfection, but I didn’t expect perfection in the first night,” Jackson said. “From Cam to everyone across our line and everyone across our team, we need to get better. There are some things he did well and there are some things he’s got to clean up.”
BETTER TO RECEIVE
For the first time Tuesday, Gordon joined rookie Corey Coleman and Terrelle Pryor on the practice field for team drills.
“There are a lot of thoughts that go through my mind. I can’t tell you all of them, but they are a talented trio,” Jackson said. “Those guys have size, they have speed, they have length, they have the ability to make plays on the ball.
“That’s exciting, but we haven’t had them all out there together yet really. Hopefully we can in the future and that all works out, get all these guys out there playing together.”
It won’t be Thursday night, as Gordon isn’t expected to play and Coleman is questionable after returning this week from a hamstring injury. Slot receiver Andrew Hawkins (hamstring) will miss his second straight game.
That likely leaves the focus on Pryor, who keeps making big plays, Taylor Gabriel and rookies Rashard Higgins and Jordan Payton. Fellow rookie Ricardo Louis is out with a hamstring injury.
Griffin needs to build as much chemistry as he can with as many receivers as possible.
FOR AN ENCORE
Rookie pass rushers Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib got off to strong starts against the Packers, picking up a sack apiece. Can they back it up?
The defense needs that answer to be a yes. The unit is filled with youngsters, so the rookies will be counted on to contribute immediately, particularly the top two defensive draft picks providing a consistent pass rush.
“Those rookies had a tremendous game,” inside linebacker Demario Davis said. “Nassib played huge. Ogbah played great. We’re going to need those guys. We’re going to have to rely on them this year.”
Ogbah, a second-round pick who played end Friday then practiced at outside linebacker Tuesday, had a sack, a tackle for loss, a quarterback hit and a game-high six tackles. Nassib, an end picked in the third round, added a sack and three tackles.
“They have to grow up real fast,” Davis said. “It’s going to get more intense. It’s going to get harder down the road, but if they continue to stay focused and continue to work hard, those guys can be really good players in this league.”
The defense would get an extra boost if fourth-rounder Joe Schobert (outside linebacker) and seventh-rounder Scooby Wright (inside linebacker) show they’re ready to contribute at this level.
Rookie quarterback Cody Kessler proved Friday he wasn’t ready for the NFL, but he handled a difficult situation as well as could be expected.
Kessler, a third-round pick, threw a 10-yard touchdown pass on his first NFL snap, then took a pair of bad safeties, including one in which he ran out of the back of the end zone when he was confused by the boundary lines. He didn’t shy away from questions about the subject, even though he had become an object of ridicule.
“Cody is resilient,” Jackson said. “He’s going to battle and work. He’ll learn from it and grow from it.”
Kessler’s work during the ensuing practice week came mostly with the scout team, and wasn’t pretty. He was intercepted twice Tuesday.
With Austin Davis out with a concussion, Kessler figures to play again Thursday night in the fourth quarter with the chance to grow up quickly. This season should be all about development for Kessler, and that starts immediately.
With Williams suspended for two weeks and his future with the team in serious doubt, Jamar Taylor has a prime opportunity to lock up the starting nickelback spot. He’s impressed since joining the team in a draft-weekend trade.
The young and inexperienced tight ends behind starter Gary Barnidge have looked good and are fighting for two or three roster spots. The rest of the preseason will likely decide who among Connor Hamlett, Randall Telfer, rookie Seth DeValve and E.J. Bibbs sticks around.
After a strong opener, Raheem Mostert appears to have a slight edge over Terrell Watson to be the No. 3 running back, but there’s a lot of time left. Watson is more of a bruiser, has a history with Jackson and won’t go away without a fight.
Kicker Travis Coons has been inconsistent in practice and needs to start making kicks if he’s going to keep his job. Patrick Murray got the only attempt last week and drilled a 46-yard field goal.
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