The Cleveland Browns preseason continues Thursday, but not for much longer.
Thursday's game marks the last before the regular season.
As the Browns take on the Chicago Bears, here's what we'll be watching:
1. One more shot at redemption
Hue Jackson didn’t flinch earlier in the week when he was asked about playing his starters in the kind of game many teams opt to keep their top players on the sidelines. His mind was made up shortly after the Browns’ disappointing, 30-13, loss at Tampa Bay last week.
“I feel comfortable that we need to play our starters on both sides of the ball,” Jackson said. “Now, how much they play, that is yet to be determined by me, but I think we are going to play them because we need to play. We need to get better as a football team as we continue to move forward.”
That includes all three phases of the game, which have plenty to fix with 10 days left until the season opener.
On offense, the Browns will look to establish drives and better protect quarterback Robert Griffin III. On defense, the focus centers on third downs, which have been a trouble spot throughout the preseason. And special teams, which will be breaking in a new punter, will seek to tighten up its coverage and eliminate penalties.
“I’m going to watch everything, along with our executive staff,” Jackson said. “We are at the stage of trying to put our best team together. How many spots, what the numbers are, I’m not sure of that, but obviously, we all know there are some. There are 53 that we have to make sure that we have here so we will work at it and we will see how this thing shakes out.”
2. Big opportunities for pass rushers
Veteran Paul Kruger is gone, and the Browns need to fill his hole in the starting lineup with a young, up-and-coming pass rusher.
Jackson said on Tuesday he’s evaluating four candidates. That figures to include rookies Emmanuel Ogbah and Joe Schobert and Cam Johnson, a scout teamer from last season who has had a strong preseason. Nate Orchard, who has been starting throughout the preseason, will continue to be evaluated. Tonight’s their final on-field audition before Jackson and defensive coordinator Ray Horton fine-tune a depth chart heading into the season opener at Philadelphia.
“That is what the game is for so guys can showcase their talent and ability,” Jackson said. “We will see exactly how that unfolds Thursday night.”
3. Big night for Kessler
There’s one less quarterback on the roster, and that’ll mean more repetitions for rookie Cody Kessler tonight against the Bears.
Kessler, the third-round pick out of USC, is expected to play more tonight than he has in the previous three preseason games. He’s had his ups and downs in limited opportunities, throwing for 52 yards on 9-of-11 passes. He threw a touchdown on his first pass of the preseason and has been dropped for four sacks, two of which were for safeties.
It’s expected to be the last in-game action for Kessler for a while, and Jackson wants him to make the most of it.
“We know he knows how to complete the ball,” Jackson said. “It is just running our offense and understanding where the ball is going and just understanding the National Football League game, just how fast it is, and how things change and how defenses work. It is just the experience. He needs to get the experience, and he will get an opportunity to play and probably play longer than he has this week all year. That will be important for him.”
4. Punter competition
It’s not the most headline-grabbing position battle, but it’s an important competition nonetheless. The Browns have two young punters on their roster after trading Andy Lee, and they’ll both get opportunities to impress tonight.
Neither Kasey Redfern, acquired from the Panthers in the Lee trade, and Michael Palardy, signed Tuesday, have punted in a regular season game. The Browns will have to make a decision in the coming days on the position. Exploring the waiver wire can’t be ruled out, as the days following the cutdown can be the most active of the year for all NFL teams.
Both Redfern and Palardy will try to show tonight they’re worthy of a spot on the 53-man roster.