Here are four things to monitor for the Browns third preseason game on Friday:
A handful of key Browns players are set to make their preseason debuts, including cornerback Joe Haden, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, wide receiver Josh Gordon and rookie wide receiver Corey Coleman.
For Haden — who returned to practice recently after ankle surgery in March — Friday night marks a big step in the right direction for the Pro Bowler after a disappointing and injury-ridden 2015 campaign.
“I told you guys he’d be back out there at some point, and he’s back. I’m glad he’s back,” Jackson said. “He’s one of the leaders of our team, one of the better players in the National Football League. We expect him to play that way.”
The same goes for Hawkins (hamstring), Coleman (hamstring) and Gordon (quadriceps), who all joined practice earlier this week. For Coleman, the first-round draft pick from Baylor, this will be his NFL debut after an electric display earlier this month in the Browns’ team scrimmage.
“I feel really good,” he said. “We took it slow easing me back in, but now I’m full speed, full go.”
Gordon, who hasn’t played since the 2014 season, said on Tuesday he’s hopeful he’ll get to play Friday night.
“It’d be great. I’m working the kinks out here at practice and back at home in Cleveland as much as possible to get ready for it, for Friday, and for next week and going into the season,” he said. “Hopefully, I can pick up where we left off at practice out here and things will go smoothly on Friday.”
Gordon, who was reinstated by the NFL on a conditional basis last month, led the league in receiving yards in 2013.
Can the defense take the next step?
After struggling in its first two preseason games, the Browns defense has yet another chance to show improvement against the Buccaneers.
The Browns surrendered almost 500 yards to the Falcons last week and had difficulty stopping the run at Green Bay the previous week.
As such, Cleveland has approached the past week of practice with a sense of urgency ahead of Friday night’s game.
“The thing I see is that we have a long way to go. We’re doing some things well, but there is still tremendous room for improvement just in the run game, in the pass game and creating turnovers and getting after the quarterback in the red zone, in short-yard situations, just tremendous room for us to get better, which is good,” linebacker Demario Davis said last week.
“You want to be able to improve and the good thing is it’s not Week 1 yet. We still have time to get it right, but that window of opportunity is closing. Our coaches are telling us everything right. The players are committed. We just have to and each individual player has to keep working on their craft and getting better, keep getting better and be ready, especially in Week 1.”
More big plays
As the Browns offense continues to take shape, one thing is clear: Cleveland isn’t afraid to take shots downfield.
The team proved as much against the Packers when Robert Griffin III launched a 49-yard pass to Terrelle Pryor on the first offensive play from scrimmage.
The Browns doubled down on that approach against the Falcons when Griffin connected with Pryor on a 50-yard touchdown pass and then a 29-yard score to Pro Bowl tight end Gary Barnidge.
Against that backdrop, look for the Browns to bring that aggressive mindset to Raymond James Stadium on Friday night, especially with the likes of Hawkins, Coleman and Gordon set to return to the lineup.
“All the guys have different strengths so you want to show those and utilize them when you get those matchups. When you don’t have those matchups, you have to make the appropriate throws and check the ball down,” Griffin said Tuesday.
“When we get our chances to get them the ball, we definitely want to do that and they’ll make the plays for us.”
Jarring Jameis and takeaways
In last year’s 31-7 drubbing of the Buccaneers, the Browns defense notched six sacks, four of which dropped then-rookie quarterback and former Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston to the ground.
The Browns will have the chance to do that again with a new scheme and new faces, including rookie defensive end Carl Nassib, who is tied for second in the NFL in sacks and tied for first among fellow rookies.
Cleveland has also focused on ramping up its takeaways, be it by forcing fumbles or intercepting errant passes.
The Browns had success in doing the latter of those dynamics this week in practice, as Haden and fellow cornerback Jamar Taylor recorded three total interceptions in drills.
“That’s what we expect from our corners,” Jackson said. “They have to get their hands on the ball.”