BEREA, Ohio -- For all the attention being paid to the struggles of the Cleveland Browns' quarterbacks this preseason, it should be noted that the wide receivers haven’t given them much help or performed much better.
There have been dropped passes, routes ran at the wrong depth, cuts made at improper angles and, in the case of Pro Bowl receiver Josh Gordon last Monday, an apparent lack of interest and effort in the game.
The play of the wideouts will be a focal point Saturday night when the Browns (0-2) meet the St. Louis Rams (0-2) in their exhibition home opener at FirstEnergy Stadium. Coach Mike Pettine wants to see more urgency and greater efficiency from a group that remains a major question mark as the season approaches.
“I think it’s a big night for them,” Pettine said. “We’ll see who can step up and make some plays. I talked about how the NFL is all about being productive and making plays. The third game is typically one that’s game-planned a little bit. It’s as close to the regular season as you’re going to see. I think we’re all looking forward to the guys going out there and competing.”
With the quarterback position resolved, wide receiver is now the most unsettled position on the team. Gordon, who led the NFL in yards receiving last season, is appealing a year-long suspension for violating the league’s drug policy, but it's likely that he won’t be available, at least in the early part of the season. Veterans Miles Austin and Nate Burleson were signed in the offseason, but Burleson has yet to play because of a strained hamstring and the team has been limiting Austin’s snaps in hopes of keeping him healthy after hamstring injuries slowed the former Dallas Cowboy in two of the past three seasons.
Andrew Hawkins, a free-agent signee from Cincinnati, has been able to create separation from the slot, but timing has been an issue between himself and the quarterbacks. Then there are several youngsters fighting for spots, including rookie free agent Taylor Gabriel, who leads the Browns with six catches in the preseason.
Excluding Gordon, Austin and Hawkins, the battle for playing time -- and, presumably roster spots -- is “wide open,” according to Pettine. The Browns plan to build the offense around the running game, which means it’s imperative for the receivers to deliver when their number is called.
There’s a strong likelihood that the Browns' receivers will see a lot of one-on-one coverage because defenses figure to move a safety near the line of scrimmage to stop the run. At that point it comes down to execution and chemistry, which is why these final two exhibition games are so important for Cleveland.
Neither Austin nor Burleson would use the quarterback rotation between Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel as an excuse for the receivers’ struggles to date -- “We still have to get to the same spot, regardless of who’s throwing the ball,” Austin said -- but they acknowledged there is a certain comfort in the familiarity of hearing the same voice calling a play, barking the cadence and delivering the football.
Austin doesn’t try to run from the reality that this is a big season for him. Since back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2009-10, he has struggled with injuries. He had only 579 receiving yards in 2011, then after a bounce-back 2012 season with 943, he had only 244 receiving yards in 11 games last year.
“Every year is a big year, but 100 (percent) this one is,” he said. “One, it’s important for me to stay healthy. Thankfully I’ve been feeling good and running well. Now I’m trying to get the offense. Hearing it called in the huddle is a lot different from the terms that we used in Dallas. Routes are slightly different that I ran. My own assessment of myself is that I need to play faster and feel more comfortable hearing the call and jumping out to any position. I understand what my job is, but I’m not yet comfortable with what the full range of options is. I mean, I know where the holes are in the defense, but do you get to the hole now or are we waiting a little while to hit it? Small details like that and getting down the playbook are things I continue to work on.”
Burleson, a 12-year veteran, isn’t prepared to overreact to the passing game’s slow start.
“I’ve been in preseasons where I played terrible and thought to myself: ‘This might not be my year,’ and I balled out (during the regular season),” he said. “Then I’ve been in preseasons where I was ‘The Man.’ I’m thinking I’m the next Randy Moss, leading the league in all kinds of categories. Then we start the season and I’m terrible. As long as you’re building to something, which is creating team chemistry and getting everybody on the same page, preseason will be quickly wiped from people’s memories.”