AFC North: Johnny Manziel

The Cleveland Browns have acknowledged that Sunday did not go well for Johnny Manziel, but their public plan for addressing Manziel questions this week seems to be a strategic one.

Opt for a confidence boost over tough love.

Manziel
This week's company line has been the entire offense must improve; that Manziel, despite struggling, didn't get the necessary help. This is coming from coach Mike Pettine, players and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who on Thursday said Manziel's a "real dude" who has the mental makeup to respond.

They've acknowledged Manziel looked indecisive at times, but that usually comes with the follow-up that the offense had similar problems.

Perhaps the tough love comes behind the scenes, but the Browns seem to recognize that now is the time for building Manziel up, not tearing him down.

This feels like a sound strategy -- the Browns had better hope it works.

Either Shanahan is an eternal optimist or he saw enough encouragement from Manziel through the nuances of studying the 38 offensive plays Sunday to suggest Manziel's problems are fixable.

Stepping into throws with conviction was Manziel's biggest issue, and Manziel has been earnest about improving in that area this week.

I said this three weeks ago and I'll say it again: It doesn't matter whether Manziel or Brian Hoyer are the quarterback if the Browns can't run the ball. Cleveland has hit its second run-game dry spell of the year, averaging 3.2 yards per carry in the last three weeks (242 yards on 75 tries).

That number is survivable if your offense is built on the pass. The Browns' offense is not.

The missed details in the running game are all around left guard Joel Bitonio. He sees guard-center double teams when it should be tackle-guard. He sees failure to account for a safety creeping up or "not quite making it to the linebacker" up the middle, he says.

This has been life for the Browns' offensive line, which Bitonio said actually graded out well Sunday. But when they missed assignments, they missed big.

"One play, one guy gets beat and it's a tackle for a loss, Then he does his job great and another guy gets beat -- it just looks terrible," Bitonio said. "We need to be on the same page every day...That’s the whole goal so Johnny has more time to be back there to throw the ball. We don’t want defenses teeing off."

For the factors Bitonio described, Pettine is right when he says it's "unfair" to judge Manziel on one game. But considering all the circumstances -- the timing, the Browns' chances at a winning season unraveling, the critics quick to bash -- now is the perfect time for the blocks to be tight, the tailbacks to be instinctive and Manziel's decisions to be crisp.
In responding to a Johnny Manziel supporter, former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick delivered his own version of "the money sign."

Billick delivered harsh criticism of Manziel on Wednesday, posting on Twitter that "Manziel proponents say he can be Russell Wilson. I liken him more to Troy Smith...a 5th rounder no longer in the NFL."

Someone on Twitter named "Bflo44," who has a picture of Manziel as his avatar, shot back at Billick with this: "And why would we listen to a coach no longer in the league?”

Billick, who is now an analyst for the NFL Network, delivered the ultimate comeback -- a picture of him wearing his Super Bowl ring.

It is still surprising that Billick never got a chance to be a head coach again. He won a Super Bowl in 2000 -- which he colorfully pointed out -- and guided the Ravens to an 80-64 record (.556) and four playoff seasons.

Some may argue that the reason Billick never got another job was his inability to develop a franchise quarterback. The Ravens had 13 starting quarterbacks in Billick's nine seasons, the last of which was Troy Smith.

To Bflo44's credit, he took Billick's rebuttal in stride on Twitter:" So I got owned by @CoachBillick Today! Pretty sweet. Fun stuff!"
CINCINNATI -- Among the several good talkers in the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room, Jeremy Hill has established himself as one of the top go-to players on the team for a quote on just about anything.

It's because the rookie running back knows how to paint a vivid, well-thought-out picture when responding to interviewers' questions. Even the most mundane of inquiries seldom seem to stump him.

So it was slightly jarring for reporters last Friday when Hill, after a week of working out or traipsing around the Bengals' facility in places other than the locker room when the team had player availability, said he wasn't talking. Approached Friday morning, minutes before availability for the week would be closed, he politely declined interview requests.

"I tried to stay off social media this week," the normally frequent Twitter poster said an hour after Sunday afternoon's 30-0 trouncing of the Browns. "I tried not to talk to media. I just didn't want to get too involved in this stuff this week. I just wanted to go out there, set the tempo, get our run game going and take the pressure off Andy [Dalton]."

Fair enough.

The extra focus must have paid off because Hill had a 25-carry, 148-yard, two-touchdown day that helped fuel the Bengals' rout. The first four plays of the game were all Hill runs, a clear early sign Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson wanted to give Cleveland a heavy dose of its bigger-bodied back.

You have to credit coaching for both the enhanced focus, and the effective game plan.

It's just like how you have to credit coaching for getting defensive players so angered about facing the Johnny Manziel hype machine that they were hellbent on embarrassing the rookie quarterback in his first career start. As much needling as the Bengals did internally to get the defense up for the task, they also happened to draw up a great scheme that hinged on scaling back the blitz, and getting defensive linemen into the backfield often.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals only blitzed on two of Manziel's 28 dropbacks.

That was a coaching decision from defensive coordinator Paul Guenther -- one that paid off handsomely.

Another reason why you have to put this win on the coaches? Because during a hectic week that was marked by controversy, criticism and untimely familial deaths, the staff repeatedly told players to relax and trust in the plan crafted for them.

"I told our guys during the week that we don't have pressure," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "We just have to go play. Knowing your responsibilities and how to get out and execute it, those are the things we have to do."

What they have to do now is simple. With the regular season drawing to a close and a playoff berth within reach, Bengals players these next two weeks just have to recycle the exact same work they put in last week and the exact same execution they had Sunday.

"We were talking about that on the sideline," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "They gave us a great game plan. So the game was easy. That's where the game was won -- Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. [Sunday] was just the reward for going out and executing."
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CLEVELAND -- The day was supposed to be about hope and playmaking and Cleveland Browns fans thinking their 21st starting quarterback since 1999 might be the last change the team will need to make for a while.

The fans left FirstEnergy Stadium with their heads down -- just like Johnny Manziel after every stalled drive -- and with more questions than when they arrived.

After this Cincinnati Bengals mugging of money Manziel -- and the Bengals flashed dollar signs to prove it -- the Browns are left scrounging for loose change on the floor of the AFC North.

Nobody expected this. Rookie mistakes, sure. But not this. Not 30-0 in the home finale. Not the head coach talking about sample sizes after the game, suggesting Manziel is now on a two-game audition to remain in the 2015 plans. Not a noticeably deflated locker room. Not bad footwork, missed zone-read chances and indecisiveness leading to poor throws.

Manziel got no help from teammates, minimal chances to play like LeBron James’ favorite free-wheeling quarterback.

But the Johnny letdown was a reminder of how harsh the NFL can be. The Bengals didn’t just strip the Browns of already-slim postseason hopes. They taunted Manziel, reduced him, tried to disrespect him just like their head coach days earlier. Three different Bengals flashed Manziel’s signature money signs in his face or his vicinity, either after a sack or a big play, because “he kind of brought that on himself,” defensive end Wallace Gilberry said.

“Just to show him this ain’t college,” said Cincinnati defensive tackle Domata Peko, whose Bengals saw the money signs from fans while driving in on the bus. “This is the NFL. You have grown men that are going to be chasing after you, not college kids. ... We’ve got some grown men who have kids that are out here trying to feed their families.”

It would be wrong to make a whole determination about Manziel’s future based on his 10-of-18 passing performance for 80 yards, two interceptions and a 27.3 rating. But there was little on this day to suggest Manziel was ready.

Pettine says Manziel’s limited 2014 performance – Sunday's game, the final two games and his relief work in Buffalo -- is a “decent sample.” That doesn't seem like enough time to evaluate a quarterback, but the statement turns games at Carolina and Baltimore into raw auditions.

“It’s going to take time and reps,” Manziel said. “The best quarterbacks to ever play this game have struggled early.”

A cringe-worthy rookie performance doesn't pair well with the reasons Browns players gave for struggling. Wide receiver Josh Gordon admitted the Browns were getting beaten off the ball. Left tackle Joe Thomas said plays were not run correctly. Penalties stalled drives. How do you “get whupped,” as right guard John Greco said, when the division crown is still possible?

“The kid can make plays,” said Greco when asked about whether Manziel showed him enough encouragement for the future. “We didn’t do enough to help him.”

Perhaps the two-week quarterback haze -- Brian Hoyer’s benching in Buffalo that led to Manziel’s eventual first start -- affected team momentum, though players say no. Hoyer was struggling, but he was the trusted veteran. Pettine had two bad options: Stick with Hoyer and perpetuate the struggles, or play the rookie and risk sending the locker room message, fair or not, that the Browns are playing for next year.

With the lift Manziel could have provided inside and outside the stadium, Sunday was the wrong day for Manziel and the Browns' game plan to be figured out so early. The blueprint was clear-cut: Stop the run, set the edge and force Manziel to play from the pocket.

The Bengals blitzed on two of Manziel’s 24 dropbacks, or 8.3 percent. Eight NFL games had a lower blitz percentage this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The Browns didn’t try a bootleg until the third quarter. The Browns ran a few zone-read plays. But on a first-quarter attempt, Manziel kept the ball for a sack instead of handing off to Isaiah Crowell for what appeared to be a sizable gain.

The offensive game plan looked like the Browns couldn’t decide whether to tailor it around Manziel’s skill set or keep it the same as if Hoyer were still running it.

Manziel admits getting the game plan right for him and the offense will be a “growing process.” Manziel was 0-for-4 with two interceptions on passes longer than 15 yards, including an across-the-body pass that was intercepted at the goal line, a pass that Manziel admitted a Pop Warner quarterback shouldn’t attempt.

“I never felt overwhelmed out there,” Manziel said. “Things happen fast and you see certain things that all flash around really fast, but when it came down to it, we just didn’t make enough plays.”

This performance resembled the preseason Manziel. The Browns said he has improved. Manziel said he has improved. They all said he was ready.

Maybe he will be. Manziel and the offense were “on point” in practice this week, Gordon said.

You know Allen Iverson’s words well. We’re talking about making game-day throws, which Manziel looked ready to do when firing the ball around the field before the game. But on a pass to Andrew Hawkins toward the sideline, the arm strength wasn’t there and Dre Kirkpatrick undercut the route for an interception. Maybe indecisiveness, which Pettine said he noticed a few times Sunday, was a factor on that throw.

A less conservative game plan might help Manziel, who needs to find a way to get open space on the perimeter.

For now, with the "Johnny Football" mystique replaced by tough NFL love, Manziel won’t have any more time to learn how to become an NFL quarterback.

He has to be one now.

“You wish the circumstances were better for him, but it’s good for him to learn how rough this league really is,” Gordon said. “It’s really tough and you really have to earn your wins.”
CLEVELAND -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 30-0 win over the Cleveland Browns:
  • Hill
    Powder-toss diss: At the end of his 2-yard touchdown run in the first quarter Sunday, Bengals running back Jeremy Hill broke into one of his patented touchdown dances. Earlier this year, he has performed the popular "Shmoney" dance, and even did his own rendition of the "Ickey Shuffle," named after former Bengals back Ickey Woods, who made the dance famous in the Bengals' 1988 AFC championship run. This time, he broke into a "Whip" dance before adding a move that mirrored LeBron James' pregame powder toss. Hill didn't finish the Cleveland Cavaliers star's move, though, knocking the "powder" down with a hand. After the game, Hill was told James had been in attendance. It didn't faze him. "I'm actually a Lakers fan," he said. "I'm a Kobe [Bryant] guy."
  • Hill evokes Bell: One week after Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell torched the Bengals for 185 yards on the ground, Hill did his best rendition of his rival rusher. More than any trait Bell possesses, patience arguably is his best one. Many of Hill's 148 yards came after he showcased his own patience running through the line. "We watched a cut-up on him a few weeks ago," Hill said of Bell. "We kind of stole a few more moves from him, just being patient like that. A lot of guys just get the ball and just run downhill and just run into people. But sometimes, you've just really got to set up your blocks. ... It's just being patient and hitting it when you find that crease."
  • Mocking money signs: Bengals defenders weren't the only ones doing Johnny Manziel's "money sign" this weekend in Cleveland. A couple of Bengals said Browns fans were flashing the signs at them as they walked around town while going to dinner Saturday night. Linebacker Rey Maualuga, who was flagged for taunting after flashing Manziel's sign in the quarterback's face after a deflection, said he didn't respond to the fans. "Whatever we would have said to them that night won't change the facts or change the outcome of the game," Maualuga said at his locker. "Just let it go in one ear and out the other. Eat dinner and just make sure to walk out of there as fast as you can before some crazy things go on."
CINCINNATI -- Vontaze Burfict has been absent from the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive huddles the last six weeks, but at least one of his teammates can barely tell.

Defensive end Wallace Gilberry said earlier this week that the "Will" linebacker's replacement, Vincent Rey, has started turning into a more diminutive version of Burfict. Rey, according to Gilberry, is letting his inner dog show.

Rey

"Vinny's become a little mean," Gilberry said. "I don't know what's going on with him, but he's becoming a little pit bull."

Told what the lineman said about his new attitude, Rey, sporting a pair of thick, black-rimmed glasses, smirked and said, "I think that's a good thing."

It is. It's especially a good thing for a player who off the field looks more like a history teacher than a linebacker. Among the many approachable defenders in the Bengals' locker room, Vincent Rey and the word "mean" don't really seem to go together. This week, though, when the Bengals travel to Cleveland for an important AFC North game against the Browns, they must.

That's mainly because Rey will be the linchpin in a Bengals defense that is facing Johnny Manziel in his first career start. A mobile quarterback noted for his ability to extend plays and to escape the pocket, Manziel presents a unique challenge. While there isn't much film on the rookie -- he's only played 17 snaps this year -- he is coming off a college career that was full of highlight-reel worthy moments.

For that reason, Rey believes the Bengals can't get too worked up if Manziel picks up big gains sporadically throughout the game. The key will be to keep them as inconsistent as possible.

"He is going to make some plays," Rey said. "Heisman Trophy winner, he made a lot of plays in college. But it's on us to keep doing our jobs and to work together as a unit. When we do that, we play well."

Coach Marvin Lewis has been adamant this week in getting his players to realize that the best way to combat the read-option is to maintain their assignments.

Rey has understood that.

"My approach is getting all of us on defense getting lined up right," Rey said. "If we're all lined up right, especially in the front seven, we'll give ourselves a good chance to get plays stopped."

That's where being a pit bull can come in handy. As long as Rey remains firm in his rattling off of play responsibilities and assertively calls out any pre-snap changes, his teammates will pay attention to him.

They'll also keep paying attention if he continues to play as authoritatively as he has. Last week he had 15 tackles, one shy of the career-high 16 he had at Indianapolis earlier this year.

In his first seven games, including the Colts game, when he mostly relieved Burfict after in-game injuries, Rey averaged 5.4 tackles. In the six contests since he started in place of the Pro Bowl linebacker, Rey has averaged 9.8 tackles.

Rey contends that little has changed with respect to his approach since Burfict's latest injury. But he does acknowledge that having a better respect for the sport and being more confident in setting the defense because of his off-field study.

"It's one thing to prepare your body, but I've realized that preparing your mind to go out there and stop these great players in this league is very important," Rey said.

The Bengals hope the pit bull will be ready Sunday for his one of his toughest tests yet.
CINCINNATI -- When it comes to addressing a rival ahead of a pivotal game that has major playoff implications, Marvin Lewis could take a lesson or two from one of his players.

Hours before the Cincinnati Bengals coach used poor taste in attempting to joke on the radio about the difficulty in slowing the smaller-in-stature Johnny Manziel, safety George Iloka smartly navigated reporters' questions Monday about the Bengals' motivations for this Sunday following last month's 21-point loss at home on national television to the Cleveland Browns.

Iloka
 Did Iloka view this weekend's game at First Energy Stadium as payback for the sound beatdown the Browns administered?

No.

"I don't look at as payback. I look at it as they're an opponent, and we need to win," Iloka said. "We're only a half-game up. I don't look at it as it being payback. I just look at it as they're a good team."

Smart answer. Correct answer, at least, publicly. Privately ought to be a different matter. If they want to win, the Bengals better go into this game with a chip on their shoulder for the embarrassment they suffered at home to a team that's currently mired in a quarterback controversy, and one that also holds the fourth and final spot in the ultra-competitive AFC North standings.

On the heels of last Sunday's 42-21 loss at home to the Steelers, in which the suddenly punchless bunch gave up 25 unanswered fourth-quarter points, the Bengals better play with the same "smart bully" swagger they wanted to be known for having in the early part of the season.

Even if quarterback Andy Dalton says in front of the cameras (like he did Monday) that he, too, doesn't view this game any differently because it's the Browns, deep down, he better. If any player ought to want to bounce back after the team's atrocious showing against Cleveland last month it ought to be him. Dalton set a career-low in completions (10) and finished with a 2.0 passer rating that was the worst for a quarterback in a single game in 31 years.

Privately, he also better be focused on winning for January's sake. If he does, he keeps giving himself chances to shut down the narrative about his postseason play. Dalton still hasn't won a playoff game after three postseason trips his first three seasons. He's hoping Year 4 goes differently.

In addition to being asked about retribution, Iloka was questioned about preparing for Browns quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel. Again, Lewis might want to take notes.

"We've probably got to prepare for both," Iloka said. "Obviously with Johnny Manziel they have a few different things in their offense they can do because he's probably faster than Hoyer. But they've still got to run the same routes. They still have the same receivers and tight ends and running backs and offensive line. They'll change up a little bit, but we'll prepare for both of them."

End of sentence, end of quote. That's all Lewis had to say.
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CINCINNATI -- It's amazing that of his many recent verbal slip-ups, all it took for Marvin Lewis to finally issue an apology -- and possibly get back to the best practice of thinking before speaking -- was Johnny Manziel.

Is there anything Johnny Football can't do?

On Monday night, Lewis, the Cincinnati Bengals' 12th-year head coach, called into the city's flagship sports radio station during a weekly show it hosts at a bar not far from Paul Brown Stadium. Radio host Lance McAlister and Bengals radio color analyst Dave Lapham, a former Bengal, were on WLW-AM asking Lewis about the possibility of the Bengals having to defend Manziel this Sunday when they visit the division-rival Browns.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsMarvin Lewis has more important things to worry about than Johnny Manziel's height.
 Lewis started his answer just fine.

But then he made a quip he later would regret.

"You gotta go defend the offense. You don't defend the player," he said, pausing before adding, "particularly a midget."

Once social media learned of Lewis' completely unnecessary addendum, a flame ignited.

Most were incensed by Lewis' word choice. Browns fans rallied behind it, hopeful their players use it as motivation when going for a second straight win over the Bengals following last month's 24-3 blowout victory on a Thursday night in Cincinnati. A loss this weekend, and the AFC North-leading Bengals could slip behind either or both the Ravens and Steelers. With a tough remaining schedule, their playoff hopes could start to fade.

In 2009, Little People of America, Inc. -- an advocacy group for men and women diagnosed with dwarfism, a medical condition that doesn't allow people to grow past 4-foot-10 -- made a public statement denouncing the use of the word "midget." To those with dwarfism, it is considered offensive. More practically, as it relates to Manziel, it simply doesn't make any sense.

Manziel is 6 feet tall.

On their active 53-man roster, the Bengals have 11 players, including 5-foot-9 running back Giovani Bernard, listed at shorter than 6-foot. Would Lewis use the same term to describe them, too?

About an hour after his comments went viral, Lewis issued an apology.

"I apologize to Johnny, the Browns and all the fans in Cleveland," he said. "It was just a poor remark. I really didn't mean anything by it."

Certainly, he was trying to add levity while discussing the intricacies of playing the smaller-in-stature, mobile Manziel. For the second straight week, the Browns have a quarterback controversy after starter Brian Hoyer had another disappointing showing in their 25-24 loss to Indianapolis on Sunday.

Browns coaches could decide Tuesday to give Manziel his first career start Sunday as a result.

No matter what his excuse, Lewis had no need for the added barb, particularly considering his litany of poorly chosen remarks this season.

Two weeks ago, Lewis had an abrasive and borderline arrogant tone during a news conference when asked about allegations from a former player's ex-wife who told The New York Times that when her then-husband played for the Bengals, Lewis told her to come to the team before going to the police in instances when he would assault her.

Instead of sticking to a pre-crafted statement as he originally said he would, Lewis repeatedly called the woman a liar.

Lying or not, an NFL coach in 2014 can't conduct himself like that during a news conference when domestic violence is a topic.

A month prior, he was rightfully and soundly criticized for making the claim concussions "linger longer" in players today because of enhanced media attention surrounding them and their effects.

Lewis has a public-speaking problem, and given the way his team collapsed in Sunday's 42-21 loss to the Steelers, it isn't his only one.

Among the things more important than an opposing player's height: preparing to defend an NFL quarterback.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cleveland Browns’ 26-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills.

Hoyer
Different vibe: The Browns were trying to grasp what had just happened on the field -- a pounding from the Bills and a quarterback change to Johnny Manziel. The Browns prepared for two quarterbacks to address the media back-to-back after the game, so while Brian Hoyer was quietly putting on his suit and tie in the locker room, Manziel was walking in and out, talking to someone on the phone. When asked why the offense has slid backward, receiver Andrew Hawkins said the Browns would be in a better position if he knew. “There’s no time for us to argue anything down if we don’t understand [and] no time to pat him on the back if we do understand,” Hawkins said of the quarterback switch.

Defense played well enough: The Bills’ offense managed one touchdown, but the Terrance West fumble Buffalo turned into six points skewed the final score. The defense is still playing well -- it held Kyle Orton to 190 yards, logged two interceptions and limited the Bills’ rushing attack to 3.5 yards per carry. Coach Mike Pettine said he was disappointed “for us to waste, for a good part of the game, a good defensive effort." Has cornerback Joe Haden ever been on a defense that gave up two third-down conversions but still lost by 16? “Nope, I’d say this was a first,” Haden said.

Speaking of the fumble ...: Pettine called West’s fumble “inexcusable” and being careless with the ball in a crucial situation. Without the Bills’ touchdown off the turnover, the Browns were still within one score. “[It] really changed the flow of the game,” Pettine said.

Austin gets medical attention: Receiver Miles Austin caught seven passes for 86 yards and briefly talked to the media in the locker room after the game, but the team announced Sunday night that Austin was taken to a hospital with abdominal pain.
CLEVELAND -- I asked a colleague this in the press box during the Browns’ 24-3 win over Cincinnati, since the margin of victory was growing.

If the Browns were up 50-0, would they even put in Johnny Manziel at that point?

We both agreed that, no, they probably wouldn’t. Yes, the Browns want to evaluate Manziel, and the best way to do so is by watching him handle significant snaps on a Sunday afternoon.

Hoyer
Manziel
But even the semblance of Johnny Football playmaking would excite a portion of the Browns fanbase. Cooler heads would understand you don’t mess with 6-3. The people who bought No. 2 jerseys in brown and white might not consider that much.

Either way, the narrative has changed. It’s less about when Manziel will play and more about how far the Browns – these Browns, in 2014 – can go with Brian Hoyer.

It’s not Manziel vs. Hoyer, which Manziel has made clear in his in-season interviews.

My thought was always that the Browns would entertain playing Manziel when/if they were slipping out of contention. That Jacksonville-Oakland-Tampa stretch could have turned ugly on Hoyer. After the Jacksonville game, questions arose about whether Manziel’s athleticism could help the Browns in play-action. Hoyer is not a runner.

Hoyer survived the stretch and thrived on a national stage against Cincinnati. He didn’t have to carry the offense but did what was asked of him, completing third-down passes and moving the ball downfield on 15-of-23 passing. Considering his lack of game-changing weapons on the edge, Hoyer has been really solid.

Now it’s all about perspective. Even if for some reason the Browns lost three straight, they are still 6-6 while facing a crucial December stretch. That'd be enough to stave off the sky-is-falling crowd. The window has closed, at least for now.

Regardless of whether the Browns re-sign Hoyer, and for what price, the season seems his more than ever now.

I’m told the Browns feel Manziel accepted his new role well. Comments like these -- where he’s clearly deferential for the team’s benefit -- are not lost on the Browns.

Cleveland has 16 front-office executives, a 25-person personnel department and a 22-person coaching staff. No doubt that group has at least a handful of staffers intrigued by what Manziel’s skill set could’ve done this season.

But those associated with the Browns’ miserable two-decade history will gladly accept the current state.

Browns vs. Steelers preview

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
12:00
PM ET
Johnny Manziel and Ryan Shazier USA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesAll eyes will be on these rookies in Week 1: Cleveland's Johnny Manziel and Pittsburgh's Ryan Shazier.
The Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers renew their long-standing rivalry Sunday at Heinz Field.

And something has to give in the game in which Johnny Manziel is expected to make his NFL debut. The Browns have lost 10 consecutive games at Heinz Field, while the Steelers haven't won a season opener since 2010.

ESPN NFL Nation Browns reporter Pat McManamon and ESPN NFL Nation Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the 1 p.m. ET game.

Brown: Pat, how many times have you written the surname Manziel since the Browns drafted Johnny Football in early May? Well, let's get the obligatory Manziel chatter out of the way. How do you see the Browns using Manziel on Sunday and how much do you expect him to play?

McManamon: As for the first part, Scott, let's say more than five and less than 10,000, but just barely less. I would be surprised if Manziel does not see the field for a play or a series in each half. The Browns and coach Mike Pettine have been coy about how he'll be used, but he does bring a different element than Brian Hoyer, and the Browns could put him on the field the same way the Steelers first used Kordell Stewart. Certain down-and-distance situations might be good for the read-option, or certain spots on the field might be good for a quarterback who can move. I don't think Manziel will play a lot, but I do think he'll play in the right spot, as judged by the coaching staff.

Scott, a slow start doomed the Steelers last season. How determined are they to avoid that slow start again, and how much bad luck is it for the Browns to draw the Steelers in the opener?

Brown: For the record, I am not going to start calling you Pat McFootball no matter how many times you privately lobby me to do so. Take a picture with the Biebs in it and we will talk. With that order of business out of the way, I will say the schedule-makers did not do the Browns any favors by having them open in Pittsburgh. I suspect the Steelers will publicly downplay the notion that this is a must-win game, but in reality it is. The Steelers cannot start slow again this season, and with road games against the Ravens and the Panthers looming, they have to beat the Browns. As hard as it is to win in the NFL, nothing is more served on a platter than an opponent that hasn't won in Pittsburgh in more than a decade and has an offense riddled with question marks. Did I mention Ben Roethlisberger, who has never forgiven the Browns for passing on him in the 2004 NFL draft, has lost just one time to Cleveland?

Getting back to the Browns' offense, who do the Steelers have to worry about beating them with wide receiver Josh Gordon out for the season?

McManamon: Nobody, really. The Browns will try to run the ball and use tight end Jordan Cameron creatively, but there is no real outside threat even close to the threat Gordon provided. And Cameron better get used to consistent double coverage. It's almost unfair to throw a quarterback into a game with these circumstances. Running back Ben Tate probably will be the offensive bell cow. He'll be featured prominently in the game plan. But the Steelers stop the run in their sleep. This game will be a serious challenge for the Browns' offense and offensive coaches.

Speaking of offense, how has and how will the marijuana possession charges against Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount affect the team, if at all, this weekend?

Brown: It is a footnote to this game. Not to minimize the stupidity that the Steelers' top two running backs showed -- and they are worthy of all of the unflattering nicknames that have surfaced on social media, among other places -- but the issue has presumably been dealt with from the Steelers' end. If Bell and Blount had been suspended for the season opener, we would have seen Roethlisberger throwing a ton of passes and a one-dimensional offense. But with both Bell and Blount slated to play against the Browns, the Steelers' offense will be at full strength.

I am real interested in seeing whether the Steelers try to set up the pass through the run or vice versa. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin predictably gushed about Cleveland's defense at his news conference earlier this week, and certainly that unit is the strength of the Browns. Will that defense be as good as advertised?

McManamon: Let's tap the brakes on this "good defense." Nobody knows yet. The defense has new names -- and they are good names to have -- but they might not be improved. Also, a defense that was supposed to be good a season ago made a habit of blowing late leads. The weak spot this season is the same as last -- cornerback opposite Joe Haden. First-round pick Justin Gilbert is going through significant growing pains, and Buster Skrine is coming off a thumb injury. The Browns wanted Isaiah Trufant to be the nickelback, but he's on injured reserve. Smart teams pick at weaknesses; it would be surprising if the Steelers don't pick on the second corner. The other concern, which has been an ongoing issue: Will the defense wear down because it's on the field too much due to the offense struggling?

Staying with defense, Steelers rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier is an Ohio State guy, and there's been a lot of positive press on him throughout preseason. Has he been that good?

Brown: He has, but the caveat, of course, is that Shazier has yet to play in an NFL game that counts. That changes Sunday, and most telling about the progress Shazier has made is the fact he will become the first Steelers defensive rookie to start a season opener since Kendrell Bell in 2001. There will be the inevitable growing pains as the first-round pick adjusts to the speed of the game at this level. Probably the biggest concern with Shazier is whether he will consistently be able to shed blocks since the 6-1, 237-pounder is not the biggest linebacker. The Browns' offensive line is one of their biggest strengths, so it will be a good opening test for Shazier. I think the kid is going to be a star, and I predict he will win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.

Browns' Brian Hoyer OK with his role

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
6:50
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- Brian Hoyer spent a couple of weeks with the Steelers in 2012 when the team needed quarterback depth because of injuries.

One of his fondest memories from his brief time in Pittsburgh is when he ran into defensive coordinator and fellow Ohio native Dick LeBeau shortly after the Steelers released him.

Hoyer
"He said, ‘It was great to have you here. If I can ever help you with anything you let me know,' " Hoyer recalled late Wednesday afternoon during a conference call with the Pittsburgh media. "I don't know if that offer is still on the table now that I'm the Browns quarterback but what a great guy and a great coach."

That offer is likely suspended until further notice and LeBeau will be anything but helpful to Hoyer on Sunday when the AFC North rivals meet at Heinz Field.

Hoyer will start in the 1 p.m. ET game, though the Steelers are also expecting to see Johnny Manziel.

That the journeyman is already sharing time at quarterback reflects how tenuous Hoyer's hold on the starting job is with Manziel considered the quarterback of the future.

One thing that the Browns probably love about Hoyer is his maturity and how he has dealt with Manziel mania. Hoyer praised Manziel's work with ethic on Wednesday and said he has no problem ceding snaps to the former Heisman Trophy winner if it benefits the team.

"If it can help us win then that's all I care about," Hoyer said. "Obviously you want to be the guy on the field but if there's a certain situation that they think (Manziel) helps us win that's what this game is all about. It's the ultimate team sport."

Hoyer has seemingly been the ultimate team player since the Browns took Manziel in the first round of the draft.

He has blended in, something that is impossible for the polarizing Manziel to do -- ESPN NFL analyst Merrill Hoge ripped Johnny Football on Wednesday -- and adjusted to the circumstances that changed radically after the draft.

"I've eliminated watching ESPN, NFL Network, going on line, going on social media, reading the newspaper and it's actually made my life pretty simple," Hoyer said. "It's like you're living in the '60s or the '70s, you're not getting caught up in it."
Merril Hoge blasted Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel on Wednesday.

In every possible way.

Manziel
Hoge, a former Pittsburgh Steelers running back appearing on Pittsburgh radio station WDVE, said Manziel looked lost in the preseason and "has no business being on the field" in the Browns' season opener in Pittsburgh.

Hoge, who is also an NFL analyst for ESPN, added Manziel has no quality that translates to being a first-round draft pick.

He even referred to Manziel as a "juvenile punk," as evidenced by his text to Browns quarterback coach Dowell Loggains on draft night that he wanted to join the Browns and "wreck this league," though the actual language was more profane.

"That didn't just burn players; it infuriates coaches," Hoge said. "It told you, too, that he's a juvenile punk. He was like that, and he's still like that."

Browns coach Mike Pettine was very clear in saying Brian Hoyer will have the team's support as the starter, and won't have a quick hook. Hoge thinks that helps the Browns, because he does not believe Manziel is ready.

Manziel shrugged when asked about Hoge and pointed out many people support him and some do not.

"Stuff pops up on my phone and I happened to see something," Manziel said of Hoge's latest over-the-top rant. "He's been in the opposite corner of me for a while now so all I can really do is go out and try to prove him wrong. He's entitled to every bit of his opinion."

Pettine said he did not want to get in the habit of responding to every criticism.

"I just know," Pettine said, "that in the age that we're in of sensationalism a lot of times people that want to be heard have to make bold statements in order to bring attention to themselves. I think that's something that's a regular occurrence in this league."

Hoge pretty much lit up the Browns' rookie, saying he shows no understanding of concepts of play structure or the structure of an offense. He said he watched all of Manziel's preseason runs, and on every one "he could have thrown the football had he understood where he was supposed to go in the structure of the play."

He also criticized Manziel's arm, saying it's not strong and that against the Bears he could not throw a deep corner.

Hoge even implied criticism of owner Jimmy Haslam, saying the Rooney family would never interfere with anything in Pittsburgh, but that with some teams an owner expresses his positive opinion because he watched a player on "SportsCenter."

"You trump coaching," Hoge said. "You trump the evaluations of guys who have been doing it for years. Then you force them (the coaches) in a position that is just brutal. That coaching staff, I feel bad for them. They've got to deal with this."

The Browns obviously saw something different. They have entrusted the backup job to Manziel, which means he is one play away from being on the field.

"If you're the Steelers, you want him on the field," Hoge said. "You really do. Hoyer, listen, he didn't shine and he's nothing special, but he's a lot more dangerous than Johnny Manziel."

Quipped Pettine of Hoge: "Where'd he play?"

Browns get some needed positives

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
12:44
AM ET

CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Browns needed it.

The quarterbacks needed it.

The offense needed it.

Doesn’t matter who it was against, where it was and how it happened. This Browns offense and these quarterbacks finally got some positive things done in the preseason finale, a 33-13 win over the Chicago Bears' third- and fourth-team players.

Brian Hoyer had one drive and scored one touchdown. He was quick in his decisions and accurate on his throws. That was enough for coach Mike Pettine, who put Johnny Manziel in for the rest of the first half and the first drive of the second. Manziel had five drives, scored 13 points and made some nice plays.

It seemed as if both were able to exhale, understand their role and just play, and it seemed to matter. Hoyer got the reps with the starters, prepared with the starters and, unlike last week against the St. Louis Rams, was ready to play with the starters, albeit against backups.

Hoyer went 6-for-8 for 69 yards, and, though he lamented missing a touchdown throw to Jordan Cameron, he did guide the first-team offense on a touchdown drive on the game's first possession.

Pettigrew
Pettine
"Brian was sharp," Pettine said. "He made good decisions, and he threw the ball well."

Manziel finished 6-for-17 and said he didn't throw particularly well. But he did look more comfortable in the pocket, made more decisive reads and did make plays with his feet, running for 55 yards while throwing for 83.

The best play came when he escaped the pocket, jitterbugged to avoid four or five defenders and ran right and found Nate Burleson for a short completion that Burleson turned into a 27-yard gain.

"That’s who he is," Pettine said. "Somebody said on the sideline, 'There's Johnny being Johnny.' There was one play where it was no, no, no. Yes, yes, yes. It was typical of his playmaking ability that he had a guy open early and didn’t get it to him and he ended up making a play with his feet."

The Browns didn't like the word "relief," but there seemed to be a deep exhale after this game.

"We need that," running back Ben Tate said. "We've been making so many mistakes the last couple games. … That's what it's supposed to look like."

It matters.

It matters because, had it not gone well, the Browns would have been badgered about negativity and "what’s wrong?" questions all week.

It matters that they didn't face any starters, but it matters more that the night went well.

And it matters because, heading into the season opener in Pittsburgh, they can take another deep breath and focus on preparing.

"Whether it was against their backups or whatever it is, momentum is important, and I think our guys will head into next week with a very different mindset," Pettine said. "Just looking back, if it hadn't gone our way tonight, I think it would have been a bit of a shadow cast over us."

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