BEREA, Ohio — Is it possible that Joe Haden, a veteran member of the Cleveland Browns, has never had the chance to wear one of the infamous orange jerseys? On Thursday afternoon, the Pro Bowl, shutdown corner’s fortunes changed as the Browns’ defensive unit was awarded the kits made popular by such noblemen like William Green and Jeff Garcia. Browns head coach Mike Pettine, as a means to keep adrenaline running during Training Camp, has installed end-of-practice challenges—the winning side of the ball getting to sport orange jerseys during their next time out as a morning-long victory lap, a reminder of which side got the job done when called upon.
What may seem to be a trivial or tacky game, a ploy instilled by a rookie head coach, has not only been embraced by the players, but has resulted in unity between the groups.
“It’s a big deal,” said defensive lineman Billy Winn. “We won the day before. We get to look cool, and have some swag. It’s a fun way of doing things while still allowing us to get our work in.”
Having won Tuesday’s “challenge,” Haden, Winn and the rest of the defensive side of the ball sported the orange jerseys while the offensive side baked in the standard brown. As the requisite hip-hop blared through the complex speakers (More Drake and 2 Pac, a little Rick Ross “Hustlin” and even some Ace Hood with his new Bugatti) and the Browns were donning their pads, there were two separate “live” sessions where there was not only hitting, but players getting taken to the ground. The popping of pads was audible. The fans were energized by every thud. The animation level of the players was noticeably higher—this provided good balance on a day that was otherwise quieted down with the wet blanket known as “special teams implementation.” Browns safety Donte Whitner, when comparing this week to those he has been accustomed to in San Francisco said that Pettine has been trying to send a message. “We’ve had a lot more contact [this week] than we had at all in San Francisco,” he said.
A lot will be written about this year’s team—as a total unit—when compared to the 2013 edition and their play (or lack thereof) in the fourth quarter. In his postgame address, Mike Pettine was quick to point out that all too many games are decided by eight points or less. A team can play well through 36 minutes, only to falter at the end and not make the plays when leverage is the highest. Alas, Thursday’s “challenge” was met with plenty of fan fare—a 3rd-and-2 live-hitting goal line drill wherein little time is left on the clock offense has just one timeout.
“I like it,” said center Alex Mack. “It’s a good example of how one or two plays can determine the outcome of a game. It’s that building up toward the end.”
While Johnny Manziel led the second unit a score, the real challenge would come when the starting units took the field, and would end with big Ishmaa’ily Kitchen—sporting a giant, orange No. 67 jersey—picking up running back Ben Tate and carrying him down the opposite end of the field until the whistles blew—Blindside style. The defensive unit, who was largely overmatched through much of the morning, erupted from the end zone in celebration.
“The offense had the upper hand, but the defense made the plays at the end,” said Pettine. “They’ll be wearing the orange jerseys tomorrow.”
Shortly after practice was concluded, Haden uploaded a picture of himself in the orange No. 23, saying “My first time ever wearing the orange jerseys! Nice!!”
More notes from Thursday’s practice:
• Once again, Jordan Cameron appears to be unguardable. He destroyed Barkevious Mingo early in one-on-one drills and was later the recipient of several passes in the live sessions. He appears ready and willing to be the main target of the passing offense this season as the team prepares to be without Josh Gordon (who was “traveling” today). In the very least, he should draw a safety each time out, opening up lanes for the team’s other receiving options, whomever they may be.
• Justin Gilbert is a big boy. He’s listed at 6-feet, 202 pounds. I’m 6-feet, and just a bit under 200 pounds and he absolutely towers over me (as well as many of the Browns’ receivers). He’s still running with the second team, and had to knock out a few push-ups for dropping an interception, but the kid is a freak. It won’t be long before he’s running with the first unit.
Justin Gilbert is going all Braylon this morning with jersey tucked under his pads. Also had to knock out 10 push-ups due to dropped INT.
— Scott @ WFNY (@WFNYScott) July 31, 2014
• While Johnny Manziel was clearly running with the second unit (something both he and the coaching staff are downplaying as an indication of standing), there were some first glimpses of designed runs which resulted in Manziel eventually running out of bounds or sliding before a defender could touch him. He was also excellent once again post-practice, saying that the real completion is “me versus the playbook.” The terminology, the verbiage and simply being under center are all things new to him. “It’s a 180 compared to the last few years,” Manziel said. Despite all of the negative things written about the No. 22 pick this week, Pettine believes Manziel is actually ahead of where the team though he would be; Kyle Shanahan stated that he could “imagine” a Manziel-specific package being installed in the event the rookie does not win the starting job.
• The media horde managed to ask Manziel only football-related questions following practice. Growth all around!
• MarQueis Gray will likely be the team’s fullback this season, but if it’s anything like previous Kyle Shanahan offenses, it’ll be more of an H-Back role a la Chris Cooley. The first two live plays from scrimmage resulted in Gray being used through the air—a nice waggle route to the right—as well as the ground. Versatility is key with any player who will be featured this season. Gray, a quarterback turned tight end, exudes this. There were also some speed option plays run, the team really looking to establish the outside run. Compared to last season, any run would be nice.
• Miles Austin looks really, really good. His hand strength was evident on several routes, a couple of which forced him to come back to the ball. He lined up on both sides of the field and won every jump ball thrown his way including one deep ball over Joe Haden.
• Christian Kirksey and Karlos Dansby were the inside linebackers with the starting unit. Kirksey shined once again, breaking up a wheel route down the left sideline intended for running back Isaiah Crowell, and splitting out wide and successfully covering Jordan Cameron in the goal line challenge.
• And finally, veteran safety Jim Leonhard had his first practice with the Browns, being officially signed Wedensday night after a few weeks of deliberation by the team. The team pictures him being used in various multiple-safety situations (which is a change from previous defenses) in addition to special teams. While Travis Benjamin will return punts, Mike Pettine referred to Leonhard as a “punt catcher,” the guy you can pin back there in pooch or high-leverage situations. “We used to joke that he could catch a punt in a hurricane,” said Pettine following practice.