BEREA — While the eyes of the football world were on Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel, something more significant occurred in the Browns’ third preseason game Saturday.
Aging journeyman Shaun Hill and unproven youngster Austin Davis shredded Cleveland’s defense for 243 passing yards and two touchdowns in the St. Louis Rams’ 33-14 rout at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Though the Browns played without starting cornerbacks Joe Haden and Buster Skrine, nearly all of those numbers were racked up against first- and second-teamers.
“We took some steps back last week,” defensive end Phil Taylor said Monday following practice. “That game was not the defense we are capable of being. The little things that you mess up on will hurt you.
“I’m just glad we got that test in the preseason, so we know not to make those mistakes again.”
Since Cleveland coach Mike Pettine’s calling card is defense, he took the poor performance personally. He pointed the finger of blame directly at his cornerbacks, specifically No. 1 draft pick Justin Gilbert and Leon McFadden, who filled in for Haden and Skrine.
Starting safeties Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson also didn’t cloak themselves in glory on an evening when Rams franchise quarterback Sam Bradford blew out his knee after only attempting nine throws.
“I think the secondary knows they didn’t play very well,” Pettine said. “We had some decent performances in the front seven, but there were just too many issues on the back end — and it wasn’t just any one player.
“If your secondary is not playing well, and we did not play well as a secondary the other night, then you’re going to have issues.”
Fortunately for the Browns, Pro Bowl honoree Haden (foot soreness) and Skrine (thumb surgery) are expected to be ready for the Sept. 7 regular season opener in Pittsburgh.
Haden will not play in Cleveland’s preseason finale Thursday against Chicago for precautionary reasons, while Skrine is expected to be medically cleared this weekend. Veteran cornerback Isaiah Trufant (knee) is also on his way back.
“The guys that were in there the other night, they battled, they fought, but we’re totally different when we’ve got all our guys back,” middle linebacker Karlos Dansby said. “The coach’s calls are totally different, the confidence level is totally different. Their attention to details and their talent is natural, God-given talent.”
The only question mark, health-wise, for the Steelers game is cornerback Pierre Desir (knee). Pettine said he was “hopeful” the Browns would have their full complement of corners, but couldn’t guarantee that the rookie from Lindenwood would be ready.
The first-year coach also is optimistic that defensive end Desmond Bryant (wrist surgery) will return “fairly soon,” which would allow coordinator Jim O’Neil to essentially platoon him with the fast-rising Armonty Bryant.
“This defense, we’re going to be very aggressive, which is why we made some mistakes,” Armonty Bryant said. “But those are mistakes that we can correct. We’re just going to move forward and get better as this week goes on.”
In a classic half-full glass moment, Pettine insisted that Gilbert’s development will be accelerated from his very rough game against St. Louis.
Rams wide receiver Kenny Britt had his way with the No. 8 overall pick in the NFL Draft, who drew the toughest assignment because second-year pro McFadden has proven incapable of doing so.
“That was a good lesson for Justin to learn,” Pettine said. “He showed what he can do against Washington against a pretty good group of wideouts (in the second preseason game), then took a step backwards.
“This is something he’ll have to get used to because there’s a tendency for more footballs to come his way when he’s playing opposite of Joe. Hopefully, we’ll see a better performance Thursday.”
Taylor said he fully expects a solid showing against the Bears at FirstEnergy Stadium. The blunt 335-pounder also saw some positives from the secondary’s trial by fire, which he insisted wasn’t as scorching as it appeared to many fans.
“The big things, we have down,” Taylor said. “We’ve got to correct the little things because those add up. We weren’t full force last game, but we’ve got to correct the mistakes.
“Two weeks is more than enough time. We’ll be good.”
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.