DETROIT: Brian Hoyer didn’t dazzle in the preseason opener Saturday night at Ford Field, but he didn’t disastrously fold under the pressure applied by Johnny Manziel, either.
In Mike Pettine’s debut as an NFL head coach, the Browns lost to the Detroit Lions 13-12. Receiver Corey Fuller beat the coverage of cornerback T.J. Heath and caught a 21-yard touchdown pass from third-string quarterback Kellen Moore with 1:05 remaining to lift the Lions to victory.
But everyone knows the final scores of exhibition games don’t matter.
However, it is at least somewhat meaningful that when the dust settled, Hoyer still looked like a slight front-runner to become the starting quarterback for the Browns heading into their Sept. 7 regular-season opener at Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, in Manziel’s debut as a professional, he looked exactly like what he is at this stage — a rookie with a tremendous ability to make plays with his feet who’s also going to take some lumps as he tries to adjust to the NFL.
“They both did some good things,” Pettine said in his postgame news conference. “They both did some things that more suited their skill set. I think Brian was high on a couple throws. I think he would want those back. He threw a couple of other nice balls in there. I thought Johnny did some nice things from the pocket. When he got out, he created a little bit as well.”
But the hottest position battle in Cleveland isn’t over yet partly because neither quarterback has seized control. In other words, it was fitting that the Browns didn’t score a touchdown Saturday night.
NFL Network reported Manziel would start the second preseason game Aug. 18 on the road against the Washington Redskins, but Pettine said “that decision hasn’t been made.” Pettine has said he wants to name starters at all positions before the third exhibition game Aug. 23 against St. Louis.
During Hoyer’s first game action against an opponent since he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last Oct. 3, he maneuvered well and led the Browns on two field goal drives in three series, two of which were against the Lions’ starters. He completed 6-of-14 passes (42.8 percent) for 92 yards, posting a passer rating of 65.2.
“There’s definitely a few throws I would’ve liked to have back and put in a better spot,” Hoyer said. “But I also feel like nine months off of an ACL surgery to be able to play and play pretty decent, it’s a step forward. You’ve got to just keep building and keep along that path.”
Hoyer’s statistics are deceiving because at least two of his passes were dropped. Receiver Miles Austin failed to haul in what should have been a 29-yard completion along the sideline at the Lions’ 5-yard line. Two plays later, Austin caught a 13-yard pass from Hoyer on fourth-and-5 at the Lions’ 34.
Later, during the same drive, Hoyer’s pass on third-and-goal from the 8 went off All-Pro wide receiver Josh Gordon’s hands in the back of the end zone. With the chance to score a touchdown squandered, the Browns settled for Billy Cundiff’s successful 26-yard field goal that gave them a 6-3 lead with 11:10 remaining in the second quarter.
“I thought we moved the ball,” said Hoyer, adding he did not absorb a single hit during the game. “We just kind of kicked ourselves in the butt a few times. We kind of stopped ourselves really. We were 0-for-3 on third down, and when you get in the red zone, you’ve got to score touchdowns.
“Yeah, it’s nice to walk away with two out of three drives with points, but really you’ve got to get seven and not three. I think there’s some things we did well, and I think there’s some things that we really got to go back and look at, correct those things and get better.”
Hoyer seemed a little too hyped out of the gate for his own good. During the offense’s first series, his second-down pass from the Lions’ 39 intended for Gordon sailed too high. On third down, he threw the ball away under pressure, and Spencer Lanning was summoned to punt.
Another high throw haunted Hoyer during the Browns’ next possession when the ball went through the hands of 5-foot-7 slot receiver Andrew Hawkins on third-and-6 from the Lions’ 25. The Browns were left with Cundiff’s 43-yard field goal that tied the score 3-3 with 1:43 left in the first quarter.
“I don’t chalk anything up to being rusty,” Hoyer said. “We practiced for the whole offseason and a week and a half of [training] camp. I think it was just a bad throw here and there.”
Manziel entered the game with 7:32 left in the second quarter and played primarily with backups. Tight end Jim Dray was the only starter left in the lineup.
In four series, Manziel completed 7-of-11 passes (63.6 percent) for 63 yards, posting a passer rating of 79. Undrafted rookie receiver Willie Snead dropped one of Manziel’s passes.
“For me, it was a good start,” Manziel said. “You have to start somewhere. You have to set a foundation. I got my feet wet. I got my first preseason game under my belt and we’ve got three more [exhibition games] heading into the season.”
Manziel also ran six times for 27 yards (4.5 average), including a long gain of 16 yards. He was checked out on the sideline by medical personnel, but he and Pettine insisted he’s fine.
“It’s a football game. It’s physical,” Manziel said. “It’s part of the game, but I feel really good. I feel great.”
Still, this is the bottom line: Six carries is a lot for only four series, and quarterbacks who run frequently often put themselves at a greater risk of injury.
“Obviously, that’s not the plan for me to get that many carries every week,” Manziel said. “At the same time, the more and more I get better at progressions, the more and more I get comfortable with the play calls and the scheme and what we’re trying to do and pre-snap looks, the more and more I continue to get better over time. And less and less [running]. Hopefully that will weed out. The times I did take off, I felt I got out of bounds, slid and tried to protect myself the best way I could.”
Manziel led the offense on one field-goal drive. Another series likely would have led to a score if the Lions hadn’t recovered running back Dion Lewis’ fumble at their 31 with 4:29 left in the third quarter.
Manziel, who did not play in the fourth quarter because third-string quarterback Tyler Thigpen relieved him, said he believes he continued to improve.
“I think there were some things that I obviously missed, which comes with the territory of being precise on these reads and our progressions,” Manziel said. “Overall, I felt like when I knew where I wanted to go and got the right look that the ball came out nice and it came out on time and really tried to put these guys in the best position possible to get a catch and turn up field and get as many yards after the catch as we can.”
The Lions opened the game at their 49 thanks to Jeremy Ross’ 49-yard kickoff return. In his only series, quarterback Matthew Stafford led the Lions to the Browns 19 before the drive stalled when his off-target pass intended for receiver Kris Durham fell incomplete on third-and-7. Nate Freese made a 37-yard field goal to give the Lions a 3-0 advantage with 11:09 left in the first quarter.
Those were the only points allowed by the Browns starting defense in its three series, two of which were against backups. Outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo’s sack of second-string quarterback Dan Orlovsky during the second series was the top highlight provided by the starting defense.
“We did pretty well,” Browns strong safety Donte Whitner said. “I feel like we ran to the football and we didn’t make mental errors. We tackled pretty well. We’ve just got to get off the field on third down. That’s something that’s correctable.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.