The Cleveland Browns landed in London without their best player in veteran left tackle Joe Thomas, without their top draft pick in Myles Garrett, and without a win all season prior to their matchup with the Minnesota Vikings at Twickenham Stadium this Sunday. Unfortunate comments from wide receiver Kenny Britt in which he let his feelings known on the extra-long trip over the Atlantic were not ideal either.
It would not surprise therefore if the players and head coach Hue Jackson were to be a little abrupt and abrasive in any answers given at the press conference held shortly after Friday practice at their team hotel, yet the mood amongst all that took the podium was optimistic for the most part that suggested good spirits remain, despite a difficult 0-7 start to their 2017 campaign.
Questions on Kizer
That included when facing the inevitable and very valid line of questioning regarding the shifting status of the starting quarterback position on the team that has seen rookie DeShone Kizer relieved of his duties on a number of occasions over the first half of the season.
That was again the case when being pulled part way through last week’s narrow 12-9 overtime loss to the Tennessee Titans, the closest Jackson’s side have come to a W yet, as Kizer labored his way to completing 12 of 20 passes for just 114 yards and a pair of picks with no touchdowns, leading to backup Cody Kessler’s introduction into the game. He did not do much better however (10/19, 121 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT), and so Kizer will return to begin against the Vikings.
Said Hue Jackson on Friday:
[Kizer’s] had a really good week, you know I think DeShone, just like last week, he’s fired up about being named the starting quarterback again. I see growth, I see a guy who is eager to go back out and prove he deserves the job. I don’t think DeShone wants to feel like we’re giving him anything, he likes to earn it. Obviously, he has to earn it by continuing to play and play better throughout the whole game, I think he knows that, but he’s had a good week thus far.
Asked how he thought Kizer would have to balance knowing that one errant throw could might mean getting pulled from the game, Jackson responded:
I don’t look at it that way and I don’t think he does either. I don’t think it’s that. It hasn’t been just one bad throw as the reason I’ve taken him out, it’s been several things that have happened.
I think he’s doing everything that he can to go out there and play well, I don’t think he’s sitting there with a thought process in his mind of ‘if I don’t do this, this is going to happen’, I don’t think you can play quarterback that way, and I don’t think he approaches it that way.
I’m looking forward to him playing well, I want him to play all four quarters, that’s got to be his goal, it’s got to be our goal. Our goal is to play consistently through this football game and score enough points to win.
RealSport asked Hue Jackson about the young roster as a whole, Kizer included, making the trip as a potential chance to bond further as a group, to which the head coach agreed:
Anytime you can go away together and be in a different environment, and have to really depend on each other and hold each other accountable that way, I think that’s how you grow as a football team.
This is going to be a great experience for our whole organization. There’s a lot of people within our organization, our football team, our executive team that are here so I think it’ll be a great experience for the whole Cleveland Browns organization this weekend, and it would be awesome if we can come away with a win.
Kizer took to the podium later himself and did not shy away from the line of questioning:
It’s tough, you know, there’s a lot that comes with this position. We talk quite a bit back home about the different things that go into being a quarterback, and a big part of that is leadership and you just kind of fall into that role. I think that this far along into the season, I’m looking to earn respect from my guys and that involves getting out there and performing well.
As well as both Kizer and his coach being asked, his teammates also took questions about their young QB. Running back Duke Johnson added his perspective:
One thing he doesn’t have, is kind of that older guy in the room the veteran voice of reason. I think with him, going through what he’s going through, it’s tough for him because he doesn’t have a guy that he can watch make mistakes and learn from them.
He’s the one out there that’s making those mistakes and have to learn from them himself rather than having someone in the room. He’s taking it in stride, we try to keep his head up, keep him with high confidence, because we know it’s tough, watching him go through it.
It’s an assessment that suggests a bit of blame on management to not provide a more suitable presence in the quarterback room that could have helped with Kizer’s transition to the pro game, other than a couple of other young passers with limited experience themselves in Kessler and Kevin Hogan, who has also recently started for the Browns.
A tough challenge in the Vikings
It doesn’t get any easier for Kizer and the Browns offense either, with a Vikings defense up next that is strong on every level from Rhodes and Smith in the secondary to a D-line up front that is loaded, with Hunter and Griffen outside to Linval Joseph on the interior. RealSport asked offensive guard Joel Bitonio on facing Joseph specifically, in what could be one of the more entertaining individual battles of the game on Sunday:
He’s a great player. One of the best guys in the league at defensive tackle. He’s someone you have to think about every time, a big strong guy, he’s so strong that if he gets his hands on you he can move you back. So for me, make sure I get good leverage, use the right technique, play hard and play through the whistle.
Browns defense a key to victory
For Cleveland to cause an upset and return home with a first win of the season, the defense should play a significant role. The unit is playing particularly strong versus the run, actually leading the league in yards per attempt alongside the Denver Broncos, allowing just 3.0 yards per attempt.
Last time out against the Titans, they surrendered just 72 rush yards combined to DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. Duke Johnson, who goes up against the run defense each day in practice, agreed when RealSport asked if the defense was deserving more credit nationally:
I believe the defense have been playing by far the best I’ve seen since I’ve been here. They don’t get the credit for it because we haven’t won games. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about, winning games and we haven’t don’t that as a team. They’ve done their part, we just haven’t done it collectively as a team.
That was followed by RealSport asking linebacker Christian Kirksey about that success and how new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams suits his game individually and the group as a whole. Kirksey credited Williams for how well the coach adapts to the players he has to work with, whether he has an Aaron Donald (of the LA Rams) or a Danny Shelton now, different types of defensive lineman, but will still always create an effective run defense, regardless.
The team will therefore look for a low-scoring game, with few mistakes in the form of turnovers, and Kizer to play the full four quarters as a result, in order to make this London visit a memorable one for an organization enduring a tough year.
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