Brian Hoyer started Saturday night's game in Detroit for the Cleveland Browns, but Johnny Manziel made his long-awaited professional debut at the 7:32 mark of the second quarter with the Browns leading 6-3. Pass-catchers Jordan Cameron and Nate Burleson were out of the lineup, but Josh Gordon did play, as did the rest of Cleveland's top offensive unit.
It's a very small sample, but there were some things that I liked (and some things that I didn't like) about what Manziel did in his first game against NFL competition. More importantly, there are some facets to this Browns team that have set Manziel up for success as a rookie whenever it is that he takes over as the starting QB.
Cleveland's base offense
With Hoyer in the game, we saw a steady diet of the pistol, play-action, rollouts and Kyle Shanahan's zone running scheme, led by Ben Tate and a few touches from Terrance West. This is clearly what the Browns want to do on offense.
Hoyer -- an underrated athlete in his own right -- executed it all quite well for the most part. Hoyer threw on time with very good anticipation and timing. He threw high at times, especially on deeper throws, but also wasn't helped much by his cast of receivers, outside of Gordon.
Miles Austin dropped what should have been a big gain to put the Browns close to the goal line on Cleveland's third drive. After converting a fourth down on that drive, Cleveland converted its second field goal of the night, although the Browns were extremely fortunate that MarQueis Gray's drop wasn't ruled a fumble and a Lions recovery.
When Manziel took over behind center, the Browns went three-and-out on their first series. In the pistol for all three plays and behind the first-team offensive line, Manziel abruptly completed his first pass as a professional to Anthony Armstrong, getting the ball quickly out of his hand to the right man and on time. But on back-to-back zone read plays, the latter of which Manziel kept, the Lions defended the plays very well, and stuffed the rookie's first drive as a pro.
After a one-play kneel down drive to end the half, Manziel's third drive started the second half at the Lions' 49-yard line with the game tied. It was a six-play drive that ended in a field goal, with three notable plays. The first was a run by Manziel on first down on which he might have been too quick to take off, which resulted in a 3-yard gain. The next was another run on a first down that was a straight quarterback keeper; he took what was given, and wisely got out of bounds after an 8-yard gain.
The final notable play of the drive was a third-and-5. Manziel hesitated on his first read that would have been an easy first down, and instead dumped the ball to Dion Lewis once he was under pressure, resulting in a mere 3-yard gain.
The Browns mounted a nine-play drive on the next series, which was the longest of the evening with Manziel at quarterback. On first down, Manziel made his best throw of the night off play-action, with an excellent fake and throw to Taylor Gabriel in a tight window for a first down, showing off a big arm and strong throwing mechanics in the pocket. On a third-and-8 play later in the drive, he got quick pressure to his right, saw there wasn't a spy in the middle of the field and took off immediately, picking up 18 yards while showing obvious explosive running traits.
After picking up that first down, the Browns ran a play-action out of the I formation. Manziel rolled to his left with plenty of time, and put it on Willie Snead a little late which resulted in a catch out of bounds. This showed off Manziel's accuracy while rolling to his left, but he has to be quicker; that should improve.
Later, on fourth-and-very short, the Browns ran another play-action with 22 personnel. Here, we saw the one play of "Johnny being Johnny." He easily could have dumped it to Ray Agnew for the first down, but instead held the ball trying to create a big play, before finally scrambling for the first down. On the next play, Lewis fumbled a straight handoff, which the Lions recovered. There wasn't a specific play that stood out on Manziel's final drive, but it became pretty apparent that he was then playing with a sub-standard group of receivers for the most part.
Overall, in a rather simplified offense that clearly will have a ton of pistol and read option principles, Manziel performed admirably. He showed that he can throw from different platforms, on the move to his left or right and when his feet are not set, while demonstrating a very lively arm that was quite accurate in this game. These are great traits to have at this level, but the Browns' playcallers rarely asked him to make difficult throws or reads. This shouldn't be looked at as a negative at this point of Manziel's development; overall, he looked quite comfortable.
As the game went on, Manziel's teammates did little to help his cause. It also has to be noted that he protected his body very well, which is something he must do in the regular season. Will that keep up? We shall see, but Saturday night was promising with his slides and getting out of bounds when he was a ball carrier.
Why he's set up for success
Few seem to be talking about it, but I expect this Browns defense to be very good, and certainly improved at all three levels. In fact, I would not be surprised if it was among the best defenses in the NFL this year. Cleveland's first-string defense was very impressive in this game, and the Browns' depth should be a real strength on this side of the ball, as well.
As demonstrated by players such as Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson, a stifling, opportunistic defense and a strong running game can be a rookie quarterback's best friends. As I discussed in my post on the NFL's top offensive lines, the Browns also have one of the league's best front fives.
So while the receivers are far from ideal in Cleveland right now, the rest of the supporting cast is quite strong for Manziel. Whenever it is that he takes over as the Browns' starting quarterback, the pieces are in place for him to be successful right away. This preseason opener was a solid start.