One of the biggest hopes for the Cleveland Browns this year is that with a better-armed quarterback throwing to him and a year of experience under his belt, wide receiver Greg Little will finally free himself from the issues he had catching passes in his rookie season.
With 14 drops in a year where he was plunged into being the Browns' No. 1 receiver after not having played college ball in 2010, it made sense that Little struggled. But now, he should do better, right?
It's been a rocky, inconsistent preseason thus far for Little, as it's been for the entirety of the Browns offense while the young team continues getting comfortable with one another.
In the preseason opener against the Detroit Lions, Little caught no passes and was targeted once. He rebounded against the Green Bay Packers the following week with four catches on five targets for 45 yards. And in Week 3, against the Philadelphia Eagles, he struggled again, with one three-yard reception to his name on four targets.
So what was the issue with Weeden and Little connecting against the Eagles? Was it the pressure, the wide-nine defensive front? Or was it something else—Weeden's big arm—that caused Little to miss three of the four passes thrown to him?
Looking at the footage, it appears that two of those drops could easily be ascribed to a very hard and fast, over-the-middle throw that Little wasn't prepared for.
Here's the first. As you can see, Weeden is (uncharacteristically, in this game) not under pressure. He has time to throw and to throw accurately.
His target is Little, who is in the middle of the field, wide open. The pass speeds right to him.
And apparently, right past him. The ball was thrown with slightly too much velocity for Little to get there in time and get grasp of it.
It's the first of two times this happened in the Philadelphia game. Here, Little shakes double coverage, which makes him a perfect target for Weeden. He's again in the middle of the field.
Little gets in front of his defender, poised to make what should be a fairly easy catch, though it may not provide any yards after it, considering his position.
And again, the ball has too much zip on it, and it goes past Little before he's entirely prepared for it to even get there.
This doesn't seem to be a problem for Weeden and Little elsewhere on the field. Here's the other drop that Little had, which was more like a well-defended play by the Eagles to prevent a touchdown.
Weeden, again with time, is ready to make an end-zone strike. He looks to Little, who is near the right side, behind the line.
Little reaches up for the catch. He's well-defended in the sense that the Eagle who is on him simply uses his body to push Little out of position so he cannot wrap his hands around the ball. There's also a second defender looming.
As such, Little is knocked off course and doesn't pull down the pass. However, this incompletion is different than the other two that Weeden threw his way.
Simply, Weeden isn't throwing a nearly parallel-to-the-field throw; this is an arc, which doesn't have as much speed on it as a pass thrown straight on would. When Weeden wants to get the ball out quickly, it has a lot of power behind it—remember, his first career was as a baseball pitcher—and it's something Little will have to adjust to.
You can tell, however, by these drops that he's not the Little of 2011, who dropped passes because he was overthinking his routes and was otherwise preoccupied with so many nuances of the play that he couldn't concentrate on the catch.
Now, he's just adjusting to the strong arm of his brand-new quarterback.
Likely, Weeden will have to either be mindful of the element of (unwelcome) surprise his throwing velocity causes and either dial it down, or Little and the other players about to catch passes from Weeden this season and beyond will need more of them thrown their way on the practice field to acclimate.
At the very least, Little's drops against the Eagles weren't of the same species as they were last season. Progress has many faces; these missteps in the preseason are actually indicators of it, regardless of the other issues they raise.