For the Cleveland Browns, their 34-27 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals—their second in as many weeks of action—wasn't entirely a negative experience. Despite not having the most important statistic a team could want—a win—the improvement they showed on offense shows they are indeed on the right track.
The defense could have certainly used cornerback Joe Haden, who served his first of a four-game suspension on Sunday. However, it wasn't his absence that caused the Browns to lose, so this could also be considered a positive despite the loss.
Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, who had just 118 passing yards in his debut last week, exceeded that number by halftime and ended the day completing 26 of his 37 passes for an impressive 322 yards and two touchdowns—a franchise record for single-game yardage by a rookie quarterback in franchise history.
Weeden threw no picks and was sacked just twice, and he maintained control of the ball when hit, showing he's indeed worked on fixing the mistakes that plagued him both throughout the preseason and Week 1.
It was also a great day for another Browns rookie, running back Trent Richardson. He had 19 carries for 109 yards and a touchdown on the ground for a 5.7-yards-per-carry average. He also had four receptions for 36 yards and another score, both he and Weeden's first.
That particular score was the most impressive offensive performance of the day, with Richardson breaking tackles and looking every much like the player the Browns took in the first round of the draft. It's clear that he's feeling no aftereffects from this summer's arthroscopic knee surgery; indeed, he looked very much in the Alabama form that built his reputation.
We saw more evidence that Mohamed Massaquoi is quickly becoming Weeden's favorite target. He had seven passes thrown his way for five receptions and 90 yards. Greg Little also was targeted seven times, pulling down five of them as well, for 57 yards and a score.
With 439 yards of total offense on 62 plays (the Bengals ran the same number of plays but amassed just 375 yards) and 16 of their 21 first downs coming via the pass, it appears that Weeden is indeed a far better quarterback that the one who took the field against Philadelphia last week. It's a relief, and it's a sign that wins are near for the Browns.
The Browns had problems, but they were few and they were obvious. First, is that they allowed Adam Jones to return a punt for a touchdown. Special teams tackling is one of the most important and oft-underrated skills a team can have, and the Browns need to prevent this from happening again.
Second, the Browns had way too many penalties. Ten of them, to be exact, for 103 yards. That's a full field's worth of yardage, and they not only killed drives for Cleveland but allowed the Bengals to extend theirs. Without those defensive penalties, the Bengals' day would have been far different.
Cleveland also appeared to have stiffened their run defense. They allowed 150 total rushing yards to the Eagles last week (with 110 of those belonging to LeSean McCoy), but this week gave up just 80 yards on the ground to Cincinnati. Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who had 91 rushing yards against the Baltimore Ravens last week, had 75 yards on 21 carries.
The pass rush didn't suffer because the run defense improved. The Browns notched six sacks on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton; three came via linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, one from rookie defensive tackle John Hughes and one apiece from free-agent defensive end additions Juqua Parker and Frostee Rucker, the latter playing against his former team.
Yes, the Andrew Hawkins touchdown that came when Dalton was flushed out of the pocket under pressure was painful, but that's what Hawkins does—few defenses would have been able to prevent that score. So it's hard to count that particular play against the Browns.
The real flaws were simply their failure to tackle Jones, and those 10 penalties are what caused Cleveland to lose, which is unfortunate, but the fact that both their offense and defense did play a game worthy of a win is a huge leap forward over last week's loss.
A loss is never good, especially in one's own division. But this week's loss cannot be considered a failure for the Browns. Clean up the special teams tackling and minimize the penalties while continuing to play as they did against the Bengals, and the Browns could absolutely win significant games later in the season.