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Cleveland Browns: The Biggest Early-Season Storylines for Week 3

Barbara BrunoContributor IIDecember 6, 2016

Cleveland Browns: The Biggest Early-Season Storylines for Week 3

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    The Cleveland Browns were two brain-dead plays and 103 yards in penalties* away from victory in Week 2 of the NFL season.

    That may not seem like a recipe for optimism, but the truth is that the Browns looked really, um, not bad against the Cincinnati Bengals.

    They fielded respectable efforts on both sides of the ball, but did show their lack of depth—losing in part because of mistakes by reserve DBs pressed into action due to suspension and injury.

    On the whole, the “Cleveland Story” appears headed towards some good chapters on the way to a much happier ending to this year’s NFL campaign.

     

    *Statistics from NBC’s Sunday Night Football, espn.com and nfl.com.

Brandon Weeden: Step Away from the Panic Button

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    “It’s a sack of gold. You’ve got to lock it up in the pocket now.”

    —Offensive Coordinator Brad Childress after Week 1’s offensive debacle (quoted by Nate Ulrich of ohio.com)

    Hopefully, Childress is a little less metaphorical Mr. Chips and a lot more Vince Lombardi when talking to his players.

    Whatever happened in the coaching rhetoric, meetings, practices or player psychology sessions resulted in the kind of performance that NFL fans expect from a franchise QB.

    Brandon Weeden completed 26-of-37 passes (70 percent), averaged 8.7 yards per catch, tossed two TD throws and had zero interceptions. Oh, and he totaled 322 yards on the day for a QB of 114.9.

    Now that’s more like it!

    Better than the stat line was Weeden’s growing ability to survey the defense and execute a few progressions and checkdown passes.

    Every time he came off the field, No. 3 went to sit by QB coach Mark Whipple's side and review the photos and info.

    The worst part of Weeden’s game remained the deep balls, where his accuracy was notably lacking. However, even that improved over the afternoon, and he finally completed a reasonably long pass to Greg Little in the third quarter.

    Sitting on Whipple’s other side, Colt McCoy saw his chances of an early comeback fade.

Trent Richardson Is 'Who We Thought He Was'

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    Week 1 will go down in Browns history as Trent Richardson’s training camp and preseason. By Week 2, Richardson was all tuned up and ready to rock.

    Cleveland’s new starting RB rushed for 109 yards on 19 carries, added 36 yards receiving and finished the game with two touchdowns. Normally, a 145-yard performance would be a big deal.

    For Richardson, it’s what everyone expected.

    What was a surprise was the RB depth chart. Brandon Jackson wasn’t active for the afternoon and Montario Hardesty never got the ball.

    Chris Ogbonnaya was the featured third-down man. The scatback hauled in six receptions on six targets for 73 yards. Good for him.

    Too bad that he lost a fumble and somewhat ruined the “feel good” factor. Don’t be too hard on him: Jerome Bettis once fumbled when a defender put his helmet directly on the football.

    Something to watch in the backup rusher department. 

Mohamed Massaquoi Reveals Why He Still Has a Job

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    It was only five receptions for 90 yards, but Mohamed Massaquoi has quickly turned into one of Brandon Weeden’s “go-to guys.” The chemistry and trust factors were visible during the second game of the season.

    This game somewhat vindicated Mike Holmgren’s mysterious summer comments in support of the somewhat pedestrian WR (quoted by Tony Grossi of espncleveland.com):

    I think he’s ready to have a breakout year. I think he’s healthy, for one…In talking with him all during this minicamp, having Nolan Cromwell as a part of the coaching staff who is very, very precise and on those guys to do the right thing, that a receiver like Mo, who has good size and who catches the ball easy, smart … there is no reason to think that he shouldn’t be fine. There is nothing there to tell you this shouldn’t work. Now we have to pass him the ball.

    Holmgren can use all the vindication he can get these days, so Massaquoi’s showing was good news to more than just fans. The No. 2 WR wasn’t the only one who had a better day.

    The more comfortable Weeden became, the higher the “catchability” of his passes. That ultimately resulted in a 24-yard TD pass to Greg Little.

    Little is still being targeted, giving him every opportunity to catch the darn ball. Thus far, he hasn’t convinced critics of his reliability in the hands department. He has improved and managed five catches on seven targets.

    One would think that he would be motivated to get it together, with Josh Gordon breathing down his neck. It’s lucky for Little that Gordon is so raw. If Gordon’s learning curve outpaces Little’s reducing-the-drops curve, things could change.

    Travis Benjamin is looking more and more like a pro.

More TE Action Needed

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    One of Brandon Weeden’s best moments in Week 2 was a first-down pass to Alex Smith in the third quarter. Smith caught three passes on four targets with a 10-yard average while Benjamin Watson was only targeted once. He made the most of it, with a 27-yard play.

    The evolution of the underneath passing game is going to be interesting. Potential targets include three tight ends, slot receiver Travis Benjamin, Trent Richardson and, apparently, Chris Ogbonnaya.

    Two or three of these guys should emerge as the favorites over the next couple of weeks.

    Unfortunately, Alex Smith suffered a concussion and Benjamin Watson hasn’t seemed 100 percent healthy in a year. If supposed Golden Boy Jordan Cameron is going to impress anyone, he needs to start doing it.

    Part of this evolution will depend upon the reliability of the offensive line and how often the RBs and TEs will be needed to help block.

    One might notice that FB Owen Marecic is not included on this list. While he does catch the occasional ball, Marecic hasn’t lived up to expectations. (See how nice I just was?)

    Marecic has to be hearing practice-squad member Brad Smelley’s footsteps.

Offensive Line: Reserving Judgment

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    One could say that RT Mitchell Schwartz improved in Week 2, but Bengals D-lineman Carlos Dunlap didn’t play. Best to wait until Week 3 to see if that’s real or a mirage.

    However, the line allowed only two sacks in Week 2. 

    Overall, the Browns offense is progressing nicely. The squad racked up 439 offensive yards, improving from a total of 210 in Week 1. In the absence of any more helpful offensive line stats, one must give the big guys some credit here.

    Also on the positive side of the page was the generally balanced play-calling. See, that’s what you can do when the team actually has both a rusher and a passer.

    Not to rain on the Browns parade, but someone needs to point out to Pat Shurmur that I should not be able to predict the next play call from my couch. 

Browns Special Teams

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    Do I need to point out that the Browns must work on their kick coverage? That allowing Adam Jones to break six tackles on his way to the end zone was positively embarrassing?

    Here’s a hint: the Bills return man is named Leodis McKelvin—and he’s pretty good.

    Do I need to point out that Phil Dawson is awesome? I didn’t think so.

    Joshua Cribbs is back! He averaged in the high 20s in returns for the second week. Whew.

    Reggie Hodges averaged 46.5 yards per punt. Yes, that matters.

    So this unit only needs to get a handle on not letting the other guy score.

Browns Defense Needs Joe Haden More Than They Need Scott Fujita

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    CB Sheldon Brown is probable for the game against the Bills, which is excellent news for the Browns secondary. He may be, um, old—but he's dependable.

    Dimtri Patterson, in for Haden, lined up twice offside. Twice! He defended one pass and made nine tackles.

    Buster Skrine, a decent nickel, played in place of Brown and made an excellent case for Brown to keep his starting job.

    Rookie Trevin Wade got into the action and scored two tackles. Unfortunately, he was also the man who let Cincinnati Bengals WR Andrew Hawkins get away on his scoring scamper.

    The team even played 22-year-old Tashaun Gipson. That’s getting a little thin in the secondary. The youngster didn't play poorly, but he’s not exactly a household name.

    If Eric Hagg can’t perform better than his Week 2 effort, rumors of Usama Young’s return to the starting lineup will emerge. And those rumors that swirled all summer about Sheldon Brown moving to safety will return.

    The Bills receivers are, as you read this, studying film of Andrew Hawkins’ Barry Sanders-esque moves against the Browns secondary in the second game. Uh-oh.

Billy Winn 'Wins' over John Hughes

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    Late-rounder Billy Winn started at DT. That might have been significant if he had played more than seven snaps before leaving the game with a concussion.

    Instead, his departure led to significant playing time for UFA Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, who made two tackles.

    On the depth chart, John Hughes may be backing up Ahtya Rubin, but in the nature of modern defensive line rotations he saw plenty of action and recorded six tackles, a sack and a QB hit.

    Juqua Parker gained a sack before he, too, left the game with an injury. Emmanuel Stephens continued to show that he belongs in the pros by filling in.

    Frostee Rucker chalked up a sack v.s his old team. Check off one thing on his 2012 “to do” list.

    Jimmy Haslam may note that both of the Browns free agent acquisitions got to the quarterback twice in this game. That’s not a bad investment and reflects well on the current front office, which also looks good for drafting Winn and Hughes and signing Stephens and Kitchen.

    It might not be enough to save their jobs, but it shouldn't be ignored.

    As for linebackers, it’s ironic that Scott Fujita returned to the field just in time to snatch his job back from outstanding rookie LB James-Michael Johnson.

    At least Cleveland fans think he’s outstanding. That’s how he looked in camp and the preseason before this rib/oblique injury sidelined him. It was not guaranteed that Fujita could have beaten the rookie LB for the starting gig.

    In other linebacker action, D’Qwell Jackson is burning up the turf and UFA Craig Robertson continued to be a standout with another six tackles coming off the bench.

    The defensive storyline in Week 3 vs. the Buffalo Bills will be the ability of the front seven to stop C.J. Spiller, who has decided to join the ranks of professional running backs here in his third season. 

    If Safety T. J. Ward starts having to come up and make plays in the running game—it could be a fatal blow. Ward led the defense in tackles in Week 2. See, that’s not ideal.

    Fortunately, the Browns D played far better against the run in Week 2, holding decent rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis to 3.6 yards per rush and no scores.

    The Bills offensive ability is probably somewhere between the gross ineptitude displayed against the Jets and the playground romp vs. the zombies masquerading as the Kansas City Chiefs D in Week 2.

    The Browns D handled the Eagles quite well in the opener, so they could theoretically get the ball back for their offense. As long as Spiller doesn’t have 75 yards by halftime.

Browns 'To Do' List for Week 3

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    1)  Keep Mario Williams away from Brandon Weeden

    2)  Pass block, run block—and then block some more

    3)  Improve accuracy of the deep ball

    4)  Expect someone from the TE or FB categories to catch some balls

    5)  Do not let Spiller run away with it

    6)  Find a way to defend the pass with reserve DBs.

    Hint: The D-line is looking strong—let them make Ryan Fitzpatrick wish he’d stayed in Boston, er, Buffalo.

    Keep smiling, Cleveland. Once upon a time in the Rust Belt...

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