Rookie quarterbacks cannot choose their destiny, the same as any other quarterback in the league. Simply because it's their first year in the league does not mean that the scheduling powers-that-be have any obligation to make it easy on them.
It's already been a trial by fire for Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, facing three high-pressure defenses in his first three weeks as a regular season starter. And now he's preparing for his toughest test yet, one that he needs to get familiar with quickly: the Baltimore Ravens.
For as long as he's the Browns' starter, Weeden will have to face the venerable Ravens twice per season. This two-games-per-year stretch starts on Thursday night, with the nation's eye squarely upon him. Here's a primer on how Weeden can survive—and even out-maneuver—Baltimore's defense this week.
There Will be Pressure
The Ravens defense has made its name with the pass rush. Although things aren't as they were a season ago now that the Ravens are without linebacker Terrell Suggs and they aren't producing as much in the pass rush (especially on first and second downs, as I detailed on Tuesday), Weeden has to expect that there will be Ravens defenders trying to repeatedly get in his face on Thursday.
Whether via the blitz or by sending nose tackle Haloti Ngata to barrel through the Browns' offensive line, there's little doubt that the Ravens are not going to take it easy on the rookie Weeden.
Weeden has thrown three picks and has been sacked eight times when facing a traditional pass rush, and he has been picked off and sacked once each against a blitz. So the Ravens are going to be using that history to their advantage.
As such, Weeden will need to make some smart, quick decisions when he sees the Ravens coming his way. He'll likely have to take a sack (or two), so the goal there will be to maintain control of the ball as he's hit.
This is a problem he had in the preseason and in Week 1 against the Philadelphia Eagles (a similarly bloodthirsty group of defenders), but he's corrected this problem over the last two weeks. He'll need to keep it up on Thursday, because the Browns simply cannot afford to have him turn the ball over if they want this to be a competitive game.
The Ravens will be a major test of whether or not Weeden has divested himself of the rookie mistakes that he made earlier in the season. Ball security is one of them, as is decision-making—such as whether to throw the ball away or to try to extend the play and make a completion.
You can tell a lot about a quarterback based on the ways he deals with pressure. If Weeden can take hits and return to stand tall in the pocket and not overreact or become overwhelmed, it will be another little victory for him on his way to being a well-rounded starter.
Don't Throw to Ed Reed, but Don't Not Throw to Him (the Quarterback's Paradox)
Ravens free safety Ed Reed has made a cottage industry for himself out of interceptions. He has 59 thus far in his career, with seven returned for a touchdown, and he has picked off quarterbacks twice already this season.
However, it wouldn't be wise for Brandon Weeden to fail to throw his way.
Not testing a prominent defender is a good way for Weeden to appear afraid of Reed and also effectively will cut off portions of the field to him and his receivers. Weeden must have the confidence to throw in Reed's direction and know that the pass will be accurate and that his receiver will come down with the ball.
The key for Weeden is to know when it's smart to throw toward Reed's side of the field and when it isn't.
Under pressure, with Trent Richardson open in a check-down lane? Probably don't want to test Reed. Is Reed part of a double coverage on a particular receiver? Probably don't want to make that throw. But if he's prowling, and he's in the area and Weeden is confident in the matchup, then he simply has to make the throw and hope that it's on target.
Reed will be keeping a close watch of Weeden's eyes, so he must be more careful than ever not to stare down his intended target. Weeden has gotten better over the weeks at working through his progressions; his improvement in this area will be heavily tested by Reed on Thursday.
Quarterbacks don't build their names by who they fail to test; they earn respect by staring down a legend like Reed and not letting him control their decision-making.
Test Cornerback Cary Williams
Whether he's starting outside along with Lardarius Webb or if he gets the nickel job this week (or does a bit of both), there's little doubt that cornerback Cary Williams will get picked on quite a bit by Weeden—or, at least, he should.
Williams is the weakest link in the Ravens' secondary. In three games and 225 snaps, the receivers covered by Williams have been thrown to 26 times, with 19 completions (a 73.1 completion percentage) for 235 yards, 70 yards after the catch and a touchdown. Quarterbacks targeting Williams have come away with a 113.5 quarterback rating as a result.
With Mohamed Massaquoi out on Thursday as he continues to heal his hamstring injury, it's yet to be known how the Browns' pecking order at receiver will pan out. Greg Little may or may not retain his starting designation, but he'll still be on the field. We should also see more out of rookies Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin without Massaquoi playing.
But regardless of who Williams is assigned to—yes, even the still drops-prone Little—Weeden should be throwing in that direction.
Weeden hasn't had much luck in deep completions this year, despite having the arm to make the throws. According to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Weeden has thrown nine passes deep right that traveled 21 or more yards this season, and he's connected with his receivers on none of them—and three of them have been picked off.
Thursday's game against the Ravens should provide him the chances to improve those long-ball statistics all over the field. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Williams is the league's worst cornerback, regardless of the amount of snaps played.
The Baltimore defense is a hard puzzle to solve, but Weeden is practically being given a gift with Williams on the field defending his passes. It's time to go deep and get some completions against a corner as weak as Williams.
It's a good thing for Weeden that one of his stronger throws is the quick slant. It's a great way for him to make completions while dealing with pressure, such as when facing a blitz (something the Ravens have to do with ever-increasing frequency without Suggs), and it can also help take advantage of a Baltimore front seven that isn't as fast as it used to be.
Not every pass Weeden throws needs to go for 10 or more yards; that's a pipe dream that no quarterback can actually accomplish on a regular basis. The Browns need chunks of yardage, they need to control the clock and wear down the defense and they need to methodically move the ball down the field.
Quick slants can meet all of these needs, especially when augmented by quick hand-offs to running back Trent Richardson. Offenses all around the league are trying to get faster (just look at the Ravens, for one example).
Though the Browns don't have as much leeway to speed up the game play after play—that's a tall order to ask of a rookie quarterback who is just three games into the season—there are times where they can use quick passing to their advantage while keeping the play-calling fairly simple.