There were reasons to be impressed with the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night.
Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden withstood the pressure of the Baltimore Ravens defense and threw for over 300 yards for the second time this year. He was also sacked just once. Though running back Trent Richardson didn't have a huge night on the ground, his toughness was clearly on display. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was under constant pressure. Ray Rice was often held at bay.
But all of those positives were undone by the myriad mistakes, especially on offense, as the Browns lost their fourth game of the season, 23-16.
It was evident almost immediately what a difference it made for Weeden and Cleveland's offense to not have receiver Mohamed Massaquoi on the field. Though never thought of as a great receiver, he's become Weeden's most reliable target. Without him, the Browns receiving corps needs help.
Unsurprisingly, the main issues in the passing game revolved around receiver Greg Little. Little was targeted 10 times, but pulled down just four passes for a total of 77 yards.
Three of his drops were among the most costly of the night—two would have gone for a first down or more in drives the Browns desperately needed to extend. Another was a pass in the end zone that went right through his hands.
Even yours truly has tried to explain away Little's issues last season dropping passes: He came into the league in 2011 without having played college football in the previous year; he had no offseason to shake off the rust, thanks to the player lockout, and the Browns started both Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace, depriving Little of continuity at the quarterback position.
But this season, little has changed about Little. He came into this game with as many as 11 drops through the first three weeks (according to NFL Network's Mike Mayock and Brad Nessler), and he blatantly dropped three more against Baltimore. Even when he's wide open, Little's not guaranteed to catch passes that hit him in the hands—a trait simply not acceptable for an NFL starter.
However, Little wasn't the only problem on offense. Though Weeden had a strong game, in terms of yardage, he still managed to complete fewer than half of his attempted passes and was picked off by Cary Williams for a touchdown.
Head coach Pat Shurmur decided to have a pass-heavy attack in this game and asked Weeden to throw 52 times.
Fifty-plus throws is rarely advisable for any quarterback, except when facing a significant deficit. Cleveland, however, was never down by more than 13 points—truly not an insurmountable number—and had no reason to ask its rookie quarterback to throw that often in a game that didn't require it.
Cleveland ran the ball just 17 times, with only 14 carries for 47 hard-fought yards and a score for Trent Richardson. Given Weeden's inexperience and Richardson's abilities, Cleveland needed to give the running back 20-25 on the night. Instead, the Browns had just one rushing first down.
As a result of being asked to throw so much, Weeden's rookieness demonstrated itself. He stared down his receivers more often than he did last week. He threw too hard at times, too softly on other occasions.
However, his progress is evident. His arm strength is unquestioned, and what accuracy issues he's had have less to do with talent than lack of experience. Questionable play-calling and a dearth of reliable receivers aren't helping his cause either.
For Weeden to be successful while throwing that much, he needs more than 300-plus yards or to target nine different players. He also needs at least two of those receivers to be good for 80 or more receiving yards per game, every game.
No matter who is under center presently—Weeden, Colt McCoy or even Robert Griffin III (had the Browns outbid the Redskins for the rights to draft him)—no one could have consistent success with this crew of receivers.
Little is quickly proving to be unreliable. Period. Without any qualifiers. Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin are still incredibly raw, as is Jordan Norwood, who is getting his most playing time ever in the NFL.
And for the positive traits these four receivers have, none are projecting to be the next Mike Wallace, Calvin Johnson or Roddy White. If Weeden's going to be asked to do as much as he did tonight, he needs more to work with, or else his talents will simply be squandered.
It wasn't all terrible, however.
Even Weeden had a redemptive drive of sorts, down by seven with just over one minute remaining in the fourth quarter, with 90 yards to go and zero timeouts. Aided along by a late hit by Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger, Weeden was able to drive his team down the field to Baltimore's 18-yard line with two seconds remaining. He couldn't finish off the drive, but he handled a high-pressure situation quite well.
Further, Cleveland's defense—aside from some inconsistent play from cornerbacks Dimitri Patterson and Buster Skrine—was again a highlight. Four Browns defenders—Ahtyba Rubin, Scott Fujita, Jabaal Sheard and Usama Young—notched sacks of Flacco, and rookie defensive tackle Billy Winn and backup linebacker Craig Robertson were surprise stars.
As such, without the interception for a touchdown, the Browns and Ravens offense scored the same number of points: 16. The Ravens feature a quick-tempoed, high-octane offense this season, but they managed only an occasional big play. In short yardage and even in the run game (Rice had 18 total carries for just 49 yards), the Ravens couldn't get anything going.
But the mistakes, often made at critical junctures of the game, are what ultimately doomed the Browns against Ravens. The mental errors, the drops and the ill-advised play calls need to be nipped in the bud immediately.
At 0-4, the Browns have a huge hole out of which they need to dig themselves.
It's becoming harder and harder to explain away why they've gotten here.