The Cleveland Browns are 1-6, but it's not for lack of trying. Four of their losses were decided by seven or fewer points, and if it weren't for a key mistake or two, they could easily be heading into Week 8 as a two- or three-loss team.
Let's check in on the progress the Browns have—or have not—made over the past week as they prepare to host the San Diego Chargers on Sunday afternoon.
The Good: Receiving Corps Coming Together; Brandon Weeden Making Fewer Mistakes
Sometimes, necessity is the mother of invention, and that certainly seems to be the case when it comes to the Cleveland Browns' receiving corps.
Because of hamstring injuries suffered by Mohamed Massaquoi and Travis Benjamin, the Browns had to increase the workload of supplemental draft pickup Josh Gordon and promote rookie Josh Cooper from the practice squad in Week 6. Though Benjamin returned in Week 7 against the Indianapolis Colts, Cooper kept his job, and the result has been a much better, more productive passing offense.
Last week against the Colts, Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden connected with nine receivers, and Gordon and Cooper were the most productive among them. Though Gordon caught only two of the 10 passes thrown his way (including a dropped touchdown), he put up 59 yards and a score; Cooper caught four of eight passes for 53 yards.
The rookies aren't the only receivers who have stepped up recently. Second-year player Greg Little, who has been plagued with drops much as he was last season, has had a much improved two weeks. Against the Bengals in Week 6, he caught three of five passes for 18 yards, and last week, he pulled down seven of the eight thrown to him for 52 yards and an impressive touchdown.
Heading into the season, the Browns' receiving corps appeared to be their biggest weakness. Now, nearly eight weeks in, they seem to be coming together and becoming a more reliable and effective group of—dare I say—playmakers. They're extending drives and, most importantly, helping their rookie quarterback's development.
Though last week's game wasn't Weeden's best when it comes to yardage, and though the Browns didn't win, he did have a major milestone—he didn't turn the ball over. Thanks to his numerous turnovers earlier in the year, he still is tied for the most interceptions thrown, but he's slowly improving.
Weeden had one pick in Week 6 followed up by none in Week 7—signs that he's getting more comfortable with the speed of the game, is reacting better to pressure, can read defenses better and, of course, that he's getting more help from his receivers, as described above.
Among the starting rookie quarterbacks, Weeden is leading the pack. He has more passing yards and touchdowns than Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson and has been sacked less. Silenced are the cries of those who believed Colt McCoy would be a better option under center; though Cleveland has just one win, no longer can Weeden be blamed.
The Bad: The Run Game
When the Browns drafted running back Trent Richardson with the third overall pick, the hope was that he'd drastically turn around the team's running game, which ranked 28th in yards last season. This year, however, they rank 30th, averaging 16.7 fewer yards per game than last year.
That's not to say that Richardson hasn't been a factor—his four rushing and one receiving touchdowns account for five of the team's total 14 scores on the year. But in terms of his game-by-game contributions, Richardson has been underwhelming.
As a receiving target, Richardson has the third-most yards for the Browns, with 197 on 24 catches. As a running back, however, he has amassed only 348 yards off of his 103 carries—a 3.4 yards-per-carry average—and was pulled from the Colts game after his eight carries put up only eight yards.
To be fair, Richardson was dealing with a rib cartilage injury that likely limited his effectiveness. He practiced on Wednesday, and head coach Pat Shurmur hasn't ruled him out for Week 8 against the San Diego Chargers, but also hasn't dismissed the idea of having him sit through their Week 10 bye in order for him to get fully healthy.
Regardless of how Shurmur approaches Richardson's next few weeks, the fact is, the Browns need to run the ball more effectively. It's not just that Richardson was injured in Week 6 or had a surgical procedure on his knee in the preseason that has held Cleveland's overall run game down—it's also due to the run not being properly utilized.
Shurmur yet again made errors related to play calling last week. He elected to punt on a 4th-and-1 while playing from behind with six minutes left in the game, only to go for it later on, on 4th-and-6. We saw him earlier this season call a pass play on a critical 3rd-and-1 rather than go with the run.
Not giving the running backs opportunities to make plays clearly limits the overall effectiveness of the run game. The Browns may be averaging a mere 79.1 rushing yards per game, but they're also running the ball just 20.7 times on average, ranking them 30th in attempts. They had just 55 total yards against the Colts defense last week despite their being one of the worst run-stopping units in the league—and they earned them on just 17 total carries.
It's ultimately hard to say if the Browns run game lacks effectiveness because their backs are not getting a significant number of chances to prove themselves. Granted, it's a two-way street: If the run game isn't there, there's less of a reason to run the ball because it won't pick up enough yards. Regardless, Cleveland needs to find ways to improve its rushing offense; it will complement what it's doing in the passing game and prevent it from becoming predictable and one-dimensional.
What's Next: The San Diego Chargers
The 3-3 San Diego Chargers head into Cleveland on Sunday, presenting the Browns with yet another advantageous matchup and a chance to earn their second win of the year.
Richardson's playing status is still up in the air, but even if he does take the field, he may make little difference as a running back. The Chargers have the top rushing defense in the league at present, allowing just 71.2 rushing yards per game.
In contrast, San Diego's pass defense is just 25th when it comes to yards per game allowed, at 268.2. As such, expect the Browns to yet again lean on Weeden and their receivers to make up the majority of Cleveland's offense this week.
On defense, the Browns have to be most concerned with tight end Antonio Gates. In the nickel or even dime defenses, he could be paired up with a cornerback, but coverage linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson will also be called upon to stop him.
Gates is a mismatch for practically every linebacker in the league; if Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers can bounce back from his terrible Week 6 performance, it could be a long day for Cleveland's defense.