A lack of running put pressure on Brandon Weeden, and he couldn't handle it against Washington.
The Cleveland Browns seemingly caught a break when it was announced on Saturday that they would be facing not Robert Griffin III but Kirk Cousins when the Washington Redskins come to town, but instead they found themselves unprepared and overwhelmed by the fourth-round rookie quarterback, which helped to contribute to their 38-21 loss on Sunday. It also didn't help that their own rookie passer, Brandon Weeden, took another step back.
Looking at this game in a vacuum, it's hard to imagine that Weeden was the first-round pick and Cousins the fourth. In his first career start, Cousins looked more than prepared for Cleveland's defense, while Weeden just looked lost.
Bootleg roll outs bought Cousins time, allowing him to complete 26 of his 37 pass attempts for 329 yards, two touchdowns and a first-quarter interception. He was able to connect with consistency to nearly all of his targets—though Pierre Garçcon caught only six of the 12 passes thrown his way for 65 yards, Josh Morgan caught all four of his, Santana Moss five of his six, Leonard Hankerson two of his three (both for touchdowns) and Logan Paulsen four of his five. The timing and accuracy Cousins displayed were extremely impressive for his short preparation time.
In contrast, Weeden—who has started every game so far this season—again struggled. Though he did manage to break the 200-yard mark (something he's not done with much consistency over the past few weeks, though the Browns have won five of their last eight games) with 244, he completed just 21 of his 35 passes and had two interceptions to one touchdown—a 69-yard Travis Benjamin catch-and-run.
Washington's defense did their part as well, bringing pressure on Weeden and batting down his passes and not allowing the Browns to run the ball, forcing them to become one dimensional. Trent Richardson had two rushing touchdowns, but only 28 total yards on 11 rushes, and the Browns ran the ball only 12 times. The result was a huge time-of-possession deficit (23:43 compared to 34:57 for Washington) and just four third-down conversions in 12 attempts.
Pressure kept Weeden from getting into a rhythm, while the Redskins' tight man coverage made him gunshy with his throws and resulted in inaccuracy. With no run game to help him, Weeden looked no better at times than his Week 1 disaster.
The Browns found themselves in a lucky situation in Week 12, facing the Pittsburgh Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger, but they had no such good fortune when Cousins came to town to replace Griffin. The defense wasn't prepared for how the Redskins were planning to keep Cousins protected, and the offense didn't think that one of the league's worst secondaries could neutralize receiving targets like Josh Gordon, who had only three catches for 27 yards and was targeted eight times.
Cleveland should take notice of how the Redskins handled this game—instead of forcing Cousins into their Griffin-based offensive game plan, they tailored the passing game to his strengths while continuing to run the ball heavily behind Alfred Morris (27 rushes, 87 yards, two touchdowns). Browns head coach Pat Shurmur has been more than content to try to make Weeden into a West Coast quarterback rather than alter his playbook to Weeden's strengths. It's a major reason why Weeden hasn't progressed and improved in the manner he should have as a first-round pick and full-time starter.
Custom tailoring an offense to the quarterback—especially one as ostensibly as valuable as one taken in the first round—while also allowing a star running back to alleviate pressure is almost a Football 101-type lesson, but it's one that Shurmur has failed to fully absorb time and time again this season. There are few wins to be had when a coach—and, therefore, a team—cannot adapt to their personnel and strengths, just as their are few wins coming from the assumption that a backup quarterback cannot make plays.
The Browns benefited from eight Steelers turnovers in their win against them with Charlie Batch under center; without those takeaways against the Redskins, there was no victory this week. Things had been trending upward for Cleveland, with five wins over their last eight games and a three-game winning streak headed into Week 15. Instead of stepping up, however, the Browns looked like the 0-5 team they were to start the season. With jobs on the line, regression is the last thing Cleveland needed to put on display on Sunday.