The Cleveland Browns starters came into their Week 3 preseason meeting against the Indianapolis Colts looking sharp in their last two outings. However, if the preseason is a clock, and the Browns are the pendulum, it appears they have swung the other way.
The game didn't start in Cleveland's favor after their coverage team allowed a long kick return by the Colts' Marshay Green, who took the football out 38 yards, setting up good field position for second-year Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck.
Though the Browns defense handled that first Colts possession well, with pressure finally catching up to Luck, they did manage a field goal on the drive, putting them up, 3-0, before the Browns could touch the ball. Granted, that marked nine straight drives against Cleveland's first-team defense that didn't result in a touchdown, but the way that Luck did manage to move the ball portended what was to come.
More distressing than the Browns' starting defense allowing 10 points by halftime was the fact that their starting offense couldn't put a single point on the board.
What came so easy to Brandon Weeden and his receiving targets over the past two games seemed to have faded away, with chemistry and confidence replaced by bad routes and decisions. Beyond a Trent Richardson-heavy opening drive, which died on a Joe Thomas holding penalty, there weren't a lot of yards to be had for the Browns.
While wide receivers Josh Gordon and Greg Little each had good catches, the two only combined for five receptions on 11 targets for 52 yards. Tight end Jordan Cameron gained just seven yards on his two receptions, while being targeted four times. Richardson was the lone bright spot, with seven carries for 31 yards—a 4.4 yards-per-carry average—and a 10-yard reception.
Weeden ended his day completing just 12 of his 25 attempts for 105 yards, thanks both to his receivers running sloppy routes and to poor passes, including both under- and overthrows. He looked more like the rookie version of himself than the poised starter of the past two weeks. The result was just six points for the Browns, both field goals kicked by Shayne Graham.
On defense, Cleveland was better in flashes than their offensive counterparts, with linebacker Paul Kruger notching a sack and safety Tashaun Gipson securing an interception of Luck.
Pressure was almost omnipresent every time Luck seemed ready to throw; however, this also opened them up to Luck's considerable elusiveness. The quarterback had four scrambles that totaled 20 yards, while running back Vick Ballard had 10 first-half carries for 33 yards.
When Luck was able to throw, he was far more successful than Weeden, especially when it came to throwing midfield, mid-range passes.
His main target, Reggie Wayne, had 79 yards on his seven catches, while Darrius Heyward-Bey added three more receptions and 33 yards. The Colts were able to move the ball at will, despite good plays made by cornerbacks Joe Haden and Leon McFadden, the latter making his preseason debut.
Luck was able to throw two touchdown passes, one to fullback Stanley Havili (who scored when linebacker Craig Robertson missed a tackle) and the other to receiver T.Y. Hilton (who was wide-open after the Browns had yet another issue in coverage).
Even special teams was concerning. Travis Benjamin was contained, while they allowed a combined 68 yards on their two kickoffs and the aforementioned 38-yard Green punt return. Browns punter Spencer Lanning, their only punter left after the team released T.J. Conley earlier in the week, had a 29-yard punt that set up the Colts for the eventual Luck-to-Havili touchdown.
The backups didn't have a much better showing, especially on offense. At the very least, the Browns second- and third-string defense didn't give up another touchdown. But their offense again struggled, with the team ending the day with 270 total yards to Indianapolis' 364 and just 13 first downs compared to 26 for the Colts.
Second-string quarterback Jason Campbell was constantly under pressure behind Cleveland's backup offensive line, so much so, he left the game limping after a particularly hard hit (he is not injured, according to head coach Rob Chudzinski).
Though wide receiver Cordell Roberson successfully recovered his team's onside kick, Brian Hoyer's first pass on the very next play was intercepted by Larry Asante for a touchdown. The result was a disappointing 27-6 loss.
Though preseason games often produce a mixed bag of results, owing primarily to these outings being laboratories for offensive and defensive experimentation and the fact that so many players see snaps in rotation, this was certainly a step back from the Browns we saw take the field against the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions in their previous two games. The starters, particularly, seemed to struggle in ways not seen so far in 2013.
The main concern about the starters' performance is that the third preseason game is considered the dress rehearsal for the regular season.
What is on display is likely closer to what the team has planned once the games count than at any other point in the four-game exhibition stretch. Regression like this is thus exponentially more distressing than had it happened in the last two weeks or next Thursday in the preseason finale.
The hope is that this was a mere bump in the road, a hiccup in the Browns' attempt to turn their franchise around and not an indication of what we can expect to see come Week 1 and beyond. If the pendulum has swung in extremes thus far in the preseason, hopefully the Browns can land somewhere in the middle if it cannot go back to where it stood prior to Saturday's loss.