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Brandon Weeden's in-Season Improvement Key to Cleveland Browns' Playoff Hopes

Oct 3, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden (3) throws a pass during the first quarter against the Buffalo Bills at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Alex BallentineFeatured ColumnistOctober 5, 2013

For the first time since 2007, the Cleveland Browns have realistic playoff aspirations. But those aspirations hinge solely on the improvement of quarterback Brandon Weeden

Just a few days ago, it appeared that Weeden's career as a Cleveland Brown was all but over. Third-string quarterback Brian Hoyer was inserted into the lineup after Weeden suffered a thumb injury in Week 2 and immediately became a fan favorite. 

After an 0-2 start with Weeden at the helm, Hoyer led the Browns to back-to-back wins against the Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals. For a franchise that isn't accustomed to strong quarterback play, it appeared he had done enough to claim the job for the rest of the season. 

However, in a stroke of bad luck that is all-too-familiar for Cleveland fans, Hoyer was lost for the year due to a partial ACL tear suffered in the first quarter of the team's Week 5 tilt against the Buffalo Bills, per Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal. 

 

With Hoyer out of the lineup, it was Weeden who was once again called upon to lead the Cleveland offense to victory. He didn't exactly disappoint.

The maligned quarterback went 13-of-24 for 197 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions and a quarterback rating of 95.3. While those aren't the most flashy numbers in the world, it was enough to take advantage of Travis Benjamin's 179 punt return yards to win 37-24. 

While the thought of Weeden taking the reins may be cause for some fans to throw this season away, the Browns can still be a playoff team if the team puts Weeden in positions to succeed and he continues to improve as the season progresses. 

Here's how the team, and Weeden, can continue their success through the rest of the season. 

 

Run the Ball

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 03: Running back Willis McGahee #26 of the Cleveland Browns dives in for a touch down during the first half against the Buffalo Bills at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 3, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images
Jason Miller/Getty Images

 

While Hoyer immediately improved the offense, a decided change in play-calling philosophy also aided the Browns improvement as the season has wore on. Here's a look at the team's rushing performance from week-to-week:

 

The Browns are far from having an efficient rushing attack. Willis McGahee doesn't appear to be as explosive as he once was, and the blocking hasn't been fantastic, either. But that doesn't mean that the team can abandon it. 

If Norv Turner expects Weeden to throw the ball 50-plus times a week like he did in the Browns season opener loss to the Dolphins, he won't be successful. The coaching staff must continue to keep defenses honest with the run. Even if its not setting the world on fire. 

 

Focus on Short Passing Game

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 29: Tight end Jordan Cameron #84 of the Cleveland Browns runs for extra yards after a reception during the second half against the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 29, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Browns def
Jason Miller/Getty Images

The primary difference between Hoyer and Weeden is the latter's penchant for holding onto the ball too long. Pro Football Focus quantified this difference during Thursday night's game against the Bills.

 

 

And Bleacher Report's Michael Schottey made the observation when Hoyer was finding success against the Vikings.

 

While most of the onus has to be placed on Weeden for not making quick decisions, the coaching staff can help him out by utilizing more screens and three-step drops to get the ball out in space to playmakers like Travis Benjamin and Josh Gordon. 

 

Improve on Third Downs

Oct 3, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon (12) makes a catch and looks to get away from Buffalo Bills free safety Aaron Williams (23) during the fourth quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TO
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

This one comes down to Weeden. 

The best quarterbacks find ways to convert on third downs. As ESPN Stats & Info illustrated, Hoyer did while Weeden hasn't. That's the biggest difference between the two. 

 

Converting on third down extends drives, gives the defense more time to rest on the sideline and is the key to sustained success as an offense. If Weeden can start to convert on third down it will spark a drastic improvement in how the offense performs as a whole. 

The Browns have the pieces to be a serious contender in the AFC North. With Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron forming a dynamic receiving duo and the defense emerging as a truly elite unit, the only thing missing is a quarterback that can consistently put the Browns in position to win. 

Whether Weeden can become that guy or not this season will ultimately determine their ceiling. 

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