April 16, 2014

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Browns analysis: Brandon Weeden, Montario Hardesty two big reasons for optimism

BEREA — The Browns’ 2-0 preseason record would be meaningless, except any victory carries weight for a franchise starved for success.

But the real value from the start to the preseason was the progress made from the opener in Detroit to Thursday night in Green Bay.

The Browns played a sloppy, injury-marred game against the Lions, which only became a win because the fourth-stringers scored twice in the fourth quarter. The 35-10 rout of the Packers contained contributions from the entire roster.

“The ones did well against their ones,” tight end Jordan Cameron said Friday. “The twos against their twos. I think every unit did pretty well. So you can focus on that.”

It wasn’t all perfect — coach Pat Shurmur had plenty of mistakes to point out in the film room — but there was reason for optimism for a fan base that desperately needs it. Here are the top takeaways from the trip to Lambeau Field.

Taking a shot

Shurmur said it was clear against the Lions that the moment wasn’t “too big” for rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden. He showed Thursday night he won’t crumble under pressure.

Draft experts doubted whether Weeden could excel in the NFL when faced with a relentless pass rush. The Packers didn’t bring the house every play, but they brought enough zone blitzes to rattle the weak. Weeden was strong.

He stood tall in the pocket and delivered the ball multiple times, despite knowing he was about to take a shot.

The most impressive example was a completion to receiver Jordan Norwood with cornerback Brandian Ross bearing down on an unblocked blitz.

“Jordan ran a great route and got open so I knew I had the chance to stick it on him for a first down,” Weeden said. “That was my main focus. You have to step in there like that the majority of the time. Even though he came untouched — he was hauling, he was coming pretty hard — that’s just part of playing the position.”

Weeden also had enough presence in the pocket to slide and throw the ball away when the protection broke down and he couldn’t spot a receiver. He wasn’t sacked on his 20 attempts.

Weeden went 12-for-20 for 118 yards and a 76.7 rating, a huge jump from 3-for-9 with a 19.0 rating against the Lions. And most of the incompletions were drops or throwaways.

Weeden again showed he can make the big throws downfield, which opens up things for the run and short passing game. His ball placement on some of the routes over the middle needs to be refined, but he has the accuracy and mechanics to make the adjustment.

Mo running hard

Is it too early to name running back Montario Hardesty comeback player of the year?

Of course, it is. The season hasn’t even started yet.

But Hardesty has been the most pleasant surprise of training camp and that continued in Green Bay. He carried 12 times for 45 yards (3.8 average) and a touchdown.

Most impressive was bouncing back from a fumble on the first play. He shook it off, ran hard and showed the health and ability to make precise cuts and get upfield in a hurry.

“I thought he really ran the ball hard,” Shurmur said. “He ran as well as I’ve seen him run. We’ve all been talking about how he’s a different-looking Montario this year since he’s healthy, and he just looks different to me. Let’s hope it stays that way.”

After two years of injuries and minimal production, Hardesty looks worthy of the second-round pick general manager Tom Heckert spent on him in 2010.

The Browns are going to commit to the run to take pressure off Weeden and the defense, and have three capable backups (Brandon Jackson, Chris Ogbonnaya) behind top draft pick Trent Richardson. Hardesty is at the head of the line, which shows his growth, because he wasn’t a given to make the team when camp opened.

Growing pains

The Browns are trying to fast-track rookie receiver Josh Gordon, but they have to be worried he won’t be ready when the season opens Sept. 9.

His size and speed are made for the NFL. His route running is not, especially the hook on the sideline.

For the second straight week, Weeden almost threw a pick-six. TV analyst and former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar blamed Gordon for both. The cornerback could tell Gordon was going to stop his route — as opposed to running past him on a go route — and jumped it before Gordon turned around.

The quarterback has no choice but to trust his receiver will win the battle and let the ball fly. One interception returned for a touchdown in the regular season will find Gordon a spot on the bench. He needs the light to go on quickly, or he’ll start the season as a part-time player.

“I trust Josh and I’m not going to work the other side of the field just because it’s him and the same thing happened the week before,” Weeden said. “We have to be on the same page. We can’t continue to do it, but he’s a rookie, he’s learning just like I am. He made a big jump from week one to week two and that’s exciting for me.

“He’s going to be in there. He’s too good of a player to sit on the sideline.”

Colt a commodity

Quarterback Colt McCoy may be opening eyes around the league with his solid play. He’s also making the Browns reconsider if they should be so anxious to trade him.

McCoy had his second straight solid, albeit brief, outing. He went 4-for-6 for 58 yards and a 97.9 rating.

McCoy looked similarly sharp last August before struggling throughout the regular season. But he’s more comfortable in his second season in the West Coast Offense, and looks like a stud compared to Green Bay backup Graham Harrell, who is shorter with a weaker arm.

Not only is McCoy six years younger and almost $2 million cheaper than Seneca Wallace, he’s better. McCoy could fill in as the starter for an extended period and give the Browns a chance. He’ll never be a big-time No. 1, but looks like a quality, longtime backup in the league.

Nevertheless, if Green Bay or New Orleans offers a fourth- or fifth-round pick in the next couple of weeks, president Mike Holmgren and Heckert will be tempted. If a third-rounder’s on the table, McCoy will be on his way out of town.

Rookies rock

The Packers aren’t known for their running game, but Cleveland’s run defense was still much improved from a week earlier. Rookie defensive tackles John Hughes and Billy Winn started and held their own as the Browns held the Packers to 69 yards and a 3.8 average.

Hughes, a third-rounder, has opened his career with two good games. He is stout at the point of attack and showed good awareness by recognizing a screen, slowing it down and making the tackle. Winn’s quickness was obvious in the pass rush.

Heckert has spent two years trying to build depth and it’s starting to show up across the defense. Despite injuries sidelining six starters and nickelback Dimitri Patterson, the Browns weren’t exposed at any level against the Packers.

Other concerns

Shurmur reiterated there’s a lot of work to be done before the opener.

He can start by trying to cut down on the penalties. The Browns had eight more against the Packers, including two on offensive lineman Oniel Cousins on kick attempts.

There are also still too many drops. Gordon, Greg Little and Owen Marecic had one apiece Thursday.

And the special teams are up and down. The coverage units have been generally solid, but allowed a 60-yarder to the Packers. They must always win the field-position battle to make up for their inexperience on offense.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him
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