October 26, 2014

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Browns: Already a weak spot, receiving corps now banged up

BEREA — Receivers coach Mike Wilson probably felt a little lonely Monday as the Browns returned after a rare weekend off.

Mohamed Massaquoi (hamstring), Joshua Cribbs (concussion) and Travis Benjamin (undisclosed) didn’t practice and coach Pat Shurmur referred to them as day-to-day. Only Greg Little, Josh Gordon, Jordan Norwood and practice squad player Josh Cooper were left to go through Wilson’s drills.

There’s time for recovery before Sunday at the New York Giants, but it’s unlikely the receiving corps will be at full strength. Even when it is 100 percent, it’s considered a weak spot by many.

“They know it’s a work in progress,” quarterback Brandon Weeden said. “But we expect them to make plays. We’re in the National Football League and you get paid to make big-time plays.

“But I’m happy with our receivers. They battle. They work hard. They don’t complain. They don’t beg for the ball. We’ve got a good group of guys. There’s not another group I’d want to work through it with. I think we’ve all gotta get better. It’s not just them. I can make it easier on them.”

The offense entered Monday night ranked 25th in yards (311.5 a game) and 27th in scoring (18.2). The running game has yet to pick up a full head of steam behind rookie back Trent Richardson — the team ranks 28th with 76.2 rushing yards — but it’s the double-digit drops and lack of explosive plays by the wideouts that garner the most attention.

Massaquoi was injured in Week 3 and didn’t play Thursday night in the loss at Baltimore. Cribbs was knocked out in the first quarter against the Ravens, and Benjamin was hurt in the second half. Gordon should be in line for the greatest jump in playing time.

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“I’m waiting for my number to be called and when it’s time for me to go, I definitely feel as though I can step up and make a play,” he said. “But right now, it just hasn’t happened yet.”

Expectations are high for Gordon for a couple of reasons. He was a second-round pick in the supplemental draft, which means the Browns will forfeit their second-round pick in April. He’s also 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds with good speed, so he’s got all the tools.

“His first game, I think his head was spinning a little bit, still getting the feel for things, but he’s playing a lot faster right now,” Weeden said. “I’ve had several talks with him, just what I expect, what we expect, what the coaches expect. He’s going to have to continue to make plays because he’s a mismatch at 6-4 (sic), 225.”

Gordon has seven catches for 93 yards (13.3 average) in four games. His playing time peaked in the opener with 43 of 62 snaps (69 percent). He played 51 percent in Week 2, 59 percent in Week 3 and 42 percent in the loss to the Ravens.

He expects the snaps to rise again with the injuries.

“Guys behind them like me, we definitely feel the pressure to step up, make big-time plays,” he said. “When your number’s called, you definitely have to step up to the plate. I don’t feel as though there’s anything holding me back.”

Gordon said he was “awestruck” at first by being on the same field as NFL greats but has gotten over it. He feels more at home in the environment and offensive scheme.

“I feel as though I’m just getting more confidence and more comfortable with each snap I get,” he said. “And seeing different teams, different defenses, you start to grow more comfortable with it. You don’t feel as much as a rookie anymore.”

Massaquoi had established himself as Weeden’s No. 1 target before he got hurt. He was on the field at the end of practice in a baseball cap and is eager to return. He’s missed only four games in his four years, but his play has been affected by a couple of concussions and a foot injury in the 2011 offseason.

Little was right behind Massaquoi in playing time, then played all but six snaps the last two weeks. He has five drops and has become a lightning rod for frustrated fans. Benjamin played a season-high 45 snaps against the Ravens but was banged up at the finish.

Norwood was inactive the first three weeks, then played 37 snaps against the Ravens. He got open consistently and was targeted 10 times, but caught only four for 56 yards. He dropped a couple and couldn’t hang onto three more after safety Ed Reed and cornerback Lardarius Webb (twice) got their hands on the ball.

“I think it was plain to see that I would’ve liked to have played better along with other guys,” Norwood said. “Forgetting about it is a big part of it, but the easiest way to forget about it is to work harder the next week and get back out there on the game field and do better.

“The goal of any receiver is to catch the ball when it’s thrown to you no matter the difficulty level. You can call it a drop or you can say whatever you want, but afterwards you have to say, ‘He should’ve caught the ball.’”

If the injured three aren’t ready to go by Sunday in New Jersey, the Browns could bring up Cooper to the active roster. He was teammates with Weeden at Oklahoma State and could play in the slot.

“We’ll make the roster as good as we can make it,” Shurmur said. “We’re going to put the guys on the field that can play and will give us the best opportunity to win.”

“We’re hoping for good news on Mo and good news on Josh and Travis as well,” Weeden said. “If they’re not able to go — we don’t know for several days — those other guys have to step up.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.