April 16, 2014

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Browns analysis: Big plays the big difference in offense this year, and QB Brandon Weeden the biggest reason

The 9-to-1 punt-to-touchdown ratio Sunday against the Chargers was as miserable as the weather that played a starring role in the struggles.

The 20 points in the last two games aren’t nearly enough, and the Browns could be considered lucky to have split the decisions.

The offensive stats are improved from 2011, but most still rank in the bottom third of the NFL. The Browns are 29th in yardage (314.8 a game), 19th passing (228.9), 29th rushing (85.9) and 25th in scoring (19.2).

In the midst of the 2-6 record and less-than-inspiring numbers, the offense has provided a plethora of promise. The biggest reason for the excitement is big plays.

They are also the most significant difference from 2011.

Through all of last season, the Browns had 30 pass plays of at least 20 yards. Their opponents had 33. In eight games of coach Pat Shurmur’s second season, the Browns have 28 pass plays of 20 yards. The opposition has 15.

“You have to be able to challenge all parts of the field on all downs and distance, all situations,” Shurmur said Monday.

The Browns couldn’t do that last year. And the results were disastrous.

They went 4-12 and ranked 30th in scoring (13.6 points per game), 29th in total offense (288.8), 28th rushing (95.7) and 24th passing (193.1).

A second year in Shurmur’s West Coast Offense has helped the turnaround. So did an offseason without a lockout.

But the most important changes are in the huddle. The talent is better, and better-suited to execute every call in Shurmur’s playbook.

The process starts with rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden and his blessed right arm. The difference between Weeden and McCoy’s arm strength was obvious the day Weeden arrived in Berea. He throws a tighter spiral from a taller frame with more power. The ball looks better, flies better and arrives at its target sooner.

“He has the skill and ability to make all the throws,” Shurmur said.

Shurmur never mentions McCoy by name, but it’s obvious he feels liberated as the play caller with Weeden behind the wheel. As early as draft day, Shurmur referred to the advantages that accompany a strong-armed thrower.

The examples through eight games have been numerous and far from subtle. They’re the reason the Browns are more fun to watch, despite the normal win-loss record. No situation is hopeless, and a touchdown could come on any snap.

First, there are the deep balls. Weeden went 0-for-the-first-three-weeks on long-distance connections, but has found the strike zone lately. Rookie Josh Gordon has 71- and 62-yard touchdowns and Greg Little has a 43-yard reception, and each has dropped a would-be touchdown on a terrific throw.

“If you have a team that can’t stretch the field out, the game gets awfully small. It gets awful tight,” Shurmur said. “We’ve added some players to our roster that can run and make plays downfield and we have a quarterback that can get the ball there.”

The impact of Weeden’s arm isn’t isolated to deep throws. He opens up the entire width of the field, from down the seam to the sideline. All the toughest throws that require timing and velocity.

One of the best examples was a 33-yard touchdown to Gordon against the Colts. Gordon ran a stutter-and-go down the right sideline and Weeden threw it on-target to his back shoulder at the 3-yard line. McCoy can’t make that throw, so Shurmur couldn’t call the play last season. No wonder the offense looks like a different version of the West Coast this season.

The Browns had two 20-yard completions against the Chargers and should’ve had a third but Weeden said he couldn’t get a grip on the wet ball on an overthrow of tight end Benjamin Watson. The pair of long gainers turned difficult situations into first downs and helped flip field position, even if the drive didn’t end in points.

On third-and-12 at the end of the third quarter, Weeden threw a bullet to Little for a 22-yard out. After a Little holding penalty on a Trent Richardson run on the next snap, Weeden erased first-and-20 with a 26-yard pickup to Gordon on a shallow cross. Gordon did much of the work and is a large part of the improved talent surrounding the quarterback.

Gordon’s rare combination of size and speed makes him the deep threat McCoy didn’t have and he has begun showing versatility by catching balls on a variety of patterns. Rookie receiver Travis Benjamin brings elite speed that was missing last season, and the addition of Richardson forces defenses to scheme to stop him.

In an optimal offense, the run and pass work hand-in-hand, each making life easier for the other.

Weeden has certainly made play calling easier for Shurmur. And the resulting long gains have made it easier for fans to tune in.

STEPHENS TO IR

Defensive end Emmanuel Stephens was placed on season-ending injured reserve Tuesday, the team announced. He injured his neck Sunday against the Chargers.

Stephens played in all eight games this season as a backup with nine tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.

Stephens joined the Browns before the 2011 opener and played 11 games with three starts.

The Browns didn’t immediately fill his spot on the roster and will likely keep it open this week with the hopes of activating defensive tackle Phil Taylor off the physically unable to perform list to play Sunday against the Ravens.

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