April 19, 2014

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Different team awaits Brandon Weeden: Browns QB returns to starting lineup with a more potent offense at his disposal

If his first incompletion against the Bills hadn’t been greeted with boos from the home crowd, Brandon Weeden might’ve found himself smiling.

In his return to the Browns huddle following the season-ending knee injury to Brian Hoyer, Weeden was introduced to an offense that had changed significantly in his two weeks on the sideline. The focus today against the Lions is naturally on him, but the pieces and operation around him shouldn’t be ignored. They’re much improved and a big reason the Browns are 3-2 and on a three-game winning streak.

“There’s been a lot of improvement in a lot of areas,” said Rob Chudzinski, whose team is tied for first in the AFC North with Baltimore and Cincinnati. “Obviously, it helps getting some of the guys back and getting them out on the field. We’re understanding and playing our roles better, and we’re making plays when we have the opportunities. That’s some of the things we weren’t doing early.”

The change started with the return of receiver Josh Gordon from a two-game suspension to open the season. He debuted with 10 catches for 146 yards and a touchdown against Minnesota and immediately added explosiveness to the offense. He has 18 catches for 303 yards and two touchdowns, and his 101 yards per game dwarf the averages of Detroit’s Calvin Johnson (78) and Cincinnati’s A.J. Green (72.2).

“I went back and watched the first two weeks and obviously not having Josh was an issue,” coordinator Norv Turner said.

Tight end Jordan Cameron caught 14 passes for 203 yards and the team’s lone touchdown in the first two weeks with Weeden.

The return of Gordon prevented defenses from turning all their attention to Cameron and he continued to produce, adding 19 catches and four touchdowns.

Weeden now has Gordon, Cameron and receiver Greg Little running deep, with receiver Davone Bess and running backs Chris Ogbonnaya and Willis McGahee underneath.

“They definitely make a quarterback’s life easier,” Weeden said of Gordon and Cameron. “They are two guys that create a lot of mismatches. They’re bigger target guys that can really go get the football.”

The most startling move during Weeden’s two weeks out with a sprained right thumb was the trade of running back Trent Richardson. But Turner committed to the run the last two games with 31-year-old McGahee and has seen an uptick in production.

McGahee rushed for 9 yards in his debut after one practice and no training camp, went for 46 the next week and 72 vs. Buffalo. His 2.6 yards per carry is substandard, but on par with Richardson’s 3.0 with the Colts. McGahee has also shown the ability to take a pounding — 26 carries vs. the Bills — and get in the end zone, and has given the team a jolt.

“Willis is getting us some confidence because he’s making a lot of 3- and 4-yard runs,” Turner said. “In the last two games we’ve made critical third-down conversions where we’ve been able to keep the ball and run it.”

The final switch to the lineup came with the return of right guard Shawn Lauvao in Week 5 following ankle surgery. Profootballfocus.com gave him a terrible grade, but he should get better in his second game back and can’t play much worse than fill-in Oniel Cousins.

The entire line has protected better as the year’s gone along.

“There’s definitely been a progression for us,” said right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who got off to a terrible start. “I don’t know if you can pinpoint any one thing for that.”

The battle with the Lions (3-2) could very well be decided on the front lines. The strength of the Lions defense is its front four, led by tackle Ndamukong Suh, who has 2.5 sacks after eight last year. Tackle Nick Fairley had 5.5 last year, and rookie right end Ziggy Ansah has 3.5 through five games.

“They try to get after the passer. That’s what they want to do,” Weeden said. “You have to get the ball out on time and add different looks to slow them down.”

The theme of the week with Weeden was getting rid of the ball quickly. The offense picked up the pace under Hoyer, who didn’t hesitate before firing.

Weeden was noticeably — sometimes painfully — slower when he entered against the Bills. Some delay is necessary when Weeden, who has been sacked 16 times, tries to connect downfield, but much of it can be avoided with quicker decisions and comfort in his checkdowns.

“There’s times where I can get the ball out quicker and take the pressure off the guys out front,” he said. “We have great guys in this offense and you just gotta be in sync and trust guys around you and get rolling.”

Backup Jason Campbell said speeding up the process with Weeden has been a focus for a couple of weeks.

“But people have to understand, Brian and Brandon are two different people,” Campbell said. “Brandon’s arm is strong, so he believes he can hit those down-the-field throws. He doesn’t come down to checkdowns fast, because sometimes it doesn’t matter how far it goes he believes he can hit that throw.”

Campbell learned a 5-yard checkdown can quickly turn into 15 or 20 yards. His advice to Weeden: Don’t fear the dump-off.
The Lions are second in the NFL with eight interceptions, while Weeden has gone 99 throws without a pick, his last one in the first half of the opener against Miami.

The Browns are aiming for only their second four-game win streak since 1999. The other came after a 1-11 start in 2009, and the only thing it accomplished was keeping coach Eric Mangini around for another year. A win today would add volume to the playoff talk and extend the stretch of meaningful games deep into October.

No one would’ve dreamed it possible after the 0-2 start and trade of Richardson.

“The reports of the death of the Browns were greatly exaggerated,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. “They were 0-2 and there was a lot of talk of that was it for the season. All they’ve done is roll off three straight wins.”

“There’s a lot of excitement,” Weeden said. “Our main focus is keep doing what we’re doing and keep it rolling.”

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

TODAY
WHO: Cleveland vs. Detroit
TIME: 1 p.m.
WHERE: FirstEnergy Stadium
TV/RADIO: Channel 8; WKNR 850-AM, WKRK 92.3-FM, WNCX 98.5-FM