INDIANAPOLIS – After two weeks of dominance by their starters, the Browns were dominated.
The first-team offense needed an unexpected eighth possession – against mostly Colts backups – a dropped interception and a 50-yard field goal by Shayne Graham to score Saturday night.
The defense got caught in mismatches and blew coverages to leave receivers wide open, missed tackles and couldn’t keep quarterback Andrew Luck in the pocket.
The special teams allowed two big returns and got nothing on their returns.
In the dress rehearsal of the preseason, the Browns were undressed. Colts 27, Browns 6.
When the starting offense finally left the field midway through the third quarter – coach Rob Chudzinski extended their night by a series – the Colts led 17-3. The ugly display followed wins over the Rams and Lions in which Cleveland’s starters outscored the opposition 27-3.
“We did not do the things we had been doing well,” Chudzinski said. “And that speaks to us needing to be more consistent.”
Quarterback Brandon Weeden came back down to earth after throwing three touchdowns, leading five scoring drives and posting a 139.8 rating in the first two games. He started 6-for-6 after being named the starter Tuesday, but finished 12-for-35 for 105 yards and a 59.6 rating.
Chudzinski, in his first year on the job, wasn’t about to overreact to a preseason loss. Neither were his players.
No matter how lopsided it appeared.
“I feel we’re trending upward,” Chudzinski said. “It was good for our guys to experience this now and it will help us in the long run if we make sure we approach it the right way and learn from it.”
“There’s no reason to be discouraged,” Weeden said. “I wish I could sit here and tell you we’re going to play 17 more perfect games. It’s just not going to happen, though.”
The night started with one of the few bright spots for the Browns.
Running back Trent Richardson got the ball on Cleveland’s first four plays and five of six. He ran for 5 yards off guard, caught a swing pass for 10 after a great open-field move made linebacker Erik Walden look silly, ran for 5 off guard and 12 off tackle.
A Joe Thomas holding penalty on a Richardson sweep disrupted the drive and led to a punt. The first of many.
The first-team offense had three straight three-and-outs sandwiching halftime, not counting one play at the end of the first half. The inefficiency prompted Chudzinski to leave the starters in, and they finally managed a field goal.
“We needed it. We needed to get some momentum,’’ Weeden said. “The first half, we just couldn’t string together enough good plays.”
After two clean games, he was nearly intercepted twice and couldn’t convert on third down – the first team was 3-for-10. He didn’t get much help from his receivers, who struggled to get open and hang onto the ball.
Receiver Greg Little committed the Browns’ first turnover of the preseason when he fumbled after picking up a first down at midfield in the second quarter. Josh Gordon dropped a slant for what would’ve been a first down. Tight end Jordan Cameron wasn’t able to make two catches on good throws along the sideline.
“That’s going to happen, too, unfortunately,” Weeden said of a lack of open receivers. “At times like that, I’ve got to get to my second, third, back, just go through the progression. There was also some tight coverage. That’s a good secondary.”
In the first two weeks, the Cleveland defense shut down quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Matthew Stafford, former No. 1 overall picks. It had no answer for Andrew Luck, the top choice in 2012.
Luck was 16-for-25 for 164 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and a 92.8 rating. He found receivers open all over the field -- usually when rookie cornerback Leon McFadden tried to cover them -- and ran when he didn’t. He played one series into the third quarter and left with a 17-0 lead.
It would’ve been more, but he threw an interception inside the 5-yard line when pressured and the ball bounced off fullback Stanley Havili’s hand. Starting free safety Tashaun Gipson made a nice catch for the interception, tipping the ball to himself with one hand.
“I played receiver in high school. Just blessed to haul it in,” he said.
Kicker Shayne Graham provided all the Cleveland scoring on field goals from 50 and 44 yards. He took advantage of the opportunity created by rookie Brandon Bogotay’s groin strain.
Oniel Cousins started at right guard and played six of the eight series with the first team. Rookie Garrett Gilkey played the other two as they compete for the spot left open with ankle injuries to Shawn Lauvao and Jason Pinkston.
Rookie free safety Jamoris Slaughter, a sixth-round pick, left with a groin injury, continuing his difficult preseason. He returned from a torn Achilles suffered at Notre Dame only to pull a hamstring and now a groin.
Richardson is healthy for the first time in his short career and likely won’t play in the preseason finale Thursday in Chicago. He heads into the regular season on a high note.
“I feel really good,” Richardson said. “I feel like I am back in shape for game conditioning. I feel really light on my feet. I am just ready to play.”
Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson believes the entire team is. Miami visits FirstEnergy Stadium for the opener Sept. 8.
“I’m so ready for this regular season to start,” he said. “I think we definitely have a much improved group from last year, from the coaching standpoint all the way down to the players. I’m excited about it.”
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