Saturday, September 29, 2012

Friday leftovers (Saturday edition)

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I came away from the Browns’ 23-16 loss in Baltimore Thursday night not feeling down or discouraged.

Normally, another Cleveland loss triggers even more negative thoughts as I try to figure out why this club just doesn’t seem to get it. However, I did not get that feeling after the Ravens game.

Maybe it was because Brandon Weeden threw the ball better than at any time this season. Even though he completed less than half his passes (thanks to five more drops), he seemed to be much more decisive with where he wanted to go with the ball.

He appeared to have an awareness of the situation, anticipated Ravens blitzes and generally had a firm handle on what he wanted to do. Now that might not count for much on the scoreboard, but it bodes well for the future.

Weeden’s confidence level is on the rise. Now, it’s up to him to take that confidence, build on it and let his natural talent become a part of who he is as a rookie quarterback in the National Football League.

At first, he took baby steps and the coaching staff appeared to hold back and give him nothing but elementary, low-risk plays with which to work. Game by game, you can see the coaches are beginning to open up the playbook.

In the Ravens’ loss, we saw a couple of misdirection plays and at least five rollouts from the shotgun. As the coaches become more comfortable with Weeden’s ability to execute those types of plays, they’ll feed him even more. However, it’s important to reiterate he’s still taking those baby steps, but they are fewer and far between now.

If there is one aspect of Weeden’s game that needs dramatic improvement, it’s his slow release. He needs to be confident enough to release the ball before his receivers make their cuts. Right now, he’s more often than not at least a half beat too late, giving opposing defensive backs a chance to make plays.

He is going to make mistakes, such as the awful hot-read quick-out throw to Travis Benjamin on a Baltimore blitz in the final seconds of the third quarter Thursday night. Instead of drilling the ball to Benjamin, he floated it and Baltimore cornerback Cary Williams had a ridiculously easy pick 6 to basically put the game out of reach.

If Weeden releases that ball a half beat earlier and on a line, the ball gets to Benjamin quicker and Williams is late to the play.

Unless he is denser from the neck up than I think, chances are slim he will ever do that again. Not with his strong arm. The soon-to-be 29-year-old is learning his lessons the hard way these days.

If he is to be successful, he is best judged on a game-to-game basis. Watch him as he grows. Take note of his mistakes – he’ll make many more as the season unfolds – and watch if he repeats them. If he does, all bets  are off.

Young quarterbacks who eventually rise to prominence do so because they achieve a consistency that defines them. That’s what separates the good ones from the journeymen.

Weeden is just starting as a professional quarterback. It’s way too early to judge him, but that’s what a lot of impatient fans have already done.

They don’t take into consideration that he still looks uncomfortable under center in the pro set. His footwork is not bad, considering he has never played in that formation before. But he needs to set up to throw more quickly. That takes a rhythm with which he is not yet familiar. It should come, though, with more work.

To be clicheish, call Weeden a work in progress.
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Slowly, but surely, the Browns’ run defense is beginning to look a whole lot different than what Browns fans have seen in the last several seasons.

For example, that defense reduced Ravens running back Ray Rice to non-factor status Thursday night. The superstar was held to just 49 yards on 18 carries. His longest run was 10 yards. Rice also caught eight passes for 47 yards. That’s 26 touches for 96 yards and no touchdowns, something on which to hang your helmet.

It became obvious early on that Dick Jauron’s defense was geared to stop Rice and force quarterback Joe Flacco to throw. The Ravens’ no-huddle offense did not seem to bother the Cleveland defenders, who sacked Flacco four times and pestered him into early throws on another half dozen dropbacks.
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The more I see defensive tackle Billy Winn, the more I like him. He’s quick, strong, extremely persistent and very active. He didn’t have one of those four sacks, but I saw him in the Baltimore backfield a lot.

If and when defensive tackle Phil Taylor returns to the lineup, moving Winn to defensive end is a move Jauron would be wise to consider. With Winn and Jabaal Sheard on the outside and Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin working inside, its easy to be confident that the Browns’ run defense problems might be over.

It’s also refreshing to see Sheard break out of whatever funk he was in during the first three games. The club’s leading sacker last season finally got his first this season and generally wreaked havoc in passing situations. He got started late last season. Maybe he’s just a slow starter.
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Notebook: Another young defender who seems to make a habit of making plays is outside linebacker Craig Robertson, who picked off his second pass of the season against the Ravens. The free-agent rookie seems to have a nose for the ball. . . . How much do the Browns miss cornerback Joe Haden, who has sat out the last three games while serving a four-game suspension? In those three games, the secondary has allowed 838 yards and seven touchdowns. The run defense, meanwhile, has given up just 319 yards in those games and only one TD, a Flacco quarterback keeper from the 1-yard line. . . . The Browns say they’ve been working with Greg Little on his pass catching. Well something is getting lost in the translation between practice and the games. The big wide receiver was targeted 10 times against the Ravens and caught just four passes, which is two more than he dropped. Some guys just have stone hands. Little might be one of them. . . . Phil Dawson seems to be getting younger. How else can anyone explain why the lone remaining member of the 1999 expansion team has become the king of the 50-yard-or-longer field goal? He kicked three more in the Baltimore loss to give him four on the season. And he hasn’t missed yet in eight attempts overall. Pay the man.

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