Major issues in all three facets of the game led to yet another close loss for the Cleveland Browns, falling short on the road to the Indianapolis Colts, 17-13.
The opening drives of each half for the Browns were brilliant. Of their 10 drives, 52 percent of Cleveland's total yards were gained on those two. The problem was that's all they could muster.
Those drives were also entirely dependent on the arm of Brandon Weeden. The 29-year-old rookie is truly getting better every week. On Sunday he outplayed fellow rookie and No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck, but it wasn't enough to come away with a victory. Weeden finished the game 25 of 41 for 264 yards, two touchdown passes and a QB rating of 96. He did make some throws that were off target or into coverage, including a near interception in the red zone on the Browns' first possession of the game. On the very next play he bounced back with first down pass to Josh Gordon on third and 13. Weeden capped that drive off with an excellent pass to Greg Little in the back of the end zone for the TD.
Despite Weeden doing well with them, 41 pass attempts speaks to a bigger problem. There were actually 42 pass plays called, on one of which Weeden pulled his own number and rushed 13 yards for a first down. That's over 72 percent of the time on offense for the game. It's about 65 percent pass on the season. Pat Shurmur has a problem with running schemes. During his time as head coach in Cleveland he has failed to consistently run the ball effectively.
Trent Richardson's own issues aren't helping the situation. Whether it was due to his knee early in the season or his ribs now, he's only had two good games thus far (Week 2 and 5). His worst came this week. He carried the ball eight times for only eight yards. Durability issues should be a legitimate concern right now. That's often synonymous with the running back position.
Montario Hardesty eventually replaced Richardson by the end of the second quarter and played pretty well again. But he only saw seven carries, running for 28 yards. By the time Hardesty came in, the Browns were already playing from behind, 14-6.
Josh Gordon proved once again that he can be the big play threat. This game made for the third week in a row now that Gordon has caught multiple passes for over 20 yards and gotten in the end zone. He's actually ranked first in the league among all qualified players for yards per reception with 23.8. He still dropped the go-ahead touchdown on what was a perfectly thrown ball late in the fourth quarter. He lost it right as he entered the area of the field directly in the sun. That's not an excuse and Gordon owned up to it. However, there's little doubt it was a factor.
Josh Cooper, an undrafted free agent rookie and former college teammate of Weeden's, has been fantastic for the Browns since coming off the practice squad in Week 6. He's caught six passes in the NFL. All six of them have gone for first downs. Four came on Sunday. He may have a bright future as a slot receiver for Cleveland.
Greg Little's comeback tour might have started with that touchdown catch on the Browns' first drive. As the replay showed, it wasn't exactly an easy catch to make. He finished the game leading the team with six receptions.
The Colts were effective on thee of their nine drives. It was enough to win. Like the Browns, their opening drive of the game was perfect. They established the run and still passed the ball well when they needed to. They repeated the performance on their second drive as well. Luck finished both drives off by running the ball for touchdowns within the 10-yard line.
The Browns simply could not stop the run and the Colts kept going to it. With Donald Brown injured, it was rookie fifth-round pick Vick Ballard getting the majority of the carries. On 20 rushes, Ballard ran for 84 yards, the best game of his short career. Even Delone Carter was effective running ball 11 times for 41 yards and had a big positive impact on the Colts' second drive of the game that ended in a touchdown.
Reggie Wayne is going to get his. At 33-years-old, he's still a great NFL wide receiver. The Browns actually held him to his second lowest receiving total this season and without a touchdown. However, the run-to-pass ratio for Indianapolis undoubtedly played a role in that. The Colts didn't have to pass the ball very often, but when they did, it worked, at least on the scoring drives, which was all they needed to win.
Doubt is starting to creep about this Cleveland defense. It may not be as good as once thought. Every team deals with injuries. Good defenses are deep enough not to crumble when it happens.
The special teams
Phil Dawson remains perfect on the season. That's the only good thing to note this week from the Browns' special teams. Josh Cribbs had a few great returns, but they were called back on blocking penalties. The Browns had more penalty yards go against them than they had rushing yards. Worst of all, it cost them a vital point when Reggie Hodges bobbled the hold on their first PAT. That failed attempt changed the scope of the game and affected Cleveland's options from there on out.
Losing this winnable game hurts. Watching needless game-changing mistakes is frustrating. The loss is inexcusable. Although, there is one bright spot in this otherwise gloomy look back. As long as the front office doesn't do anything rash, the Cleveland Browns have the quarterback situation solved. Fans haven't been able to say that with confidence in a long, long time. This is a huge moving forward.