By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
INDIANAPOLIS: The Browns were so flat on offense that coach Rob Chudzinski scrapped his original plan for their “dress rehearsal” preseason game Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts and forced them to put in some extra work at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Chudzinski intended to play his starters for the entire first half and only one series in the third quarter. But quarterback Brandon Weeden and the rest of the starting offense were in a funk all night, prompting Chudzinski to keep them in the game for a second series in the second half. He wanted to see them establish some semblance of rhythm after they regressed in a major way from their first two exhibition games.
The significant step backward and quarterback Andrew Luck’s carving of the first-team defense resulted in a 27-6 loss to the Colts. The Browns' starters were outscored 17-3 by their counterparts before exiting the action midway through the third quarter.
Those same starters outscored the St. Louis Rams 17-0 and the Detroit Lions 17-3 in the first two exhibition games, both of which were won by Cleveland. The Browns’ first road game of the preseason was a much different story, and it’s not the taste the team wanted in its mouth with the Sept. 8 season opener against the Miami Dolphins on the horizon.
“There’s no reason to be discouraged,” said Weeden, adding he has no idea whether the starters will play at all in the preseason finale Thursday against the Chicago Bears. “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. Tough league. They played well tonight. We didn’t do the things we did in the first two games. The good news is, is all the mistakes we made were kind of not on our best night [and] they’re fixable.”
Weeden completed his first six passes against the Colts, but he finished just 12-of-25 (48 percent) for 105 yards, posting a passer rating of 59.6. He entered the game red hot --18-of-25 (72 percent) for 229 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions and a rating of 139.8 -- but couldn’t maintain his momentum. The first-string offense converted 3-of-10 third downs.
"We weren't very good on first and second down,'' Weeden said. "They made plays. When guys were there, I'd like to have a couple of those throws back and then at the same time, they won the field-position battle. But we've got to be better on first and second down. That's what we were really good at the first couple of games out. We were putting ourselves in position on third down where we were about 50 percent because they were manageable. It was little bit tougher on us tonight.''
Weeden’s receivers often failed to separate from defenders and dropped a few passes. But he also was off target on some throws and nearly threw two interceptions.
The starting offense went three-and-out on three of its eight series, including on two consecutive possessions late in the second quarter and the opening possession of the third quarter. Chudzinski then made Weeden and Co. work overtime.
“We needed it,” Weeden said. “We needed to get some momentum. In the first half, we just couldn’t string together enough good plays. So I was glad we went back out because we put together a decent drive, came away with three [points], but we still had a lot of room for improvement.”
The starting offense’s final series was nearly disastrous. But as Weeden pointed out, at least it ended with a score. Shayne Graham’s 50-yard field goal with 7:16 left in the third quarter trimmed the Browns’ deficit to 17-3.
The play before Graham’s long field goal, Weeden threw behind wide receiver Josh Cooper on an out route, and cornerback Marshay Green dropped a would-be interception. Weeden was also nearly picked off in the second quarter when inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman cut in front of wide receiver Greg Little but couldn’t hang onto the third-down pass.
Earlier in the second quarter on third-and-7 at the Browns’ 34-yard line, Weeden and Little connected for a 10-yard gain, but Little fumbled and the Colts recovered.
“We weren’t as efficient on third down as what we had been and how we like to be,” Chudzinski said. “When you’re playing a good football team, you just can’t make those mistakes or they’ll capitalize. That’s a lesson we need to learn. We can learn a lot of things from this game.”
Other gaffes included dropped passes by wide receiver Josh Gordon, tight end Jordan Cameron and running back Brandon Jackson. Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas was penalized for holding, and second-year right tackle Mitchell Schwartz was called for unnecessary roughness immediately following Little’s fumble.
Starting running back Trent Richardson played four series and finished with 31 yards on seven carries (4.4 average) to go along with one catch for 10 yards. Richardson began the game with four consecutive touches, tallying gains of 5, 10, 5 and 12 yards and looking fully recovered from the bothersome shin that forced him to sit out the preseason opener.
“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.”
Richardson looked like the one of the few players wearing brown and orange who was ready. Still, he has faith in his teammates.
“We’re going to be good,” Richardson said. “We’ve just got to take one day at a time, one play at a time. Brandon’s going to be a great quarterback.”
Backup quarterback Jason Campbell was shaken up and walked to the sideline with medical personnel after linebacker Caesar Rayford strip-sacked him with 4:46 left in the fourth quarter. But after the game, Chudzinski said Campbell was “all right.”
Graham then made a 44-yard field goal, and on the Browns’ next possession, third-string quarterback Brian Hoyer threw an interception that safety Larry Asante returned 48 yards for a touchdown.
Browns starting outside linebacker Paul Kruger had a sack and pressured Luck as he threw a pass that deflected off the hands of fullback Stanley Havili and was intercepted by Tashaun Gipson, whom Chudzinski named the starting free safety on Wednesday.
Other than those highlights, the starting defense was a step behind all night after allowing no touchdowns in seven series combined against the Rams and Lions.
“There was some mistakes out there and they need to be handled and corrected,” Kruger said. “We’re fine. We just need to get back on track. It’s a long season, and there’s a lot of plays to be made out there. Those guys did a heck of a job out there on the other side of the ball. We have to give them respect and they took it to us.”
Luck repeatedly picked on rookie cornerback Leon McFadden in his first NFL preseason game and finished 16-of-25 (64 percent) for 164 yards and two touchdowns with a passer rating of 92.8. Luck also extended plays with his feet, rushing for 20 yards on four carries.
“I felt comfortable,” said McFadden, who sat out the first two preseason games with a strained groin. “There were some errors I had out there, but I’m just going to study the film, learn off it and try to correct my mistakes.”
Chudzinski conceded a few communication breakdowns allowed the Colts’ receivers to run wide open, and Reggie Wayne capitalized on his way to seven catches for 79 yards.
“Everytime you look out there he was making a play,” Chudzinski said of Wayne. “He’s a timeless guy. When there was a big play to make, he was able to make the big plays tonight.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.