BALTIMORE: Somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Tim Couch could be watching and wincing.
The black brace that Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden wore on his throwing hand Sunday to protect his just-sprained right thumb might prompt Couch to flash back to the pounding he took during his five seasons in the same role.
In two games this season, Weeden has absorbed 28 hits, including 11 sacks. That’s a pace of 88 for the season, 28 higher than the team record of 60 surrendered in the first expansion season in 1999, when Couch went down 56 times. It’s the same kind of brutality that left Couch with a twice-torn rotator cuff, along with a torn biceps and labrum in his right shoulder, after being sacked 166 times, including 51 more in 2001.
So while fans surely will be up in arms about the Browns’ sickly offense after a 14-6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in M&T Bank Stadium left them 0-2, it is by no means all Weeden’s fault.
Granted, he seems on the way to proving he is not the quarterback of the future. A lack of big plays continued to dog the Browns in an extremely winnable game against the defending Super Bowl champions.
With 2:38 left in the third quarter and the Browns trailing 7-6, Weeden overthrew wide-open Chris Ogbonnaya on the left sideline when the running back had only rookie safety Matt Elam to beat. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Weeden’s fourth-down completion to tight end Jordan Cameron came up short by the width of a playing card. (The joker, perhaps?) The referee used a piece of paper from his pocket during the measurement to decide which team would get the ball.
“I’ve never seen a referee pull out a credit card or whatever he pulled out and slide it up against it,” Weeden said. “It was close. It was centimeters.”
The Browns failed to score a touchdown after a 53-yard completion to Cameron on their first offensive play. That gain accounted for 20.4 percent of their 259 yards total offense. Three times, they were called for delay of game, which coach Rob Chudzinski attributed to communication issues.
In two games, the Browns have scored only one touchdown (a 7-yard pass to Cameron on Sept. 8 against the Miami Dolphins). They are converting 17.2 percent on third down (5-of-29). They have only three rushing first downs. And Weeden isn’t totally to blame.
When it comes to the offensive line, anything right of Alex Mack’s right elbow has been horrible. Guard Oniel Cousins committed four penalties against the Dolphins. Tackle Mitchell Schwartz is regressing with each snap, perhaps because last year’s second-round pick needs the help of Shawn Lauvao or Jason Pinskton alongside him. Both are out with high ankle sprains. The Browns have to hope Lauvao’s supposedly close return is a matter of centimeters, as well.
“I don’t know. If we knew the answer we’d correct it. We’ve just got to play better,” Schwartz said when asked about the Browns’ sack total.
“Whether we don’t protect long enough, don’t run the right route, don’t get the ball out quick enough, don’t make a catch, everyone’s accountable,” left guard John Greco said. “I don’t think there’s any need to throw up the emergency flags. It’s stuff we have to continue to work on. As we build chemistry, it will be easier for us to see those things and pick them up and get better.”
When asked about the pass protection, Chudzinski said he thought that the Browns did a better job than last week, when the Dolphins totaled 16 hits, including six sacks.
“That’s a good front. The guys up front really worked on it this week to prepare themselves to protect well and I think they did an outstanding job,” Weeden said of the Ravens. “It’s a combination of things. I have to get the ball out … we’ll get it right. I’m not concerned about that at all.”
He might not have to be concerned about it for a while, considering the sprained right thumb that forced him out of the game with 3:34 remaining. Predicting a Weeden injury against the Ravens’ pass-rushing tandem of Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil was easier than picking Baltimore to win. Browns fans again could have cursed the Broncos, this time for messing up the paperwork that allowed Dumervil to leave in free agency.
The Browns’ offensive line issues seem the most alarming because it was the strength of the team in 2012. But Weeden’s receiving corps has just as many deficiencies. Greg Little dropped at least two passes against the Ravens. Newcomer Davone Bess seems like Weeden’s most dependable target, which opponents won’t have to study hard to recognize and shut down. Speedster Travis Benjamin’s longest catch has gone for 22 yards. Bess and Cameron seem the most adept at getting open, but the latter has no burst, as the 53-yard play painfully showed. There will be no quick fix from this week’s return of receiver Josh Gordon after a two-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Even the Browns’ abandonment of the running game with the Ravens leading 7-6 must be questioned, especially when running back Trent Richardson is their lone game-changer on offense. Richardson’s last run came with 3:16 remaining in the third quarter. After that the Browns called 19 consecutive passes, counting plays on which Weeden was sacked.
Weeden, of course, is not exempt from the ineptitude. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had an average day, yet still made plays when his team needed them. Had Weeden hit Ogbonnaya for a touchdown and had the arm Cameron used to stretch the ball toward the first-down marker been an inch longer, the offense might not seem in such a shambles.
Couch, perhaps more than anyone else, can relate.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.