By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: A day after absorbing his first defeat as head coach of the Browns, Rob Chudzinski tried his best to sell the notion that his players can still regroup and prevent a downward spiral in the wake of their 23-10 loss to the visiting Miami Dolphins in the regular-season opener.
The Browns have lost at least their first three games in four of the past five seasons, all of which ended with double-digit defeats. Chudzinski certainly doesn’t want to be part of the trend.
“This is a new time and a new team,” Chudzinski said Monday during a news conference. “Anything else is just noise out there. Guys have to focus on what we’re trying to get done and what we’re doing right now, and we’ll get better.”
With road games on the horizon against the Baltimore Ravens (Sunday) and Minnesota Vikings (Sept. 22) followed by a home game against the Cincinnati Bengals (Sept. 29), rapid improvement is the only prayer the Browns have to avoid an 0-4 start. Their showdown with the Buffalo Bills Oct. 3 at FirstEnergy Stadium is the next game most observers have pinpointed as “winnable.”
The arrival of Chudzinski, offensive coordinator Norv Turner and defensive coordinator Ray Horton sparked excitement among fans heading into this season. But the reality is that the team has several areas of concern that were exposed against the Dolphins.
Brandon Weeden threw three interceptions, two of which deflected off the hands of his targets, and completed just 26-of-53 passes (49.1 percent) for 289 yards and a touchdown. He finished with a passer rating of 48.4, better than the 5.1 he posted in the opener last year as a rookie but still dreadful.
The vertical, downfield passing game Chudzinski and Turner want to feature looked more like a dink-and-dunk disaster against the Dolphins. Still, Chudzinski insisted Weeden will receive time to show what he can do in the new system.
“I don’t look at it as a leash,” Chudzinski said. “I think that these guys are developing players, and they’re learning how to play and how to play in this system. And I expect us to keep getting better and improve.”
The action appeared to be moving too fast for Weeden at times, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that he didn’t receive much help.
“Whether it’s protection or us catching the ball, it’s everybody, collectively,” wide receiver Davone Bess said Monday. “And I think the faster we come to grips with that and understand that it’s not an individual guy, that it’s collective, we’ll be in good shape.”
The Dolphins compiled 16 quarterback hits, including six sacks (five in the second half). They pressured Weeden on more than half of his drop backs, and he completed 5-of-24 passes for 76 yards with two interceptions and a rating of 5.6 on those plays, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
“The protection issues were there, and that’s something you have to contend with,” Chudzinski said. “I thought Brandon had some ups and downs. I know there are some throws and some reads he’d like to have back. You saw his resiliency and toughness. If anybody had questions about that prior to this game, you look at the game, and he’s pretty tough and kept bouncing back.”
Weeden appeared to be bothered by his throwing shoulder after defensive end Derrick Shelby strip-sacked him with 12:46 left in the fourth quarter. He visited the trainer’s room following his postgame news conference Sunday evening, but Chudzinski said he’s OK physically.
“He’s fine,” Chudzinski said. “He might have a few bruises.”
Weeden’s ego must be bruised after the Browns converted just 1-of-14 third downs. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins, meanwhile, converted 8-of-16 third downs.
“That’s not good at all,” Bess said. “We’ve got to get better at it.”
Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz was beaten several times in pass protection, including by Shelby en route to his strip-sack. Dolphins left defensive end Cameron Wake also dominated Schwartz and tallied six quarterback hits, including 2½ sacks.
Right guard Oniel Cousins was penalized four times, and one of his two holding penalties nullified tight end Gary Barnidge’s 20-yard touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter. According to PFF, Cousins also allowed two sacks and three hurries.
Running back Trent Richardson averaged 5.8 yards per carry off the left side and just 1.3 yards per carry off the right, according to PFF.
“There’s things I could have done better,” Cousins said Monday. “There’s things Mitchell could’ve done better, and we’re just going to get better.”
Like Weeden, the line didn’t always receive the support it needed.
Wake blew by Chris Ogbonnaya, who’s listed as the team’s top fullback, and sacked Weeden with 5:33 left in the fourth quarter.
Chudzinski acknowledged he might experiment with undrafted rookie tight end Keavon Milton, who’s 6-foot-4 and weighs about 285 pounds.
“There is some things that you do with that type of guy that you would do with a traditional fullback,” Chudzinski said.
Barnidge appeared as if he was in position to help Schwartz on the strip-sack by chip blocking Shelby, but he ran a route in the flat instead.
“There was some times where we should’ve chipped in that game,” Chudzinski said.
The receivers didn’t exactly come to Weeden’s rescue, either. The group was without its best player, Josh Gordon, who served the first of his two-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.
But that’s no excuse for Greg Little and Travis Benjamin dropping two passes apiece. To be fair, sometimes Weeden’s passes could use more touch and less zip.
“He can take a little bit off of them in those situations,” Chudzinski said.
One pass went off Little’s hands and was intercepted by ex-Browns cornerback Dimitri Patterson in the first quarter.
“Greg has worked extremely hard on catching,” Chudzinski said. “There’s nobody who works harder. He’s [working on] the JUGS machine and all those things. A couple of those [passes] were high. They were tough catches. I know Greg has set high standards for himself, and he expects to catch those.”
On the second play of the fourth quarter, Benjamin dropped a pass that could have gone for a touchdown because he had a clear path to the end zone. And during the second series of the first quarter, Benjamin failed to secure a pass on a slant route on third-and-10 from the Browns’ 41.
“If we get that one, we probably get the first down and the drive goes on,” Chudzinski said.
For the most part, the defensive front seven was dominant, limiting the Dolphins to 20 rushing yards on 23 carries (0.9 average), which is tied for the second-fewest rushing yards allowed in team history. It also produced four sacks — defensive end Desmond Bryant had two and outside linebackers Paul Kruger and Quentin Groves had one apiece.
But when the pass rushers didn’t get to Tannehill in the second half, he proved the cornerbacks not named Joe Haden are vulnerable.
Chris Owens was targeted 10 times, and he surrendered nine receptions for 89 yards, including 46 yards after the catch, according to PFF. Buster Skrine was burned by wide receiver Brian Hartline’s out-and-up route that resulted in a 34-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Skrine was also penalized for pass interference in the end zone during the Dolphins’ touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
“They are going to be tested, and we know they are going to be tested,” Chudzinski said. “I’m confident they will step up.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. 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.