By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Browns quarterback Jason Campbell didn’t get an adequate taste of the AFC North in Week 2 when he was thrust into action for one series late in the fourth quarter against the defending Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens.
“I couldn’t really get a feel,” Campbell said. “My mind was moving faster than my bones at that point.”
But so much has changed for Campbell and the Browns since they fell to the Ravens 14-6 on Sept. 15 at M&T Bank Stadium. Campbell is now the starter in place of benched quarterback Brandon Weeden, and he has given the entire team a new source of optimism heading into the final half of this season by playing well last weekend on the road in a 23-17 loss to the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs.
“I just think we’re better than we were at that point from an offensive growth standpoint,” Campbell said, reflecting on the loss to the Ravens. “At that time, we still didn’t have all the players that we have now. At the same time, I think guys have a better understanding of what we’re doing offensively.”
The Browns (3-5) also have found a spark from their quarterback. They believe Campbell and the confidence he has generated can help them snap their three-game losing streak Sunday evening when they host the Ravens (3-4), who have won the past 11 meetings between the two rivals. It’ll be Campbell’s first start in an AFC North matchup.
“I’m excited because I think Jason’s playing well,” Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said. “He’s going to be even better than he was last week. He didn’t make every play perfect, but nobody does. But it’s encouraging because if he plays just a little better [and] everyone else plays a little bit better around him, I think we can be a pretty good offense.”
Campbell, 31, who’s in his ninth NFL season, was thrown into the fire against the Ravens with 3:34 left after Weeden sprained his right thumb. He completed just 1-of-4 passes for 6 yards, an underhanded toss on fourth-and-10.
Campbell, though, looked good against the Chiefs after overcoming three consecutive three-and-outs in his first start for the Browns, who have a bye the week after they face the Ravens. He completed 22-of-36 passes (61 percent) for 293 yards and two touchdowns without an interception, posted a passer rating of 105.4 and took just one sack against the NFL’s fifth-ranked defense.
“He did a nice job,” Thomas said. “It’s obvious when you watch the tape that he’s had 70-plus NFL starts because he’s playing the position the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Added tight end Jordan Cameron: “He’s very comfortable out there, and it kind of leaks to everyone else. We trust in him. We trust in his abilities, and I know every receiver does. He’s just got to carry this over from last week, and I think he will.”
Solid quarterback play not only affects the offense, but it can also fuel the defense.
“The game has momentum,” Browns cornerback Buster Skrine said. “Time of possession is big. If Jason can keep the offense on the field, keep doing what he’s doing, and the defense can hold up its end, we should be successful.”
The Browns used three quarterbacks in their first eight games. Weeden started the first two and got hurt. Brian Hoyer started the next three before suffering a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Weeden started two more and was then demoted and replaced by Campbell.
If Campbell can stabilize the position for the final eight games, the Browns believe they’d be able to make a run.
“It would definitely do wonders for us,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “I love J.C. He’s a good quarterback. He did a great job against the Chiefs. If we can have offensive production like this and our defense keeps playing like we should, the proof is in the pudding of what we can do. We can have a really, really good team.”
However, the Browns won’t be able to flirt with chasing the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals (6-3) if they don’t take care of business this weekend against the Ravens. Coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco are undefeated against the Browns, who have had four head coaches and five starting quarterbacks during their 11-game skid against the Ravens.
“With them being in our division, it makes it an even more important game, plus to try to stay in the hunt, stay in the fight,” Campbell said. “When it comes late November and December, those are the teams that start to separate themselves. So we want to have an opportunity to be in the hunt come late in the season. It’s a big part right now. We’re sitting at a 3-5 record and a situation where we have to do what we have to do.”
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Campbell knows he can’t take the Ravens lightly just because linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, both of whom are future hall of famers, no longer highlight their roster. The Ravens are coming off a bye and are 5-0 under Harbaugh’s guidance following a bye.
“They’re still a good defense,” Campbell said. “[Outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil] coming off the edge are big-time players. They’re still the defending Super Bowl champs. They’re coming in here with the mindset of must win as well, so it kind of puts a playoff atmosphere type feel to it. They still have a tremendous amount of respect. They still have playmakers on that side of the ball. So we understand we’re going to get their best shot.”
Meanwhile, Campbell will be the key for the Browns. Hoyer improved from his first start to his second, spearheading back-to-back wins, and the Browns hope Campbell will also show progress with more time to prepare and develop chemistry.
“The thing I like about Jason is sometimes when you get guys who’ve been in two or three systems or been with someone else, they’re kind of set in their ways,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “But he has really absorbed and bought in to what we’re doing, and really I think he likes the offense, so he’s spent a lot of time. Even in the game Sunday, we had some communication problems that were just little things that kept us from making some plays. There’s four or five plays in the game where we don’t get the most out of them because we’re not all on the same page yet. If we can continue to grow that way, it will help us.”
For example, Turner thought Campbell made “a great throw” on a fly route to wide receiver Josh Gordon during the first possession. But Gordon, who was suspended when the Browns lost to the Ravens in September, never saw the ball.
“Every week is an opportunity to grow,” Campbell said. “Just watching the film from last week, there were maybe one or two plays you can’t just get out of your head because you wish you could have one or two plays back. I do believe the more you play, the better I can get a better feel and chemistry for the guys around me.”
The ultimate test will come Sunday when Campbell tries to make his mark in the AFC North.
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.