BEREA: Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden is looking for a little respect, but he knows it must still be earned.
Weeden completed his first deep pass of the season last week in the Browns’ 23-16 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, connecting with wide receiver Greg Little for a 43-yard completion on a fade route along the sideline in the second quarter. The play helped the Browns put together their best drive through four games, a 94-yard touchdown march, and gave the NFL a glimpse of what Weeden did so well during his career at Oklahoma State University.
“Monkey off the back,” Weeden said of capitalizing on the long shot. “It was good. Those are hard on defenses.”
But Weeden knows his deep ball must become a consistent threat. He also would have had a 34-yard touchdown pass against the Ravens if Little could have held onto the ball as he leapt, bent backward and tried to grab it in the front of the end zone with 4:38 left in the fourth quarter.
Nevertheless, Weeden will get a chance to establish a legitimate long threat again Sunday when the Browns (0-4) visit the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants (2-2).
“Hitting that big one was big for us, but it’s gonna take more than one,” Weeden said. “We’re gonna have to complete more than one big one to really get the respect down the field.”
Demanding such respect is vital for the Browns because it can open up the running game for rookie Trent Richardson.
“It’s important because you want to be able to soften up the defense a little bit with somebody who can go deep and make the safeties think twice about stepping in the box to support the run,” offensive tackle Joe Thomas said.
It also can give Weeden’s targets an advantage when they execute the midrange routes that are prevalent in coach Pat Shurmur’s version of the West Coast offense.
“The safeties play deeper,” Little said. “The corners tend to play a little more off, so anything short to intermediate starts to get a little bit easier than normal.”
And the emotional lift a big completion provides can’t be discounted, either.
“It definitely can spark our offense and get everybody fired up really quick,” rookie wide receiver Josh Gordon said. “It can change the pace of the game. The momentum can switch really fast.”
The Browns’ passing attack is ranked 20th (235.2 yards per game) in the league, and it probably won’t be at full strength Sunday. Wide receivers Mohamed Massaquoi and Travis Benjamin are both listed as doubtful with hamstring injuries. Gordon will start in place of Massaquoi and play opposite Little.
On the other hand, the Giants are ranked 19th against the pass (254 yards allowed per game) and might be especially vulnerable because of key injuries in their secondary. They have ruled out starting strong safety Kenny Phillips (knee) and cornerback Jayron Hosley (hamstring). Starting free safety Antrel Rolle (knee) and starting cornerback Corey Webster (hand/hamstring) are questionable.
“They’ve got some guys that are a little banged up, but Webster’s been in the league for a while,” said Weeden, who has completed 90-of-167 passes (53.9 percent) for 997 yards and three touchdowns with seven interceptions this season. “[Cornerback Prince] Amukamara’s a first-round guy that I played against in college. They’ve got very talented guys. You’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to pick your spots. But up front they’re really good. They’ve got guys who can really rush the passer. But if we have time, I like my guys in matchups. We’re gonna take shots.”
Shurmur continues to emphasize the importance of capitalizing on deep passes.
“I think it’s fair to say we’ve taken more shots this year, which I believe in, and I’ve always believed in it,” Shurmur said. “You’ve got to be able to stretch out the field some, but you’ve got to be able to hit on them. Once you hit on a couple, then you become more confident.”
Ready to play
Starting strong safety T.J. Ward said he’ll play Sunday after breaking his right thumb last week and having nine screws inserted in his hand over the weekend to repair it. Dr. Thomas Graham performed the surgery.
Ward practiced Thursday and Friday and is listed as questionable. He will wear a cast when he faces the Giants.
“I hate missing games,” Ward said. “I think having the surgery early helped me out. … I don’t think anything else can happen to it. So it’ll be OK.”
Ward said he suffered the injury in the first quarter against the Ravens while trying to tackle wide receiver Torrey Smith on a reverse.
“I came down and I kind of slid and stuck my arm out and I don’t know what it hit, but I think my thumb hit his knee,” Ward said. “It hurt a lot, but I’ve got the rest of my body. It’s just a thumb. I played through it. It was a big game for us, and I knew the team needed me to be in there, so I played through it.”
Ward, who leads the Browns with 27 tackles this season to go along with a sack and a forced fumble, will continue to endure the pain this weekend.
“I think he’s played very well, and we’re anticipating that he’ll continue,” Shurmur said. “We feel good about how physical he is. We feel good about what he does within the structure of our defense.”
Richardson was excused from practice Friday so he could attend the birth of his third child, Shurmur confirmed.
Richardson and his girlfriend, Sevina, were expecting a boy. They have two daughters, Taliyah, 5, and Elevera, 4.
Shurmur expects Richardson to play Sunday. Richardson, the third overall pick in this year’s draft, is listed as probable.
“I’ve seen guys go through family situations, personal situations and come and play outstanding games,” Shurmur said. “So I think what’s important is that he just tidies up on the preparation that he did miss, which I know he will.”
With Richardson absent from practice, running backs Montario Hardesty and Chris Ogbonnaya worked with the first-team offense.
Facing former Zips
University of Akron products Chase Blackburn and Domenik Hixon play vital roles for the Giants. Blackburn, 29, has started all four games this season at middle linebacker and co-leads the team with 22 tackles. Hixon, 28, has started once and has tallied 10 receptions for 181 yards.
After spending six seasons with the Giants, Blackburn was out of football last year until he re-signed with the team Nov. 30. He started the final four regular-season games and all four postseason games. His fourth-quarter interception in Super Bowl XLVI helped the Giants defeat the New England Patriots.
“Here’s a guy who was on the couch last year,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said during a conference call. “We brought him in, and he was very instrumental in our ability to win the Super Bowl and played so well down the stretch for us, made that great interception in the Super Bowl. He’s just got great fire, great energy, loves to play, has tremendous enthusiasm for the job and it’s infectious.”
Hixon, a fourth-round pick of the Denver Broncos in 2006 who joined the Giants a year later, is in the process of bouncing back from two season-ending injuries. He missed the entire 2010 season after tearing the ACL in his right knee during a minicamp practice. Last season, he appeared in the first two games before tearing the same ACL again.
“You’ve got a young man of great resolve,” Coughlin said. “He’s bounced back from a couple of serious knee injuries. He’s determined and he’s focused, and he has great character and values and he’s courageous. He’ll make plays in there when he knows he’s about to get decked and still he does it and does it with full confidence and knowledge of what he’s doing.”
Other injury updates
The Browns ruled out undrafted rookie safety Tashaun Gipson (knee) and tight end Alex Smith (concussion) for Sunday. Wide receiver Josh Cribbs (concussion), defensive end Frostee Rucker (shoulder), safety and special teamer Ray Ventrone (hand/calf) and safety Usama Young (knee) are probable.
The Giants ruled out defensive tackle Rocky Bernard (quad) and wide receivers Hakeem Nicks (foot/knee) and Ramses Barden (concussion). Offensive tackle David Diehl (knee) and linebacker Keith Rivers (hamstring) are doubtful. Linebacker Michael Boley (hip) and guard Chris Snee (hip) are questionable. Center David Bass (hand) and cornerback Michael Coe (hamstring) are probable.
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.