BEREA: The Pittsburgh Steelers started their third-string quarterback Nov. 25 in Cleveland, and the Browns are preparing to return the favor in the season finale this weekend at Heinz Field.
Not only did rookie starting quarterback Brandon Weeden sprain his throwing shoulder Sunday while being sacked by linebacker Von Miller in the third quarter of the Browns’ 34-12 loss to the Denver Broncos, but backup quarterback Colt McCoy also hurt his throwing shoulder during the game, coach Pat Shurmur revealed Wednesday.
McCoy might have been injured on the Browns’ final offensive play when linebacker Wesley Woodyard sacked him, causing him to lie on the turf for a moment before being lifted by a teammate.
Shurmur has not ruled out Weeden, McCoy or rookie running back Trent Richardson for Sunday, when the Browns (5-10) will visit the Steelers (7-8). But none of them practiced Wednesday.
In the absence of Weeden and McCoy, third-string quarterback Thaddeus Lewis took reps with the starters in team drills for the first time and prepared for a potential baptism by fire. He has never played in an NFL regular-season game, but his debut could be on the road against the Steelers’ No. 1-ranked defense.
“I wouldn’t say it’s intimidating, but any guy that likes football would love the opportunity to play no matter where,” Lewis said. “You’re going to take the atmosphere in. Once you get out there, it’s just guys in front of you, guys you’ve seen and admired, but you actually get to play against them. It’s not time to be a fan. It’s time to be a player.”
The Browns also signed former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Johnson and placed safety Usama Young on injured reserve to make room on the active roster. Young will likely need surgery on his thumb, the team announced. Johnson, who was out of the NFL all season, would serve as Lewis’ backup if Weeden and McCoy sit out Sunday.
“When you have the opportunity to be signed off the street, you’re gonna jump right at,” said Johnson, a fifth-round draft pick in 2008. “If the coach asks or I get in a situation where I’m called upon and put in there, I’m going to do my best to prepare this week like I’ve been around and get up to speed on everything and try to go in there and execute the offense. That’s the plan.”
Meanwhile, Richardson was also idle after hurting his left ankle against the Broncos, though he hasn’t been ruled out for Sunday, either. Shurmur said neither Weeden nor Richardson, both of whom were selected in the first round of this year’s draft, will need surgery. The news must be a relief, especially for Richardson, who had screws inserted in his ankles to repair torn ligaments while he was in high school.
“The injuries were not as severe as you might have thought,” Shurmur said. “But they’re still injured.
“I think you’ve got to overlook the fact that it’s your last game and try to make your decisions based on playing this next game. If they’re able to go, they will. If they can’t, then I don’t have any problem here at the end of the week ruling them out before Sunday.”
Backup running back Montario Hardesty would start against the Steelers if Richardson cannot play. Hardesty has compiled 51 carries for 234 yards (4.6 average) and one touchdown this season.
“When I get a chance I’ve got to maximize my opportunities, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do,” said Hardesty, a second-round pick in 2010. “If that’s more carries this game, I’ll do everything I can to help my team win.”
Lewis has adopted a similar attitude. He said he views the possibility of starting against the Steelers as a chance to prove himself, not a chore.
“When your number is called, it’s an opportunity,” said Lewis, who completed 9-of-17 passes for 146 yards with one interception in the preseason. “In this league, you have to take advantage of those opportunities. If this is my one opportunity, I have to make sure I’m ready, prepare myself and give it my all.”
Lewis joined the Browns last year when they claimed him off waivers from the St. Louis Rams. In 2010, he spent his rookie season with the Rams while Shurmur served as their offensive coordinator.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Lewis, a four-year starter at Duke University who signed with the Rams as an undrafted free agent, spent all of last season on the Browns’ active roster, but he never played. This season, he spent the first five games on the 53-man roster and the past 11 weeks on the practice squad. Director of Player Personnel Jon Sandusky called Lewis on Monday to tell him he would be promoted.
“You know when they tell you they’re calling you up, you know something is up,” Lewis said.
Instead of playing the role of a receiver or another skill position for the scout team, Lewis was suddenly running the first-string offense in practice. He insisted he has a strong grasp of Shurmur’s West Coast system.
“Whoever’s in there, I trust,” Shurmur said. “I’ve had experience with Thad in the past. He hasn’t had a lot of opportunity in regular-season games to go in there and play. But if he’s in there playing, we definitely trust that he’ll do a good job.”
Still, there’s quite a difference between knowing the plays and executing them on the road against the Steelers. Their defense is ranked first against the pass (185.4 yards allowed per game) and second against the run (87.5 yards allowed per game).
“It’s a very difficult environment,” Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said. “Obviously they’ve got some of the best fans in the NFL. It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be difficult to hear. It’s going to be difficult to call the play in the huddle.
“There’s definitely things we’re going to have to do to help him. It’s going to be important just to run the ball and have a good efficient run game going, so that it’s not all about him throwing the ball and trying to beat their defense by himself.”
The Steelers fell 20-14 to the Browns in Week 12, when third-string quarterback Charlie Batch started because Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder/ribs) and Byron Leftwich (ribs) were sidelined. Now Roethlisberger is back and hoping to help the Steelers avoid being swept by the Browns for the first time since 1988 and dodge their first losing season since 2003.
Although Lewis is getting ready to enter the limelight, he’s not counting out Weeden and McCoy just yet.
“Those guys are competitors, and I know they will do whatever they need to do to get back,” Lewis said.
Hardesty has the same feelings about Richardson.
“I’m sure he wants to play,” Hardesty said. “He’s been playing with [a rib injury] all year. I’m sure he’s going to try his hardest to get back. However that shakes out, it will shake out.”
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.