Published January 13, 2015
(SportsNetwork.com) - Just over three weeks after trading Trent Richardson and "giving up" on their season, the Cleveland Browns find themselves tied for first place in the AFC North as they get ready to host the Detroit Lions.
But the guy who helped the Browns get there, suburban Cleveland native Brian Hoyer, is gone for the rest of the season after tearing his ACL early in the Browns' Week 5 win over the Buffalo Bills.
That means previously deposed QB Brandon Weeden, who initially entered to a chorus of boos after replacing Hoyer before finishing 13-of-24 for 197 yards and a touchdown against the Bills, will return as the team's starter as the Browns search for a fourth consecutive win for the first time since 2009.
Helping Weeden against Buffalo was Travis Benjamin, the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week, who returned a punt 79 yards for a touchdown among his team record 179 punt-return yards, and WR Josh Gordon, who hauled in four receptions for 86 yards and a score.
Willis McGahee added 72 yards on the ground and a touchdown on 26 rushes for Cleveland, which last began 3-2 in 2001 when the Browns fizzled out and finished 7-9.
The Lions, meanwhile, lost their 23rd straight game in Wisconsin last week, a 22-9 setback to the Green Bay Packers.
The Detroit offense sputtered much of the day thanks in large part to wide receiver Calvin Johnson's absence due to a knee injury. The All-Pro had been listed as questionable on the team's injury report after sitting out practice both Wednesday and Thursday of last week before participating in Friday's session on a limited basis.
QB Matthew Stafford was 25-for-40 for 262 yards and a touchdown for the Lions, who were coming off wins against Washington and Chicago.
"It's a long season and you have to be able to persevere through a lot of ups and downs," said Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz. "We had a down today, and we'll bounce back from it just like we did after losing to Arizona."
The Lions defense was a bright spot, holding the Packers to five field goals and allowing only one offensive touchdown.
Detroit and Cleveland will be facing off for the 19th time with the Lions holding the all-time edge, 14-4, and a 5-3 record in Cleveland.
Back in 2010, Stafford led the Lions to a come-from-behind 38-37 win over the Browns with one of the most remarkable performances by a rookie QB in NFL history. Stafford brought the Lions back from deficits three different times (21, 3 and 6 points) to either tie or take the lead.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
This is the danger of giving up on a young quarterback, one injury and you may need him again.
We now know Browns CEO Joe Banner and GM Mike Lombardi had already moved past Weeden in their own minds at least and a second-year QB who is struggling with confidence issues in general isn't about to dismiss that kind of disrespect easily.
Chudzinski needs to spin this like he was always behind Weeden or this could spiral out of control quickly and Cleveland's stay at the top of the AFC North will likely to be measured in days, not weeks.
Weeden, on the other hand, needs to start trusting his reads, stop hesitating and throw the ball on time, which will in turn help with his shoddy accuracy.
"We have to approach it with 'it's next man up,'" Chud said. "That's the way we have handled the other situations that have come up, whether it's quarterback or other positions. I think Brandon did a heck of a job for us coming in the situation as a backup, mentally being ready and making some big plays that helped us win that game last week."
Having a pair of big-play options like emerging tight end Jordan Cameron and the speedy Gordon at his disposal will only help Weeden.
"That guy is playing a key role in their offense. Not just short passes, but also long passes," Schwartz said when discussing Cameron. "Five touchdowns already this year. He's made a lot of plays for them. Our linebackers' and safeties' ability to keep him from affecting the game and making big chunks of yards is definitely a key this week."
Gordon, meanwhile, has really helped open up the offense during Cleveland's current run by hauling in 18 receptions for 303 yards (16.8 avg.) and two TDs over that span.
The Lions' defense will give up some yardage in between the 20s but they have become very stingy in the red zone, allowing a touchdown percentage of 33.3 percent, third-best in the NFL.
A much-improved pass rush, led by rookie DE Ezekiel Ansah, who leads the team and all NFL rookies with 3 1/2 sacks, along with stud DTs Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley have helped spearhead the unit's resurgence.
"Those guys are dominant players at their position," Chudzinski said when talking about Suh and Fairley. "They are two of the best and it is very difficult to get anything going against them. They are a factor in the run game, they are a factor in the pass game."
Anyone who thinks Johnson isn't the fulcrum of the Lions' offense should watch last week's game in Green Bay, the first contest in 2013 where Detroit failed to score at least 21 points.
"He's a big part of their offense and it's something that I look forward to playing against him, but if he's missing, we're still going to go about it." Browns star CB Joe Haden said. "We want to get a "W." It's more about the team than me and Calvin in a one-on-one matchup."
Without the All-Pro drawing defenders outside the box, Reggie Bush was pedestrian against the Packers, rushing for just 44 yards one week after piling up a season-high 139 in the previous game against Chicago. Stafford, meanwhile, was sacked a career high-tying five times.
"We have to have guys step up," Stafford said when talking about Johnson's absence. "I have to play better. As an offense, we know we have to play better."
Problem is, Johnson's running mate outside the numbers, veteran WR Nate Burleson, is also sidelined with a broken left arm suffered in a car accident.
"Both of those, Calvin and Nate, are great players and Calvin might be one of the greatest, if not the greatest of all-time," said backup receiver Kris Durham. "We just have to figure out how to make some plays for Matt because he's standing back there with a lot of pressure in his face."
That pressure figures to continue against an imposing Cleveland front seven, which has helped the Browns amass 18 sacks on the season -- third-best in the NFL -- and allow just 301.8 yards a game, fourth-best.
"They have been doing that without (Jabaal) Sheard the last couple of games, who is one of their better pass rushers," Schwartz said. "They have a lot of guys in there that can rush, (Barkevious) Mingo and (Paul) Kruger, and some big guys inside, (Phil) Taylor. We have to be up to that challenge. Not just in pass protection, but also running."
Mingo, like Ansah, is a rookie who has hit the ground running as a pass- rushing specialist.
"He's playing with high effort. He's a good chase player." Schwartz said when asked about Mingo. "He's active. He's around the ball. He has great length. He's long. He affects the passer in a lot of different ways."
The key here is whether or not Johnson suits up and opens up the Detroit offense. His presence means you have to roll a safety over the top and that can create space for Bush.
C.J. was back at practice on a limited basis by Thursday so the guess here is that he plays and the Lions get it done.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Lions 28, Browns 17