Browns competitive, not nearly as bad as expected

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CLEVELAND (AP) — Their losing record is as expected.

But as the Browns reached their bye week after playing three games all decided by a last-second field goal, little else has gone as forecast.

Quarterback Brian Hoyer has played better than anyone imagined, reducing celebrated rookie backup Johnny Manziel to little more than a trick-play prop.

Cleveland's running game — led by rookie "Baby Backs" Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell — has shown promise, the offense has scored points but sorely misses suspended Pro Bowl wide receiver Josh Gordon and the Browns' defense, thought to be the team's strength, has been porous.

It's not gone exactly as planned for first-year coach Mike Pettine, who believes his team has made strides and can do more than compete with the rest of the AFC North.

"We're about as confident a 1-2 team as you can be," he said before dismissing his team for a four-day break. "We've proved over the first three weeks that we can win football games in this league, that we're close.

"As I've said, pass-fail league, we failed two out of three, but there's a different feel to it just because I know our guys have confidence coming out of it and that if we go out and execute a game plan that we can beat any team in this league."

Hoyer's performance through three games: steady, precise and mistake-free, has muffled the screams for Manziel, who has been on the field for just five plays, including one in which he pretended to be in conversation with coaches on the sideline before catching a pass on a play called "Dawg Pound Special" that was brought back by a penalty and technically illegal.

Hoyer, with the tug-at-the-heart hometown story, has brought stability to the quarterback position, allowing Pettine and his staff to focus their attention on more pressing matters.

Not that they don't still worry.

"Oh, we worry about it," he said, joking. "He's played well, but he hasn't graded out 100 percent. He's his own toughest critic, too."

Hoyer nearly rallied the Browns to a comeback in the season opener at Pittsburgh. In the home opener, he directed an 85-yard drive to set up the game-winning field goal in the closing minutes to beat New Orleans.

Last week, he completed 14 straight passes in one stretch, but couldn't convert on a critical third down as the Browns were beaten by Baltimore on the game's final play.

Despite not having Gordon or starting running back Ben Tate, Hoyer has Cleveland's offense playing better than it has in years. Still, there's room for growth.

"I'm just always trying to get better," he said. "You're always trying to make improvements. I think as an offense as a whole, we have gotten better. We need to improve. Obviously right now what we're doing isn't enough."

For all the preseason hoopla surrounding Cleveland's quarterback situation, Hoyer has calmed things.

The Browns, for now and the immediate future, are his team.

"Brian has a lot of confidence in himself," wide receiver Andrew Hawkins said. "And no matter what situation, when Brian plays that's his mentality. That's what you want, no matter what."

Cleveland's running game has been a pleasant surprise, given that Tate, signed as a free agent in the offseason, has missed the past two games with a sprained right knee. West and Crowell have exceeded expectations, and more options for coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who believes a strong running game is the foundation for success.

Undrafted, Crowell wasn't a lock to make the roster out of training camp before he rushed for 102 yards in the exhibition finale. In three games, he's gained 141 yards on 27 rushes (5.2 average) with three TDs and his low-to-the-ground, no-nonsense running style has endeared "The Crow" to Browns fans.

The 5-foot-11, 225-pounder worked with the first-team offense and it's possible he could get more snaps when the Browns visit Tennessee next week.

"If a guy's been productive, you find ways to get him on the field more," Pettine said. "That's a good problem to have, when you have a back who, before the season, you weren't factoring in on being a big part of what you're doing and he's being productive. You find ways to get him out there."

One of Pettine's objectives this week was Cleveland's shaky rushing defense. The Browns are ranked 31st, allowing 153.7 yards per game. The Ravens rolled up 160 last week.

"The run thing is disappointing," Pettine said. "It was technique on some, it's scheme on some, missed tackles on some, so it wasn't any one thing that, 'Hey, if we do this, we'll be different.' We need to get better in our run defense across the board."

With a favorable schedule over the next five weeks — Cleveland's opponents are a combined 3-12 — the Browns have a chance to turn their record around.

In a season already out of the norm in Cleveland, that would be unexpected.

"We feel that we can win now," Pettine said. "We want to win now."


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