NFL Preview - Cleveland (1-5) at Indianapolis (2-3)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The last time that Andrew Luck and Brandon Weeden squared off, they put together an offensive showcase that highlighted just why the two would soon become starting NFL quarterbacks.
The offense may be harder to come by as professionals this Sunday when Luck tries to get his hosting Indianapolis Colts to the .500 mark against a Weeden- led Cleveland Browns team fresh off its first victory of 2012.
Luck threw for nearly 10,000 yards and posted 82 touchdown passes in 38 starts at Stanford, capping his college career with a a Fiesta Bowl appearance against Weeden and Oklahoma State on Jan. 12.
The 23-year-old Luck, a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist, threw for 347 yards and a pair of scores with one interception in that game, but came out on the losing end of a 41-38 overtime decision to Weeden, who posted 399 passing yards while finding college teammate and current Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Justin Blackmon for three touchdowns.
Still, Luck went first overall in the 2012 draft to the Colts, while the Browns selected the 29-year-old Weeden 22nd overall.
Both rookies have been starters for their clubs since Week 1, with Luck becoming the first freshman quarterback in NFL history to pass for over 1,200 yards and win at least twice in his first four games.
That second victory came in an emotional 30-27 rally over the Green Bay Packers on Oct. 7, Indianapolis' first game since learning that head coach Chuck Pagano had been diagnosed with leukemia and would be away from the club to get treatment.
The Colts couldn't keep hold of that momentum, getting blown out 35-9 on the road against the New York Jets last Sunday to fall to 2-3 on the season.
Luck failed to complete a touchdown pass for the first time this season and was picked off twice while throwing for 280 yards, while Adam Vinatieri accounted for all of the Colts' offense with three field goals.
Indianapolis will look to once again reverse field this weekend.
"It's just like the win after Green Bay, the loss after New York, you have the 24-hour rule. You have another team coming up so you can't dwell on it. You fix it, you look at the tape, identify what happened right and wrong and go on to the next day. We've done that," said Colts interim head coach/offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
Weeden has not had the same success as his friend Luck, though he does lead all NFL rookies with 1,519 passing yards on the season. That is 31 more than Luck and the two have each hurled seven touchdown passes on the year.
Weeden, who threw for 9,260 yards with 75 touchdowns in his four years at Oklahoma State and was a second-round pick by the New York Yankees in the 2002 MLB draft, had a pair of 300-yard passing games in his first five starts, all losses.
He finally picked up his first NFL victory last Sunday, throwing for 231 yards with two touchdowns in a 34-24 triumph over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Cleveland snapped an 11-game slide dating back to last season and helped Weeden out with a two-headed run attack.
Rookie Trent Richardson ran for 37 yards on 14 carries before exiting with a right rib cartilage injury that has him day-to-day, and Montario Hardesty took over and posted 56 yards on 15 carries while posting his first NFL touchdown.
"It was huge," Weeden said of Hardesty's contributions. "I told him he's one of the players of the game. Just filling in for Trent (Richardson), Trent takes a large load of what we do, but for Montario to come off the bench with basically very few reps and to play the way he did and put us in the situations he did, I thought he played great."
Cleveland's defense was also solid, forcing four turnovers including a pick- six by Sheldon Brown.
The Browns snapped a five-game slide against the Colts with a 27-19 victory at Indianapolis on Sept. 18 of last season. Cleveland's first victory in this series since 1994 improved the franchise to 10-5 all-time on the road in this series.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Friends Luck and Weeden will aim for early bragging rights this weekend.
Luck has certainly had his ups and downs so far, getting picked off seven times to his seven touchdown passes while also getting sacked 13 times, eight of those coming in his last two outings.
"You have to be consistent in this league if you want to be successful. You can't take a play off, miss a wide-open guy in the end zone or have a decent drive, have a 3rd-and-1 and miss an open guy," said Luck of his learning process.
"I think he has all the physical attributes," Browns head coach Pat Shurmur noted of Luck. "He performed at a high level throughout his high school and college career. He wasn't a one-year wonder. He's probably a model of consistency in his personal life, so all the things you're looking for. I'm sure that's what establishes him."
Luck has benefited from having a veteran target in Reggie Wayne, who has caught 41 passes so far -- 20 more than Indy's second-leading receiver Donnie Avery -- for 593 yards with a pair of touchdowns.
The running game has come along much slower and leading rusher Donald Brown is out again this week due to a knee injury. Rookie Vick Ballard got his first NFL start in Brown's place last weekend and ran for 25 yards on eight carries.
Luck will have to be aware of a Browns secondary that has already picked off 10 passes, one more than the unit had all of last season. In addition to Brown's interception versus the Bengals, cornerback Joe Haden and safety Usama Young also grabbed picks.
Haden was returning from a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancing substances -- reportedly for testing positive for the prescription drug Adderall -- and picked up his second interception of the season on a tipped ball.
"I thought Joe did a heck of a job," said Shurmur. "It's not easy, even though he stayed in shape and he tried to stay into it mentally. I went into this thinking there might be some rough spots, that he hasn't played in a while and I thought for the most part he battled. He did a real nice job."
Weeden has also done a nice job while building chemistry with rookie wideout Josh Gordon, who has five catches for 181 yards and three touchdowns in his last two games. The duo hooked up for a 71-yard score last weekend, the second-longest touchdown pass by a Browns rookie quarterback in club history.
"I think it has an effect," Shurmur said of long pass plays. "When you can complete deep balls, 62 and 71 yards, it has an effect on the defense for sure."
The Browns will try to take advantage of a Colts defensive unit that continues to be hobbled by injuries. Starters Fili Moala, Robert Mathis and Pat Angerer all missed the Jets game due to injury and Cory Redding had to leave that loss in the first half due to knee issue.
That led to the Jets rushing for 252 yards against the Colts, with New York running back Shonn Greene logging a career-high 161 yards with three touchdowns.
Arians is hoping to get some bodies back this weekend, but isn't giving his defense a free pass either.
"Injuries cannot be used as an excuse. ... But we had to fit properly and tackle. We did not fit the right gaps. We were out of our gaps too often and we missed way too many tackles, especially in the backfield."
This interesting matchup will likely fly under the radar due to the struggles of both teams, but those who do check it out shouldn't expect a repeat of the Fiesta Bowl shootout.
The Colts will be glad to be back home after getting pounded by the hosting Jets a week ago, but the Browns will not be a walk in the park for rebuilding Indy either.
"We are in no position to look ahead by any means. It's going to be a tough test with the Browns, great defense, very sound, tough guys," noted Luck.
In fact, given that Cleveland has two running backs it can go to and a much healthier defense, it may just be the Browns that leave town with their first winning streak in over a year.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Browns 16, Colts 13
10/18 12:20:30 ET