BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Even by the Browns' low standards, and they don't get much closer to the bottom of the NFL barrel, Saturday's 33-14 exhibition loss to St. Louis was dreadful.
Atrocious. Upsetting. Yuck.
For those in attendance, it was let's-get-out-of-here bad. For TV viewers, it was turn-the-channel or go-to-bed bad.
Cleveland's offense, with quarterback Brian Hoyer making his first start since being picked over rookie Johnny Manziel, couldn't move the ball. The defense, missing Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden, couldn't stop the Rams, who rolled up 472 total yards with most of them coming after starting quarterback Sam Bradford sadly injured his knee again.
"There's no sugarcoating it," first-year coach Mike Pettine said. "We didn't play well."
And with less than two weeks to prepare his team for the Sept. 7 season opener at Pittsburgh, Pettine and his staff have to fix numerous problems — and they could be multiplying.
The Browns could learn the fate of star wide receiver Josh Gordon in the next few days. Gordon is facing a possible yearlong suspension from the NFL for another violation of the league's substance abuse policy and there's a strong belief his punishment will be handed down before the Browns have to reduce their roster to 53 by Saturday.
Pettine said the team has "a feel for the range" of Gordon's ban, which will take away Cleveland's biggest game-breaking threat and allow defenses to stack the line of scrimmage to stop the Browns' running game.
"We're just patiently waiting," Pettine said after practice Monday.
As they prepare for Gordon's penalty, the Browns practiced without their second-best offensive player, Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron.
Pettine said Cameron, who had 80 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns last season, was excused from practice as the Browns got ready for Thursday's exhibition finale against Chicago.
Pettine declined to elaborate on Cameron's absence.
"He's just dealing with an issue," he said. "He was excused today from practice. I won't go into any other detail on that."
Pettine did say "the expectation" is Cameron will only miss one day, but the vagueness of the coach's answers raised more questions.
The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder sat out several practices earlier this month with a sprained shoulder, which also kept him out of the preseason opener in Detroit. Cameron returned on Aug. 18, but he looked rusty in Cleveland's loss at Washington. Against the Rams, Cameron had two catches for 18 yards.
Cameron's absence is not believed to be related to the shoulder. But with all their early struggles, the Browns need their starters on the practice field as much as possible.
Hoyer hasn't done much to quiet the detractors — and there's a legion of them — who feel Manziel should be starting. Hoyer completed 10 of 16 passes for 84 yards, not awful, but he also threw an ugly interception into traffic and fumbled on a strip-sack.
Hoyer has been on the field for 14 series during the preseason and the Browns have scored just one touchdown — against the Rams' backups — and converted only 3-of-14 third downs.
"Overall, offensively we need to get first downs and we need to score points," Pettine said, summing up the unit's most pressing issues. "It's basic stuff."
On defense, tackling — as basic as it gets — was an issue.
The Browns were without Haden (foot) and nickelback Buster Skrine, who recently had surgery on his thumb. St. Louis exposed rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert and Cleveland's defensive front didn't put enough pressure on Bradford, rookie Austin Davis or Shaun Hill.
"We took some steps back," defensive end Phil Taylor said. "We weren't full force, we had some guys out but we've just got to go out and correct the mistakes. That game was not the defense we are capable of being."
Time is running short for the Browns to make repairs. The Steelers are right around the corner.
"Two weeks is more than enough," Taylor said. "We'll be good."
NOTES: Pettine will play his starters in the fourth preseason game, a rarity for most teams. He said Hoyer likely will play "less" than a quarter. Manziel will finish up the first half and maybe play into the third, and QB Rex Grossman is expected to make his debut for Cleveland. ... WR Nate Burleson practiced for first time since Aug. 6, when he injured his hamstring. .. After releasing 14 players, the Browns claimed offensive linemen Karim Barton and Donald Hawkins off waivers from Philadelphia. Barton played at Morgan State. The 6-foot-4, 310-pound Hawkins is a rookie from Texas. The Browns roster is at 78 and has to be down to 75 by Tuesday at 4 p.m.
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