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Browns rookie QB Cody Kessler excels on 3rd down, still needs to prove he can complete deep ball

BEREA — Cody Kessler has been first-rate on third down in his two NFL starts.
The rookie quarterback is still searching for his first victory, but his performance in the clutch situation ranks among the league leaders. His 106.6 passer rating on third down is fifth, trailing only Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Chicago’s Brian Hoyer.
“You have to understand that third down is really big, and not only for your offense but for your defense,” Kessler said this week. “Keep them off the field and allow them to get more rest and get a little breather. I spend a ton of time studying the team we are playing — what they do on third down and different looks you are going to get and what plays we put up for different situations.”
Kessler has completed 18 of 22 passes on third down for a league-best 81.8 percent with 131 yards and a touchdown. Accuracy has always been his calling card, as he left USC with a school-record 67.5 completion percentage.
Even when the ball is on target, the quarterback needs help.
“The receivers are working to get open. The line is blocking. He is making good decisions with the ball,” coach Hue Jackson said of third down. “Everybody has to do their part. He is doing his part by making sure the ball goes in the right areas.”
Kessler, a third-round pick out of USC, will likely face his stiffest test Sunday against coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots defense. Since 2000, no quarterback has gotten his first win against Belichick, according to Elias.
The Patriots rank fourth in scoring defense (15.3 points per game) and 19th in yardage (365.8).
Despite future Hall of Famers in Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady standing on the opposing sideline, Kessler said he’s approaching this game like any other.
“You can’t control who you are playing against that week,” he said. “You control how you perform. That has always helped me just stay level-headed. Don’t let the moment be too big.
“Just focus on what I can control. Stay after and watch film and study the playbook and study them defensively and then go out and make the plays and execute when it’s gameday.”
Brady will make his season debut after serving a four-game suspension for his role in Deflategate. The attention it brings could be suffocating, but Jackson expects Kessler to handle it.
“I understand all the media is going to be there, but they can only still put 11 out there on defense,” he said. “If they could put more out there, then I’d be concerned, but there are only 11 that they can stick out there, so we will go play.”
Kessler was thrust into the starting role after injuries to Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown but hasn’t been overwhelmed. He’s completed 67.1 for 467 yards, a touchdown, an interception and an 83.5 rating.
“It was important for us first and foremost to win the games that he started, and we were not able to do that so we all still have a lot of work to do,” associate head coach-offense Pep Hamilton said. “To see that he can function and play fairly efficient situational football is something that is important to us and is something that, of course, we are going to have to continue to do as we move forward.”
A knock on Kessler before the draft was a lack of arm strength. He’s done nothing to remove the doubts.
His 6.4 yards per attempt ranks 28th, as does the 5.95 per attempt on third down. His average depth of target was 5.3 yards against Washington as 29 of 36 attempts didn’t go past 10 yards, according to
“Just read the offense, read the play that is called and go through the progression and get the ball out on time and eliminate sacks and just continue to move the ball and just make the right decision,” Kessler said. “I don’t want to overstress or overemphasize doing this or doing that each week. I just want to continue to stay in the game plan.
“If we get the looks we want and the opportunity is there, then definitely take shots.”
Kessler’s longest completion is a 40-yard catch-and-run by Terrelle Pryor against Miami, and he hasn’t looked deep often.
“He can throw the ball down the field,” Jackson said. “We had several called last week and just all of a sudden, the coverage dictates otherwise.
“I love to throw it down the field. We will continue to take our shots.”
Belichick might force Kessler to beat him deep. The Browns won’t be surprised if the Patriots load the box to take away the run and short passes.
“They do a ton of different looks and they do it very well,” Kessler said. “They do a lot of things to try and confuse you. The different looks you might see one week, they might change up the next week.
“You have to make fast decisions with the ball, find them and get it to the right spot.”
He’s done just that on third down.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or [email protected] Like him on Facebook and follow him @scottpetrak on Twitter.

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.


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