BEREA — After preparing all week as if he would start Sunday in Pittsburgh, quarterback Thaddeus Lewis got the official word from coach Pat Shurmur after practice Friday.
“You’re the man,” Shurmur told him.
Lewis remained on the field after it had emptied and threw passes to receiver Greg Little under the watchful eyes of quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple and receivers coach Mike Wilson. Lewis will see his first NFL action against the Steelers and their No. 1-ranked defense in the season finale at Heinz Field.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “It’s a blessing for a childhood dream to come true. It’s an opportunity and you have to go out and make the best of it.”
His shot comes because starter Brandon Weeden and backup Colt McCoy were ruled out Friday with sprained right (throwing) shoulders after not practicing all week. Neither will need surgery, according to Shurmur.
Weeden started the first 15 games and was hoping to become the first Browns quarterback since Tim Couch in 2001 to start all 16. But he was sacked by Denver’s Von Miller on Sunday and buried on the shoulder under a pile.
Weeden went 5-10 and threw for 3,385 yards, the seventh most by a rookie in NFL history. He completed 57.4 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and a 72.6 rating. The touchdowns rank 24th in the NFL, the interceptions tied for 31st and the rating 32nd.
“There are a lot of things that I’m very, very happy about watching him play,” Shurmur said. “Much like a lot of quarterbacks in this league that went on to have really good careers — just pick one — they all had rookie years where they were much better in their second year. I think he’s shown quite a bit this year that’s good.”
McCoy’s season never got started. He hadn’t thrown a pass until Sunday, then went 9-for-17 for 79 yards, a touchdown and an 85.2 rating. He was apparently injured on the final play of the game when he was sacked for the fourth time.
Rookie running back Trent Richardson was also ruled out with a sprained ankle, along with cornerback Sheldon Brown and tight end Jordan Cameron, who are recovering from concussions.
Montario Hardesty will make his first start of the season in place of Richardson, who came up 50 yards short of 1,000.
“I’m just excited about the opportunity to play,” Hardesty said. “I just have to make sure I make the most out of my opportunities on the field and just go out and play a good game and go out and show people what I can do.
“I still feel like there’s a lot of stuff that I haven’t shown yet in the NFL that I want to show.”
Hardesty, a second-round pick in 2010, has four career starts. He has 51 carries for 234 yards, a 4.6 average and a touchdown in 11 games this year.
“I’ve been happy with Montario and what he’s done this year,” Shurmur said. “He obviously doesn’t have the number of carries that he would have liked, but the ones he has had have been meaningful.”
Lewis (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) has never taken a snap that counted in the NFL. His last start came at Duke in 2009 and he spent most of the last three seasons with Shurmur on the practice squads or inactive with the Rams and Browns. Lewis was promoted to the active roster Monday and took the first-team repetitions throughout the week.
“It was way, way different,” he said. “You can just come in and know what you’re doing with the scout team versus studying and putting the preparation in and watching extra film and going the extra mile as a starter. It’s just putting more time in.”
Lewis’ time with Shurmur has allowed him to gain a deep knowledge of the West Coast Offense, and Lewis said the play calls won’t have to be scaled back for him. Little trained with Lewis in the offseason and said they have good chemistry.
“Thad has displayed everything that he needs to to prove himself and to go out and have a great showing on Sunday,” Little said. “He’s obviously in the NFL for a reason. He has a great talent and his overall understanding of the offense is tremendous. The way that he gets through progressions and his tempo when the defense is blitzing him is really outstanding.”
Lewis recognizes the challenge that awaits in Pittsburgh. The Steelers have the top-ranked defense overall (272.9 yards per game) and against the pass (185.4) and have allowed 20 points or fewer 10 times.
“Part of my childhood dream was to be a starter one day in the NFL,” Lewis said. “Who it was against, I didn’t have a visual of that. But it’s a challenge and if you don’t like challenges, then you’re in the wrong sport.
“I guess a lot of people will be surprised Sunday that I’m starting, so I don’t know what expectations people have of me but I just want to go out there, play to the best of my ability and help my team win.”
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• WHO: Cleveland vs. Pittsburgh
• WHEN: Sunday, 1 p.m.
• WHERE: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh
• TV/RADIO: Channel 19; WMMS 100.7-FM, WTAM 1100-AM