Browns-Titans Preview

At the quarter point of the season, the Browns toughest test so far will be these Tennessee Titans.

The Cincinnati Bengals are a mess internally.

The Indianapolis Colts are reeling without Peyton Manning.

The Miami Dolphins are also a mess internally and the franchise also has been reeling since Dan Marino retired in 2000.

It all adds up to a friendly early-season schedule for the Cleveland Browns and the result is a refreshing 2-1 record entering Sunday's home game against the Tennessee Titans. The Titans are by far the best team on the Browns' first-quarter schedule, but Tennessee comes to Cleveland with its own set of issues.

Last Sunday, star wide receiver Kenny Britt suffered a torn ACL and MCL and is lost for the season. He was the Titans leading receiver with 17 catches for 289 yards and three touchdowns.

Meanwhile, Titans running back Chris Johnson, who missed the entire preseason because of a contract dispute, is simply not performing. In 2009, Johnson became the sixth NFL running back to surpass 2,000 yards in a single season. Last season, his output dipped to 1,364 yards.

This season?

He got that new contract (six years, $56 million) yet his on-field performances have continued to trend downward. In three games, Johnson has 98 yards rushing on 46 carries. Tennessee is ranked 32nd in the NFL at 51.7 yards rushing per game.

The question remains: When will Johnson have his breakout performance?

"We know anytime (Johnson can have a big game)," Browns cornerback Joe Haden said. "He's really good, elusive, fast and one of the best players in the league. We just have to make sure we keep him contained and everybody stays to the run."

If the past is any indication, Johnson's slump will end Sunday. Since 1999, the Browns have routinely struggled to stop the run. Yet this season, through three games, the Browns are allowing 128.7 yards per game.

The Browns have showed some improvement. Any good defense is stout up the middle and the Browns are employing talented players at those key positions. Defensive tackles Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor have steadied the line followed by middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson — named AFC Defensive Player of the Month on Thursday — and second-year, strong-hitting safety T.J. Ward.

Just how improved is the Browns defense? We may find out Sunday. Tennessee's offense is far from a one-trick pony. Even without Britt and a struggling Johnson, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who led the Seattle Seahawks to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs last season, has paced the Titans offense. Hasselbeck, who signed with Tennessee as a free agent in the offseason, is 78-for-112 passing for 932 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions.

The Browns pass defense is currently ranked third in the NFL, allowing 187.3 yards passing per game. Of course, the group of quarterbacks Cleveland has faced is not nearly as talented as the 36-year-old Hasselbeck.

"It looks like Matt's executing extremely well and that's important," Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. "I am sure that's one of the reasons that they are off to a very good start. When your quarterback is playing well and you're playing well on defense, I think it's a good thing."

For Shurmur's team, the defense is playing well, but offensively … eh … not so much.

Last week, Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was 10-for-26 passing before leading his team on a 13-play, 75-yard fourth-quarter game-winning drive, where he was 9-for-13.

Late-game heroics aside, the Browns' first quarter struggles continued. In three games, the Browns have been outscored 20-0 in the first 15 minutes. Now, the Browns face a Titans defense that is first in the NFL in total yards allowed per game (261), first in passing yards allowed per game (172) and second in points allowed per game (14.3).

"From the time you turn on the tape and you keep studying and keep preparing for them, you watch first, second down and then you get into some third down, they are just really sound," McCoy said. "You can tell they are very well coached. They play well together and they have some guys that are really good, especially in the secondary. We feel it's going to be a huge challenge for us. There are not really many quarterbacks that have played well against them and the run game is tough to, so we will have our hands full."


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