Titans Preview: Who's Under the Microscope?

The Owl has flown through storms and hail and has landed in Nashville, where he offers his thoughts about Saturday night's game. Who is being put under the microscope? Who is on the bubble? The Owl knows, and the Owl tells...

NASHVILLE - We're about to find out about the heart of Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb. Some might refer to another part of their anatomy.

Kickoff against the Titans in the Browns preseason opener is 8 p.m. Saturday. It doesn't count, of course, but it's the first game since Holcomb mesmerized the football world by throwing for 429 yards against the Steelers in the playoff game.

Coach Butch Davis purposely kept both quarterbacks and the entire team in the dark about whether Holcomb or Couch would start until Friday, even though Davis decided at the beginning of training camp who would start.

Davis surprised some observers by naming Couch the starter, but he said nothing should be read into his decision and that it is not a reward for how Couch and Holcomb are practicing.

"Tim Couch will open the game at quarterback this Saturday at Tennessee," Davis said in a statement released by the team. "Kelly Holcomb will also see action, and we will attempt to align personnel in a manner that enables us the best possible means for evaluation in this ongoing process." Holcomb and Couch are expected to reach get between 18 and 25 plays with the first team offense. Neither would be yanked in the middle of a drive.

Couch and Holcomb will not be the only ones scrutinized. The game is big for them. It is gigantic for young players trying to make an impression on Davis and the coaching staff. This team puts so much practice time into special teams that that area will be watched very closely.

"It's important to a lot of people," Davis said. "The veterans want to practice and get in good quality time. For all the guys on the bubble, this is their first opportunity to show us in game conditions what they've learned.

"Guys playing on special teams only get about 25 plays. As long as I'm the coach, there will probably be three to five guys who make it because of how they play on special teams. It won't be on how well they play safety or linebacker or whatever it is. If they can help us be one of the better teams in the National Football League on special teams, they have a great chance to play."

Among those players on the proverbial bubble: tight end Chad Mustard, guard Chad Ward, wide receiver C. J. Jones, defensive backs Kalvin Pearson, Jermaine Jones and Ricky Sharpe, linebackers Mason Unck, Michael Josiah and Sherrod Coates and defensive linemen Cedric Scott and Felipe Claybrooks.

This is a team with a fine mix of veterans and hopeful young players. But Davis began building something in 2001, and after two years of major turnover, fewer changes are expected from 2002 to 2003. Six or seven draft choices are likely to stick, but others are fighting established players. That's why tonight's game is so vital.

Also under the microscope tonight is the run offense. Let's face it; it was awful in the scrimmage against Buffalo. Everyone recognized that, so practice for four days straight was dedicated to improving the run while continuing to examine the Couch-Holcomb battle.

Players are encouraged about what they perceive as an improved run offense.

William Green, the starting running back with his eyes on a 1,000-yard season, is not losing sleep about struggles against the Bills. He is confident the run offense will pick up where it left off in 2002, when he rushed for 726 yards over the last seven games.

"The best thing is it's early in the preseason," Green said. "There are a few things we have to iron out, but no big deal. I have to tweak some things and so does the offensive line, but we'll be fine.

"This week we've been working really hard emphasizing the run. It's not a problem as far as I'm concerned."

Last but not least, this game is big for long snapper Ryan Pontbriand. The rookie from Rice has been sending darts back to Chris Gardocki, the punter and holder. So far, so good.

The question still unanswered is what happens after the snap. Can Pontbriand block as well as his predecessor, Ryan Kuehl? Stay tuned.

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