NASHVILLE - Who is ahead? Tim Couch or Kelly Holcomb?
While most of Cleveland hoped to find a hint of who would win the Cleveland Browns' quarterback battle in Saturday night's preseason opener with the Tennessee Titans, they ended up learning that the 2003 Browns have far more important questions to answer after a 10-6 preseason loss.
The Titans exploited the Browns' questionable first-string defensive line,
linebacking corps and secondary in a 15-play, 72-yard march on the game's
opening possession. Looking like the Pro Bowl back he was before two years of
set backs to injury, Eddie George carried six times for 31 yards on the drive,
including a 1-yard touchdown dive for the capper.
The Browns' defensive nightmare included a series of missed tackles. Defensive tackle Kenard Lang offered the embarrassing lowlight, losing his helmet as Titans quarterback Steve McNair wiggled out of his grasp on a sack. It was the Browns' second defensive gaffe that blew a negative play for the Titans.
A few minutes earlier, Lang and linebackers Ben Taylor and Barry Gardner badly over-pursued George on a screen that should have gone for a 3-yard loss. Instead, George cut back for a 3-yard gain.
The Browns No. 1 defense improved dramatically when second-year middle linebacker Andra Davis replaced Gardner, a veteran free-agent pickup, on the second defensive series. The Titans failed to score on their final five drives of the first half.
As for the quarterback question, Holcomb had a slightly better night, but in truth, neither player faired particularly well.
Couch opened to a rocky start, overthrowing Andre King on third down to go three-and-out on the Browns' first possession. Under Couch's leadership, the Browns failed to pick up a first down on both of their first-quarter drives.
Drive No. 2, however, was hardly Couch's fault. The Browns could not convert a 3rd-and-1 at the Titans 41 after second-year running back William Green decided to cut outside a block by Melvin Fowler and was stopped for no gain. Had Green cut inside the block, he would have easily picked up the first down.
Couch's night improved a bit in the second quarter. He hit Dennis Northcutt for a pair of third-down conversions - including a 9-yard pass to the Titans 11 while taking an illegal hit to the helmet from defensive end Carlos Hall.
A third-down drop by King forced the Browns to settle for a 26-yard field goal by Phil Dawson, cutting the Titans lead to 7-3 with 9:55 remaining in the half.
Couch finished 4-of-8 passing for 17 yards, but was victimized by two dropped passes and poor protection from the starting line. He was also tripped by Green while dropping to pass in the second quarter.
Holcomb looked sharp in the short, intermediate passing game, but struggled with throws over 20 yards and was often on the wrong page with his receivers.
Like Couch, Holcomb was victimized by several drops, but still managed to complete 7-of-11 passes for 71 yards. Holcomb played with most of the first-team offense, including starting receivers Kevin Johnson and Quincy Morgan, but faced the Titans' second-team defense.
The Browns trailed 7-6 at the break after closing the half with a 51-yard field goal by Dawson. The kick with a 20-yard out from Holcomb to King at the right sideline.
Holcomb nearly gave the Browns a first-half lead when he hit Kevin Johnson at the Titans 1 with a 10-yard slant. As Johnson reached for the goal line, however, he had the ball stripped from his hands. The ball rolled into the end zone, where Titans cornerback Tony Beckham recovered it for a touchback.
Defensive tackle Alvin McKinley set up the potential touchdown, stripping Titans backup quarterback Neil O'Donnell on a sack with 1:21 remaining in the half. Felipe Claybrooks landed on the loose ball at the Titans' 23.
BUCKEYE DEBUT: Donnie Nickey, a fifth-round pick who started on Ohio State's national championship team last season, made his NFL debut Saturday night, replacing Lance Schulters at free safety for the Titans. Schulters had root-canal surgery earlier in the week.
Nickey made an early impact in the first quarter, breaking free on a blitz and hitting Couch to force an incompletion.
LINEUP SWITCHES: When the Browns released their first official depth chart Wednesday, it listed Kevin McLeod as the first-team fullback. That didn't last long. By Saturday night, Aaron Shea, who had hoped to focus more on playing tight end this season, was back as the starting fullback.
UNIFORM CHANGE: The Browns have made a minor change in their uniform for 2003. Instead of the traditional orange-brown-orange striping on the white pant leg, the Browns now have thick stripes in a brown-orange-brown order. That could be a prelude to the Browns wearing orange pants, which also have two brown stripes. The Browns have ordered orange pants, but have not yet decided if they will wear them.
TRAINING CAMP SCHEDULE: If you were planning to drive to Berea Monday morning to watch the Browns practice, don't. The Browns have cancelled the morning practice in favor of team meetings, but will be back on the field from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.
The Browns will close training camp after traditional two-a-day practices Tuesday and Wednesday.