Tennessee Titans starting running back Chris Johnson is considered one of the elite running backs in the NFL today. He signed a 4-year contract extension at the beginning of last month that was worth around $53 million. How has he done through his first three weeks of the season?
Chris Johnson (2011 NFL Season)
Week 1 @ Jacksonville: 9 carries, 24 yards (2.7 YPC average)
Week 2 vs. Baltimore: 24 carries, 53 yards (2.2 YPC average)
Week 3 vs. Denver: 13 carries, 21 yards (1.6 YPC average)
That is some pretty bad production. Those are the type of numbers I would have expected from a backup like Mike Bell last season, not from a "stud" like Johnson to start off the 2011 campaign. The Titans currently rank last in the NFL in rushing. To compare, the Browns have sort of struggled to get their running game going too, but they still rank 22nd in the NFL in rushing.
Could it be that the Titans have faced teams who excel at stopping the run? Maybe. Against the run, the Jaguars rank 5th in the league, the Ravens rank 6th in the league, and the Broncos rank 14th in the league. That is some pretty stiff competition, but a running back like Johnson is supposed to be able to make those defenses vulnerable. He hasn't.
What has made up for Johnson's struggles in the backfield has been the production of new starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Hasselbeck is showing the Seattle Seahawks why it was a mistake to let him go. Some might have thought this was similar to the "Jake Delhomme in Cleveland" scenario, but Hasselbeck has proven his critics wrong. He is completing nearly 70% of his passes and is averaging over 300 yards passing per game. His quarterback rating currently sits above the 100 mark. He carved the Ravens' secondary up in Week 2 for 358 yards, and he did the same to the Broncos' secondary last week when he threw for 311 yards and 2 touchdowns. Browns head coach Pat Shurmur was asked on Friday if team president Mike Holmgren, Hassebeck's former coach, has given him any special insight on his former quarterback:
“I’ve talked to coach (Holmgren) about Matt at other times. We haven’t had too much conversation about that. We’ve had some small conversations about what he’s good at and I think the important thing is we know what he is and how he’s wired from Mike’s years with him. But, when you watch Matt you have to really watch him now in his new system and his new setting and he’s playing extremely well.”
One new wrinkle that will be introduced this week is whether Hasselbeck can have that same type of productivity without a star receiver at his disposal. Kenny Britt, the team's leading receiver by far, suffered a season-ending injury last week versus the Broncos. In Week 1, Britt had 5 catches for 136 yards and 2 touchdowns. In Week 2, he had 9 catches for 135 yards and 1 touchdown. Hasselbeck responded to Britt's injury last week by spreading the ball around to 10 other receivers. That is a lot for a regular season game. While it worked against Denver, you have to wonder if losing that "go-to-guy" will hurt Hasselbeck's effectiveness at all.
That's what makes this such a compelling match-up this week. The Titans have to be salivating at the fact that Cleveland ranks 29th against the run, but it's an element of their game that they have struggled with. If they need to fall back on the passing game again, the Browns have done a great job with that: they currently rank 3rd in pass defense. They've also done that against three teams, the Bengals, Colts, and Dolphins, who don't have top-tier quarterbacks right now. Hasselbeck will be the best they have faced.
Does something have to give this Sunday? Sure, but not completely. I think we'll see Johnson have his best game of the season, but if that means he only gets around the 100-yard mark without any game-changing runs, it's no different than what Cleveland has already experienced this season.
Cleveland shouldn't lose this game based on what Tennessee's offense does. If they lose, it'll be because of what they do offensively. Colt McCoy needs to be more efficient, but that's easier said than done against a Titans team that does a great job defending the run and the pass. Overall, they rank 1st in the NFL defensively, they can get to the quarterback, and they can force turnovers. This will be Cleveland's toughest test yet, so we'll see if they are up to the challenge before heading into their bye week.