NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 25: Matt Hasselbeck #8 of the Tennessee Titans drops back to pass against the Denver Broncos at LP Field on September 25, 2011 in Nashville, Tennessee. Tennessee won 17-14. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
The Cleveland Browns have an early bye week this season, and it would be a fantastic start to the Pat Shurmur era if his team could head into the break with a 3-1 record. They will have to try to do so by facing their toughest challenge yet in the Tennessee Titans. These are the Titans that dismantled the Baltimore Ravens back in Week 2 and currently rank first in the league defensively. Do the Browns have enough match-up advantages to pull out a victory?
Here is my positional breakdown and prediction. (Note: for now, I will field test no longer having a "notes" section in this post. Notes will either be within each position preview, or it will be within "The Sunday Five" on Sunday morning.)
|QB||Overall, Matt Hasselbeck and Colt McCoy have played key roles in the success of Seattle and Cleveland, respectively. Hasselbeck's production has been superior to this point, and that is somewhat surprising since he was a career West Coast quarterback who was making the switch to a more vertical passing game. His accuracy has been very good at nearly 70%, and he has had some clutch drives to close out games.
McCoy had a clutch drive to end last week's game against the Dolphins, but there are definitely some accuracy concerns for the second-year quarterback right now. Accuracy is the key to his game and this offense, but too many passes have been wobbly, off-target, or batted down by defensive linemen.
|RB||This was a tough category to rank, and you could make arguments for Cleveland having the advantage, Tennessee having the advantage, or for it being a push. Whenever a case can be made for both sides, I rank things as "even."
The Titans have Chris Johnson on their roster, who is the type of dynamic player as a rusher and a receiver who instantly gives them credibility at the running back position. He has struggled this year, having under 100 yards rushing and averaging around 2.0 YPC through three games. He has attributed part of his slow start to him holding out of part of camp, and some of it to a lack of chemistry with his offensive line.
The Browns have not run the ball as good as they did at times last year, but have done much better than the Titans have. They get Peyton Hillis back this week from his illness, and the coaching staff has more confidence in using backup Montario Hardesty.
|WR||The Titans would have had a definite advantage here if Kenny Britt had not suffered a season-ending injury a week ago. That means that former Steelers receiver Nate Washington is the team's new top receiver. He has a good skill set, but I question his ability to be as effective as the No. 1 receiver vs. being the No. 2 receiver. After Washington (and Chris Johnson), the Titans have a lot of players they spread the ball to, similar to the Browns.
We know what the deal is with the Browns receivers, but I can't say I'm particularly disappointed so far this season. Every reception Mohamed Massaquoi has had has gone for a first down. Joshua Cribbs has shown the ability to make the big play with the ball in his hands. Greg Little brings a physical presence. Brian Robiskie is just...there, I think. I hope tight end Evan Moore gets a few more reps this week with more stability at the right tackle position.
|OL||This is it! This is finally the week where we get to see Tony Pashos in action at right tackle. By the way I've been talking about him the past several weeks, you'd think the team was getting a Pro Bowler back. He's no where near that level, but I remain confident that he is far superior to what Artis Hicks and Oniel Cousins had to offer. It could ultimately lead to a chain reaction with better play by Shawn Lauvao at right guard too.
The Titans' offensive line has been a big question mark in previewing this match-up. Are they good? Are they terrible? What is the deal? Reports indicate they have been tremendous in pass protection, which has played a big part in Hasselbeck's success to date. When it come to run blocking, they have been terrible though, to the point where Chris Johnson even said that he and the offensive line have not been on the same page.
|DL||The Titans have been impressive up front despite not having some star-studded players. Fans will remember former Browns defensive lineman Shaun Smith, who will make it a mission to get under center Alex Mack's skin during the game. Tennessee does a good job rotating all of their defensive linemen into the game regularly, and so far they have been playing very fundamental football.
Week-by-week, we're seeing the Browns' defensive line come into their own. Jabaal Sheard is turning into a consistent threat as a pass rusher, and Jayme Mitchell hasn't been bad on the other side either. Ahtyba Rubin seems to be back in a groove and is all over the field, and Phil Taylor's bull rush ability continues to stand out. All four of these guys seem to be playing a lot of snaps though, something that contrasts Tennessee's philosophy. It'd be nice to see a Marcus Benard get some work in.
|LB||I like the Titans' group of linebackers, and it really is a group that saw a major overhaul in the offseason. They brought over veteran linebacker Barrett Rudd from the Buccaneers to anchor the middle of their defense. They drafted outside linebacker Akeem Ayers in the second round, and he's been fine to this point. Veteran Will Witherspoon is the only returning starter, and he was in large part responsible for the team's win over the Broncos last week.
I don't see the Browns as being particularly "weaker" at the linebacker position, but I felt compelled to give Tennessee some more advantages defensively than Cleveland because they are ranked tops in the league defensively. The truth is that the their defense does a lot of good work in terms of creativity in schemes that makes it tough to say a particular "unit" it better or worse, comparatively, than Cleveland.
|DB||The Browns rank third in the league in pass defense. Joe Haden has done his part in shutting down opposing receivers, and Dimitri Patterson has broken up a few passes in the nickel back role. Sheldon Brown was beaten a few times by Brian Hartline a week ago, but I wouldn't go as far as some critics to call him a terrible starter. The safeties are still a bit suspect in coverage due to not facing very stout quarterbacks to date.
Tennessee has a lot of confidence in their top three cornerbacks and are not afraid to allow them to play man-to-man coverage. The question is, does that man-to-man coverage really have an effect on Cleveland's receivers when they really don't do anything special in the first place? Their safeties, Michael Griffin and Chris Hope, form a good tandem that can make it a little tough on our right ends to take advantage of the middle. The Titans' secondary also does a good job at limiting the damage in the red zone.
Rob Bironas is one of the league's top kickers, even if he (along with Phil Dawson) haven't had a lot of opportunities to kick this season. The winds are expected to be near 20 MPH on Sunday though, and I imagine that plays to the advantage of Dawson in terms of experience. The Titans' Marc Mariani made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner last year, but he doesn't have a single return this year due to the new kickoff rule. With all due respect to Mariani, he couldn't hold a candle to Joshua Cribbs on kick returns.
I'm worried that the weather conditions will hurt Colt McCoy's effectiveness again, especially against the Titans' pass defense. It would make me so happy to see McCoy come out with crisp passes, because we shouldn't have to be worrying about "October weather." If the Titans had Britt for this game, I would have picked them to squeak out a victory. Without him, I think the Titans find themselves a bit lost offensively. The Titans have been tough to run against, but I think the addition of Pashos to the starting lineup will make a world of a difference for Peyton Hillis.
CHRIS' OVERALL NFL PREDICTIONS RECORD: 36-12
CHRIS' RECORD AT PICKING BROWNS GAMES: 2-1