NFL Preview - Tennessee (2-1) at Cleveland (2-1)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It's been over 11 months since the Tennessee Titans last won on the road. If they are to snap that drought this Sunday in Cleveland and piece together their best four-game start in three years, they'll need to do so without one of their top offensive players.
Getting Chris Johnson going would also help Tennessee, which could lean heavily on the running back in Sunday's matchup against the Browns.
The Titans head to Cleveland Browns Stadium having won back-to-back home games following a Week 1 loss at Jacksonville. That defeat was their sixth in a row on the road since a win over those same Jaguars in Florida on Oct. 18 of last year.
A victory in this game would give Tennessee its best four-game start since opening the season with 10 straight victories in 2008, but the club will be without wide receiver Kenny Britt for the rest of the season after he tore both the ACL and MCL in his right knee during last weekend's 17-14 win over Denver.
Britt came into the game with an AFC-leading 271 receiving yards and three touchdowns, and his injury left the Titans with only four wideouts on the roster before they signed Donnie Avery, who missed all of last year with a torn ACL of his own.
"It's very unfortunate for him, and obviously for us," Titans head coach Mike Munchak said of Britt. "He was off to a great start this year, like you all know. He is a special player and he has a lot of work ahead of him, but he is young and we know that he will be back next year."
Without his top target, Tennessee quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was still able to guide the Titans 95 yards for the go-ahead score, hitting Daniel Graham for a four-yard touchdown pass with 4:28 to play.
The Titans defense, which came up with a big stop on 4th-and-goal while down by four points earlier in the fourth quarter, then iced the win when Will Witherspoon picked off Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton on a deflection by defensive lineman Jason Jones with 1:39 left.
Tennessee won despite Johnson being held under 55 yards rushing for the third time in as many games this season. The Titans will look for the Pro Bowl runner to step up now that they have lost Britt.
"For me personally, from the day I got here, he (Britt) was one of the guys that I really tried to invest my time and energy into, because he's probably the most talented player on this team at any position," said Hasselbeck. "When he's out, or someone like him is out, you've got to raise the level of your game -- everybody [does] -- and that's just what's got to happen."
The Browns saw their offense step up late in last weekend's game versus the Miami Dolphins, specifically quarterback Colt McCoy. The second-year pro led a 13-play, 80-yard drive following a Dolphins' go-ahead field goal, capping the march with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Massaquoi with just 43 seconds left.
The 25-year-old showed encouraging poise, going 9-for-14 passing on the game- winning drive to give the Browns their second straight win and first 2-1 start since 2002.
"We got into the two-minute offense and guys got open and made plays," McCoy said. "Mo ended up making a great play in the end zone. It's a great feeling, it's a great win and certainly we'll enjoy it."
Cleveland hasn't won three of its first four games since 2001 and can win three in a row for the first time since ending the 2009 season with four consecutive victories.
The Browns picked up the win despite not having running back Peyton Hillis due to illness, but expect to have him back for this game.
Cleveland has a 33-27 lead in its 60 all-time regular-season meetings with Tennessee and had won three straight in the series prior to a 28-9 Titans' triumph in Nashville in 2008. The Browns prevailed in the most recent clash between the teams held in Cleveland, a 20-14 decision in 2005, but Tennessee left with road victories in three straight years from 1999-2001 when these clubs were still co-members of the AFC Central.
The franchises opposed one another as AFC Central foes from 1970-1995, when the Titans were then the Houston Oilers, as well between 1999-2001 after the Browns were brought back into the league.
The lone postseason encounter in this series took place in Cleveland during the First Round of the 1988 AFC Playoffs, with the Oilers escaping with a 24-23 win.
Both Munchak and Cleveland's Pat Shurmur will be facing each other, as well as their counterpart's respective team, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
With Johnson (98 rushing yards, 13 receptions) continuing to struggle, Hasselbeck has stepped up to lead the Titans to the seventh-ranked passing offense. The former Seahawk's 932 passing yards through his first three games is the highest total of his career over that span and the third-best in franchise history behind Warren Moon (989 in 1990 and 970 in '92). The pressure will be on Hasselbeck to perform without Britt, while the likes of Nate Washington (21 receptions, 1 TD), tight end Jared Cook and new No. 2 receiver Damian Williams will also need to step up. Hasselbeck, who has never before in his 13 seasons had three straight games of 300 yards passing, could also use more help from Johnson, who might find room even smaller if the passing game struggles without Britt. Expect Washington to become a bigger target after making a career-high eight grabs for 92 yards and a touchdown last week.
Hasselbeck figured to be tested this weekend regardless of Britt's status, as Cleveland comes into the game ranked third overall against the pass at 187.3 yards allowed per game, and stands seventh in total defense (316.0 ypg). Pressure has been key, with the Browns' 11 sacks ranking second in the NFL and marking their best three-game total to start the year since having 14 in 2000. Five of those 11 sacks came versus the Broncos, with defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin (16 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and right end Jayme Mitchell (11 tackles, 1.5 sacks) getting credit for 1 1/2 each. Rookie tackle Phil Taylor (18 tackles) also posted a sack, the first of his career. Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (30 tackles, 2.5 sacks) led Cleveland with 11 tackles versus Denver, while Rubin had nine. Cornerback Sheldon Brown (11 tackles) made six stops before suffering a groin injury that has him questionable for this game. He was replaced by rookie Buster Skrine (5 tackles). Safety Mike Adams (8 tackles) sealed last week's win with an interception, Cleveland's second of the season.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
While Cleveland's defense has been getting to the quarterback, the club's offensive line has done a great job keeping McCoy (634 passing yards, 5 TD, 2 INT) upright. The Browns did not allow a sack versus the Dolphins and have given up just three on the season, tied for the third-fewest in the league. This despite expected starting right tackle Tony Pashos missing the first three games due to an ankle injury. McCoy was having a rough outing before padding his stats on the game-winning drive. He threw for 210 yards in all with a pair of touchdown passes and one pick, becoming the first Browns quarterback to open a season with a touchdown pass in the first three games since Derek Anderson in 2007. Tight end Benjamin Watson (10 receptions, 1 TD) was McCoy's go-to look, getting targeted 10 times and making five catches for 64 yards against Miami, while wideout Joshua Cribbs (7 receptions, 1 TD) hauled in a scoring throw as one of his three receptions. With Hillis out, Montario Hardesty got his first career start and averaged 4.8 yards per carry, posting 67 yards on 14 attempts. He also made three catches for 19 yards and could get some work this weekend despite Hillis' (151 rushing yards, 10 receptions 2 TD) return.
The Titans will look to knock McCoy down a peg and have held opposing quarterbacks to under 200 yards passing in all three games this year. Orton completed 24 of his 39 pass attempts on the Tennessee secondary for only 173 yards while getting picked off twice. In addition to Witherspoon (12 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), cornerback Jason McCourty (15 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) grabbed an interception for a second straight week while ending with six tackles against the Broncos. While Tennessee's second-ranked passing defense came up big, so did defensive end Derrick Morgan (6 tackles, 1 sack) with his big stop on fourth down late in the game. Safety Jordan Babineaux (10 tackles), starting in place of the injured Chris Hope for a second straight week, had eight tackles to lead a Titans' stop unit that ranks first overall in total defense (261.0 ypg) and is second in scoring defense (14.3 ppg). Linebacker and leading tackler Barrett Ruud (20 tackles) made four stops against Denver, while Hope (8 tackles) is questionable to return from a shoulder injury.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Who replaces Britt? Washington is the obvious choice, but he will now face top coverage. That means Cook and fellow tight end Craig Stevens could have their roles in the offense increased. Of course, Johnson getting the ground game going will also help replace Britt's production.
Cleveland's offense struggled before its game-winning drive last week, but history says a win is in store if the club can rack up the points in this game. The Browns have never lost to the Titans/Oilers franchise when scoring at least 25 points, going 14-0 in such games.
Given the success of both pass defenses, field position will be big in this game, and it will be the returners looking to set up their respective clubs. Cribbs is always a threat to break one and the Titans may need to avoid kicking to him, while Tennessee's Marc Mariani is averaging just 5.6 yards on eight punt returns and the Titans have yet to field any of their six kickoffs received.
Both the Titans and Browns are off to as good a start as they could have hoped for, but only one team can avoid falling to .500. Tennessee has looked the more balanced with solid play on both sides of the ball and owns a Week 2 victory over the favored Baltimore Ravens. Cleveland's wins, meanwhile, have come against a pair of teams that are a combined 0-6 in the Colts and Dolphins. It is not unfair to say that the Browns face their biggest test of the young season so far in this game, and the veteran Hasselbeck should get the better of his younger counterpart.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 16, Browns 9
09/29 16:58:25 ET