By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) – They may not win a lot, but the Cleveland Browns are
Coach Mike Pettine and Co. come out of a Week 4 bye having won just once in
three games, each of which has been decided by a field goal in the final
seconds. The cardiac-inducing Browns lost 30-27 and 23-21 decisions to
Pittsburgh and Baltimore in Weeks 1 and 3, respectively, sandwiching a 26-24
defeat of the New Orleans Saints that was provided by Billy Cundiff’s decisive
kick with three seconds left.
And if nothing else, the results have gotten a team coming off a four-win
season to believe that prosperity might not be all that far away.
“We’re committed to this. We realize where we’re at. We realize how close we
are,” quarterback Brian Hoyer said. “I think we’ve proven to ourselves that we
can play with anyone, but it only matters if you win or lose.”
Amid the frenzy created by Heisman Trophy draftee Johnny Manziel and the
emotional and strategic blow prompted by Josh Gordon’s suspension, an
unheralded Cleveland offensive unit has managed to score 24.7 points per game
against three teams that combined for 27 wins in 2013.
Hoyer has thrown for 716 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions, and
has depended largely on a run game that’s 10th in the league in total rushing
yardage. Rookies Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West have teamed up for 345 yards
and five touchdowns in three games, and the Browns could be on the verge of
getting back veteran Ben Tate, who’s missed two games with a knee sprain.
“I’m proud of those guys,” Tate said. “I believe in myself and I know what I
can do and I believe in my talents. I’m never one of those guys that wants to
hate on the next guy.”
The 26-year-old Tate is in his first year with Cleveland after three seasons
and 1,992 yards alongside Arian Foster in Houston. He gained 93 yards on nine
rushes against Tennessee with the Texans last season and has gone for 6.7
yards per carry against the Titans in five career matchups.
Tennessee has won two straight against the Browns, though, and though its 1-3
record through the season’s first quarter isn’t exactly what coach Ken
Whisenhunt was aiming for, it’s no time for alarm.
At least not yet.
Two of the Titans’ three losses thus far have come against teams that made the
playoffs last season – Cincinnati and Indianapolis – and they scored their
lone win against another postseason achiever from 2013, Kansas City. Combine
the level of the opposition with the reality of a new coach and suddenly the
mindset goes from hopeless to hopeful.
“It was difficult,” Whisenhunt said. “New systems, new things, new ways of
doing things, we’ve had some not so good games. I mean I’m stating the obvious
of course, but we’re going to get it going in the right direction. I have
every confidence in that. This isn’t an easy thing to go through.”
Three of the games in the second quarter of the season will be on home turf,
and three will come against teams who’ve begun 2014 with below-.500 records
through four weeks.
Tennessee is hoping to avoid its first four-game skid since 2010.
“You have to stay the course with the expectations and you have to be clear
with how you expect it to be done,” Whisenhunt said. “For us to be more
consistent as an offense, we’ve got to be a lot more disciplined in what we’re
trying to get done.”
The Titans have failed to score in the opening quarter of each of their four
games, they’ve scored fewer points than 28 of 32 teams in the NFL and their
time of possession average – 26 minutes, 22 seconds – is a similarly mediocre
28th in the league. A 41-17 loss to the Colts last week saw them manage just
261 total yards under the direction of quarterbacks Charlie Whitehurst and
Starter Jake Locker, who missed that game with a wrist injury, is probable to
face the Browns.
He’s hardly been transcendent when he’s played, however, managing a 70.8
passer rating and three touchdowns, compared to four interceptions and a
shoddy 56.4 completion percentage.
Tennessee managed just 85 yards rushing against Indianapolis, and its most
prolific aerial weapon thus far has been tight end Delanie Walker, who’s got
22 catches and three touchdowns.
Not surprisingly given the offense’s struggles, the defense has yielded 27.5
points per week – fifth-worst in the league – and the team’s 307 penalty yards
are also fifth from the top of an undesirable heap.
“We have to put some wins up there,” receiver Kendall Wright said, “and we
have to stop all of the little things that (are) killing us.”
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
It’s not translated into wins, but the Tennessee run game has achieved a lofty
status – averaging five yards per carry through the first 25 percent of the
Unfortunately, with the scoreboard margins typically turning bad early, the
run game has been quickly abandoned. Expect Bishop Sankey (5.1 yards
per carry), Shonn Greene (4.7) and Dexter McCluster (3.8) to prolong its
priority against the Browns.
The “Johnny Football” buzzards have been circling Hoyer’s head since training
camp, but the incumbent has a chance to quiet the naysayers this week.
Tennessee has had trouble stopping the run in its initial four games, so an
early reliance on Tate, Crowell and West could open up some possibilities for
play-action success later on.
The degree to which Hoyer shines will determine his long-term starting fate.
OK, the Browns don’t win on the road and the Titans are probably better than
the 1-3 record they’ve posted through four weeks. So, logic dictates that
Tennessee will maintain normalcy and win in a grinding fashion. But there’s
something about this Cleveland team that feels different, at least through
the initial month, and it’ll continue here with Hoyer doing just enough to get
the Browns to .500.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Browns 24, Titans 21