Game 2 Preview: @ Tennessee

Opponent Preview

What a difference a year makes. When the Browns played the Titans a year ago, I picked the Browns to win by a wide margin, seeing Cleveland moving up, and the Titans likely to struggle through a tough year.

I got the spread of the game wrong, but my assessment turned out to be substantially accurate. After winning the game 29-28 (due to some bizarre game management by Titans Coach Ken Whisenhunt), the 2-2 Browns won 5 of the next 7 games. The Titans, falling to 1-3, won the next game but then lost the last 11.

The losing streak was largely a team effort. Last season, NFL teams averaged 22.6 points per game. In those 11 games:

  • Tennessee’s offense scored fewer than average in 8 of the 11 games
  • The Titan defense allowed an above-average number of points 6 times.

Defensive-sounding coordinator Ray Horton took every opportunity the media gave him to throw the offense under the bus. He pointed out, among other things, that Tennessee turned the ball over 19 times in 11 games, that 3 of the 32 TDs allowed during that streak came on returns and that his defense often had a short field to defend.

It was left to others to explain that Horton’s defense:

  • Ranked 29th (only a tad better than the offense’s 30th),
  • Was 4.8 points below average (the offense was 6.7),
  • Had produced only 7 turnovers during the 11-game stretch,
  • Had blown three leads in the fourth quarter

The problem with the Tennessee offense was pretty clear– it had Jake Locker (1-4), Charlie Whitehurst (1-4) and Zach Mettenberger (0-6) playing quarterback. What was the defense’s major malfunction?

To fix the offensive problems, Tennessee spent 7 of its 9 draft picks— including the first three choices: QB Marcus Mariota, WR Dorian Green-Beckham and G Jeremiah Poutasi, all of whom are starting (Poutasi at right tackle). They also signed four free agents, three of whom have panned out so far:

  • WRs Harry Douglas and Hakeem Nicks
  • RT Byron Bell (who is starting, but at LG)
  • TE Anthony Fasano 

Nicks was released, and is presumably waiting for Cleveland to snatch him up, once the Dwayne Bowe fantasy ends.

The Titans also picked up RB Terrance West at the Browns Bargain Basement Bust Sales. Questions about whether they really thought he could play– or were just looking for info on the Cleveland playbook– were answered last week, when he had 12 carries, turning RB Dexter McCluster into a third-down back.

The Titans didn’t skimp on defense either. The big addition was 78-year-old Dick LeBeau, who refused to retire when the Steelers suggested he consider it and ended up being fired. After rumors that LeBeau would end up in Arizona (where former Steelers’ offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was running the team), he ended up with the other former Steelers’ OC running a team.

I doubt a coach that old has much left in the tank, but if LeBeau simply tempers some of the negative impact Horton has, Tennessee benefits. The Titans also added:

  • LB Brian Orakpo
  • CB Perish Cox
  • S Da’Norris Searcy

All of whom started and contributed in week 1.

The big question was whether Mariota (who piled up points and yards in Oregon’s “Not Ready For Prime Time” offense) would be able to adapt to the NFL– and if so, how fast. He provided some clue as to his adaptability, by going 13-16 for 209 yards and 4 TDs. It was only against Tampa Bay, but a lot of people have faced patsies in their first game and not posted a 158.3 rating.

The Titans come into the game imagining they can go 2-0, and that ending the year with 9-10 wins (Buffalo, Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, Jacksonville twice, Oakland and Carolina) isn’t impossible. Everything is free beer and puppies in Nashville.

Browns Preview

It’s foolish to place much weight on the psychological aspects of a game, for a simple reason: Writers almost always interpret intangibles in whatever way conforms to their existing prejudices.

If a veteran team has a late season game against a very young team– and you value having lots of veterans on a team– you’ll assume the grizzled old guys will find a way to win, regardless of what the numbers say. Meanwhile, I’ll see a young team coming of age as their opponents run out of gas.

It’s better to stick with measurables. They can be misleading or misinterpreted, but you’re less likely to make really stupid statements, based on your emotions.

That said, it is very hard to see any good signs coming out of Berea:

1. Johnny Manziel will start at quarterback. This should have been a non-issue. Head Coach Mike Pettine should have come out on Monday and said something like: “Josh McCown has a concussion and we have no idea whether the NFL will clear him to start. If he’s cleared, we’ll start him; if not, we’ll go with Johnny.”

Instead he said things like “Josh (McCown) is still in the concussion protocol. He’s making progress but we won’t know the status until he’s fully cleared to return” and “It is my understanding the earliest he can practice is Friday” and “We’ll be prepared either way.”

For reasons passing rational understanding, every NFL coach always hopes to keep the opponent confused about which quarterback will start. But what the Browns really needed after Week One was clarity and decisiveness. Pettine’s attempt at subterfuge managed to make him sound uncertain.

Then the local paper let Josh McCown’s agent dictate an op-ed saying that McCown was fine, but the Browns and the NFL seemed to have a conspiracy not to play him. There was also the usual unwillingness to be candid about the degree to which Johnny Manziel is injured.

This should be a very simple storyline– our starter is injured, he’ll be back soon, hope the backup (who’d be resting his injury under normal circumstances) can play well. But it already sounds like a quarterback controversy is brewing and if Manziel doesn’t win– or at least play well– the Browns are ready to wash their hands of him.

2. The team already seems to be coming unglued. The story archive at America’s Worst Newspaper reads more like the team page at Pro Football Talk. Everyone is talking about how poorly the team played, how someone will play better, how someone is being unfairly dissed and so on. The bombastic statements and peevish responses have flown thick and fast.

The most foolish probably being Defensive Coordinator Jim O’Neill claiming that Joe Haden is the best cornerback in the NFL or a receiver who last scored a TD on December 8, 2013 claiming that he’s unstoppable in the red zone.

The clamoring is a reminder of how fragile the fabric of the team really is. The Browns are not a team built through the draft, with a common identity molded by the coaches and a commitment to the organization. 4-5 offensive starters and 6 of the defensive starters are free agents wooed to a bad team by enormous contracts.

  • Receiver: Andrew Hawkins, Brian Hartline (also Dwayne Bowe).
  • Line: John Greco, Alex Mack.
  • Tight End: Gary ‘Clank’ Barnidge (with Jim Dray and Rob Housler).
  • Quarterback: Josh McCown.

You can argue that Greco (who was not a starter when he was signed and has been with the team a long time) is not a ‘free agent’ in the same sense the others are– that whatever identity he has is as a Brown.

You can claim Mack should be counted as a draft pick. I don’t agree– he tried to leave the team last year and the Browns used the league rules to prevent it. (We can settle this after the season, when he can opt out of his deal.)

But there are at least four players. Also both the Johnsons starting at running back are rookies; Manziel and Joel Bitonio are second-year players. The only veterans you really have are Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz.

On defense, it gets even grimmer:

  • Line: Randy Starks, Desmond Bryant
  • Linebackers: Karlos Dansby, Paul Kruger
  • Secondary: Tramon Williams, Donte Whitner

Both kickers (P Andy Lee, K Travis Coons) came from other teams– as did the kick returner (Marlon Moore). If things get ugly, the coaches and front office won’t have a whole lot of friends.

By the way, when a veteran plays as badly as Whitner did in game 1, he has no business complaining about anyone else. The defense allowed 4.3 yards per rush and 7.5 per pass attempt (and that includes sacks).

The offense did turn the ball over three times in Cleveland territory, but the defense let the Jets score touchdowns all three times.

And since the Jets had a 9-play, 72-yard touchdown drive and an 11-play, 60-yard field goal drive, it didn’t seem as if the Jets would have had difficulty marching 90 yards had they needed to.

This is what Whitner is like when his team is losing, and if they keep losing, things could get very ugly.

This fact, coupled with the layout of the schedule– three winnable games in games 1-3, then nothing for a month or two– makes game two a must-win game.

3. There is no area to be confident about. When a team has a tough loss– or a run of injuries– it can normally regroup by focusing on the things everyone knows they do well, and can rely on.

During the off-season, everyone connected with the Browns assumed those components were (1) the offensive line, (2) the defensive backfield and (3) the young running backs.

But the pre-season revealed how thin the running back corps actually was. And, after a game where the Jets manhandled the line (which also got penalized six times), they’re not the foundation people can count on. And the secondary got torched.

Another issue of concern: the poor performance of the draftees in the Pettine-Farmer era. Some teams could shrug off Duke Johnson having a consummately forgettable game and say “Don’t worry about him– he’ll be fine” , pointing to a long list of draftees, some of whom started slowly, who became world-class players.

A team has used four first round picks in two seasons and has only one player (NT Danny Shelton) starting– with none of the others even close– can’t say “Trust us– things will be OK.” Not when Terrance West– last year’s #3 pick and the DUke Johnson of 2014– was sent packing.

Johnson and LB Chris Kirksey (another #3 pick) looking ordinary– and neither #2 pick LB Nate Orchard nor #3 pick DT Xavier Cooper even being active– gives the team no basis for confidence in the young talent being obtained by teh front office.

The bottom line is that there are almost no players the Browns can point to and say “We can rely on him…”

Except the two kickers– and I’m really sick of those positions being the foundation of the team.

What to Expect Sunday

Honestly, I have idea… but all the indicators point to bad things.

Past performance: The Browns won by one point a year ago, on the road… but Brian Hoyer threw for 291 yards and 3 TDs, while Ben Tate gained 124 yards on 22 carries. They are no longer with the team.

Common opponent: I’m willing to believe that Tennessee isn’t actually a good team– that Tampa is simply wretched. On the other hand, the Titans beat the Bucs a lot more convincingly than the Browns did in 2014 (when the Browns seemed stronger). The Browns exhibition season win (when the Bucs’ scrubs were playing and they weren’t trying) was also less one-sided.

Injuries: Tennessee has fewer, and at less critical spots. TE Delanie Walker might miss the game for the Titans (he was 3-3 for 43 yards and a score), but otherwise they’re 100%. McCown, Solomon and Karlos Dansby would seem to outweigh that possibility.

Visible improvement: The Titans have better players at a number of positions than they did a year ago. For example, Orakpo is 29 and has been to three Pro Bowls; a year ago, Tennessee was using Kamerion Wimbley

The Browns have gone backwards. A year ago, they had Brian Hoyer providing stability at quarterback, rather than the melee going on now. Jabaal Sheard– not Armonty Bryant and Meowkevious Mingo– was available to play outside linebacker.

Tom Reed’s tart commentary on the state of the outside linebacking is a tad unfair, in that The Three Stooges (Larry Haslam, Moe Banner and Curly Lombardi) signed Kruger and drafted Mingo. But he is entirely correct to say that a well-run team shouldn’t struggle to adjust to the loss of a journeyman like Scott Solomon.

Morale: Tennessee might be unnaturally exuberant without cause. The Browns are a snake pit, and the cause of the dysfunction seems entirely reasonable.

The Browns have home field– which would normally be a plus. But very few of the fans who will be at the game sound gruntled– and if the Browns play badly, people could turn on them.

Mariota being a rookie who has never seen the Browns’ scheme could be a big issue. But since Whisenhunt, LeBeau and Horton all know it, they should be able to prepare him for it.

It’s early, but there are no tangible or intangible reasons to think the Browns will win… unless you are willing to take a huge leap of faith.

Outcome: I could invent reasons why the Browns will win– and they might.The big ones would be that Johnny Manziel is as good as the “Johnny Football” fans claim, the running game crushing the Titans (who were ranked #31 against the run last year) and the defense clamping down on Mariota.

But I don’t have any firm conviction, based on substantive evidence. Both the Titans and Browns reporters for ESPN are generally sane– they both say it’ll be 24-13 Titans. So I’m gonna hop on that bandwagon too.

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