Friday, October 14, 2016

Easy pickins this week in Music City?

The last two times the Browns met the Tennessee Titans, they did something extremely rare. So rare, in fact, they have done so little of it for the last 17-plus seasons, it probably startled their fans at the time.

They won both games.

Heaping somewhat on that, the Browns have won five of the last seven meetings between the clubs, including a three-game stretch in the early 2000s. That’s relative nirvana territory for them.

There is a very good reason the Browns take that two-game win streak against Tennessee into this one. The Titans were a combined 5-27 the last two seasons. Which means even though the Browns were bad, the Titans were worse.

The Browns trailed, 28-13, entering the fourth quarter in the 2014 game before coming back to nail a 29-28 victory, Brian Hoyer and Travis Benjamin hooking up twice for touchdowns the last seven minutes of the game in Nashville.

Benjamin bettered that performance last season at home as the Browns jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead. He was on the scoring end of two touchdown passes from Johnny Manziel and added a 78-yard punt return for a score in the 28-14 victory, the first of only three satisfying results in 2015.

So what can we expect when the teams hook up again Sunday down in Nashville? The Browns bring an eight-game losing streak to Music City, including the first five this season. The Titans check in at 2-3, losing both of their home games.

We know Marcus Mariota, the much-heralded quarterback from Oregon the Titans drafted last year after Tampa Bay selected Jameis Winston, will manage the huddle for the Titans, operating an offense some might consider old-fashioned and boringly simple.

The Titans like to run the football. A lot. In this day and age when passing the ball has become the norm, they firmly believe in the adage that the running game sets up the passing game. It’s a bit of a throwback, but when you have a lead running back like DeMarco Murray, you run him. A lot.

Murray arrived in Tennessee by way of Philadelphia after compiling more than 4,500 yards in four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. That included seasons of 1,121 and 1,845 yards and 22 touchdowns on the ground.

He signed with the Eagles as a free agent when coach Chip Kelly traded LeSean McCoy to Buffalo. He didn’t fit into Kelly’s scheme, producing just 702 rushing yards and six touchdowns. After the Eagles fired Kelly, Murray was dealt in the offseason to Tennessee, where he has flashed his Dallas form, scoring five touchdowns.

The Titans have rushed the ball 127 times from scrimmage, not counting quarterback scrambles. Murray has 93 of them, or 73% of the carries. He has gained 461 of Tennessee’s 743 yards, or 62%. That total also includes Mariota’s scramble figures.

The pro sophomore, who completes 60% of his passes, is a dangerous runner when flushed out of the pocket. He is the club’s third-leading ground gainer with 132 yards, only 19 fewer than rookie running back Derrick Henry.

So when the Titans line up, the odds are just about even the call will be a run, which, at least theoretically, gives opposing coordinators a slight edge in calling defenses.
Whereas most teams in the pass-happy league put the ball up at least 60% of the time, the Titans are much closer to 50%.

But when Mariota does throw, Murray is his top target with 24 receptions. He also likes to throw to wideouts Tajae Sharpe, Rishard Matthews, Andre Johnson and tight end Delanie Walker.

In last Sunday’s victory in Miami, the pro sophomore became only the second quarterback in NFL history to record four four-touchdown games (three scoring passes and a short run) in his first 17 games. The first was Charlie Conerly of the New York Giants back in 1948-49.

We also know the Tennessee defense is pretty good against the run, surrendering just 98 yards a game. And the Browns are coming off a loss to New England last week in which they ran for just 27 yards on 22 carries.

That paltry total dropped them from the top of the National Football League in that category all the way down to fifth. Moving up to second this week? Yep, the Tennessee Titans.

The Titans’ defense does a decent job of getting after the quarterback, dropping opposing passers a dozen times in five games. Veteran outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, who usually lines up on the weak side, owns half of those sacks. Joe Thomas is Cleveland’s offensive tackle on that side of the ball.

What we don’t know for certain who will be Cleveland’s starting quarterback. We know it won’t be Charlie Whitehurst, whose stay with the Browns during their quarterback crisis was brief and extremely painful. The Browns said sayonara earlier in the week to the veteran quarterback, who was injured in the Patriots loss last Sunday.

It looks as though rookies Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan, who was elevated from the practice squad when Whitehurst was cashiered, will handle the quarterbacking against the Titans. Kessler, was also banged up in the New England loss, is listed as the starter with Hogan, who has never appeared in an NFL game, as insurance.

Josh McCown, who suffered a broken collarbone injury in the second game of the season against Baltimore, was ruled out Friday by coach Hue Jackson, who said his veteran quarterback is a week away from returning.

Oddsmakers like the Titans by seven points to keep the Browns winless in this one. The odds of losing their third straight at home this season are quite low against the banged-up Browns.

Word came down Friday that left guard Joel Bitonio, arguably the Browns’ best offensive lineman, was placed on injured reserve with what is being called a mid-foot sprain. He becomes the 11th player and sixth starter to be placed on IR.

The good (maybe) news is Cameron Erving returns from his bruised lung to take over again at center. John Greco moves back to right guard and Alvin Bailey likely will replace Bitonio, who also missed six games last season with an ankle injury.

The Titans will take advantage of the revamped and less talented Cleveland offensive line and drop Kessler three times, pick him off twice and prompt Jackson to give Hogan his NFL baptism in the fourth quarter.

The Tennessee offense will maintain its mastery on the ground with Murray rushing for 120 yards, catching five passes and scoring twice. Because the Titans are good at controlling the clock and moving the chains, Mariota attempts only 22 passes, completing 12, including touchdown strikes to Walker and Sharpe.

The Browns will pick off Mariota in the second quarter, Briean Boddy-Calhoun making the theft and turning it into a pick-6. It will turn out to be the only Cleveland touchdown for the afternoon. Cody Parkey’s three long field goals make the final look respectable. Make it:

Titans 31, Browns 16

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