Browns’ running game faces big test vs. Titans

Posted by Vic Carucci on September 29, 2011 – 9:14 pm

By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor

The Browns faced their largest offensive hurdle of the season when they took on the Dolphins without Peyton Hillis in their backfield.

They still managed to put together a solid rushing attack, thanks to a nice performance by Montario Hardesty in relief, and that went a long way toward them improving their record to 2-1.

But the Browns also were helped by the fact they were facing the struggling defense of a winless opponent.

Things will change dramatically Sunday when the Tennessee Titans come to town with the NFL’s top-ranked defense and eighth-ranked unit against the run.

In building a 2-1 record, the Titans have done an excellent job of stopping the run. In their three games, they have allowed only 267 rushing yards, and an average of only 3.1 yards per carry.

The Titans’ ability to make opponents one-dimensional is a major factor in also being able to shut down opponents’ passing attacks.

That brings us to the Browns’ offense, which showed excellent balance in the Week 2 victory against the Colts but then became pass-happy seven days later in the win against Miami.

Some of the Browns’ problems in the running game did stem from the fact that they didn’t have their best runner, Hillis, who was out with strep throat. Despite Hardesty’s impressive work against the Dolphins, the Browns’ ground attack clearly functions at a higher level with Hillis carrying the ball. Ideally, the Browns can utilize Hillis’ power inside and up the middle and Hardesty’s speed outside, which should be the case with Hillis returning back to good health.

What is not so ideal is a ratio of 39 passes to 19 runs, 17 by backs, as was the case in the Miami game. The Browns’ offense was often sloppy, and Colt McCoy had too many passes batted down, missed the mark on other throws, and often found himself on the run.

McCoy did come up with a couple of remarkable touchdown throws, to Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi, and that – along with a sterling defensive performance and a break or two – allowed the Browns to escape with a victory.

But they can’t count on being that fortunate each week. They must be able to establish a physical presence, and that begins with an offensive line being able to consistently get enough push and create enough holes for Hillis and Hardesty to have success running the ball.

More than anything, the Browns need to stay persistent with the run, need to do everything possible to control the game’s tempo and keep McCoy out of unfavorable down-and-distance situations.

It is clear that the Browns, like almost any team, have a much lower chance for success when their quarterback is trying to force throws rather than moving the offense with good timing and rhythm.

 A strong rushing attack will help prevent that.

>>Be sure to tune in Monday through Friday, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. ET, for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford” on ESPN 850 WKNR or catch the live stream right here on ClevelandBrowns.com.

>>Have a question for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford”? Ask me at Twitter.com/viccarucci


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Hasselbeck presents strongest QB challenge yet for Browns

Posted by Vic Carucci on September 29, 2011 – 9:09 pm

By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor

The first name from the Titans that stands out is not Chris Johnson, who once arguably established himself as the best running back in the NFL and one of the all-time popular fantasy league choices.

No, this player has only been a part of the Titans for three regular-season games.

He is Matt Hasselbeck. And the name stands out because of his long and highly accomplished NFL career. It also stands out because when he was having some of his best days, with the Seattle Seahawks, his coach was none other than Browns president Mike Holmgren.

In the past couple of weeks, Hasselbeck has performed to the level of the passer that helped Holmgren’s Seahawks reach the Super Bowl.

It is fair to say that he likely will give the Browns’ defense the greatest challenge they have faced at the position so far this season.

“He is a very capable player,” said Holmgren, who as coach of the Packers made Hasselbeck a sixth-round draft pick from Boston College in 1998. “Having said that, I hope he doesn’t have a great game on Sunday. But I saw him develop as a player. We were kind of joined at the hip and we had our moments together because he’s a little head-strong and I’m a little head-strong, and it developed into quite a trusting, good relationship between coach and quarterback.”

In the Titans’ victory against the Broncos Sunday, Hasselbeck threw for three 311 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner to Daniel Graham. A week earlier, in Tennessee’s surprising triumph against the Baltimore Ravens, Hasselbeck threw for 358 yards and a touchdown. He also had a pair of scoring throws in the Titans’ season-opening loss at Jacksonville.

Not bad for a 36-year-old player in his 13th NFL season.

“Crazy things happen,” Holmgren said. “A quarterback gets up in age and a team doesn’t think he has anything left in the tank, and now he’s proving them wrong, clearly. He’s a really good player.”

But Hasselbeck is going to be without his best receiver Sunday, thanks to the knee injury that Kenny Britt suffered against the Broncos.

It will be up to the Browns’ defense to continue to get excellent pressure from its front four and try and force mistakes that Hasselbeck doesn’t routinely make.

As for Johnson, he remains mostly a non-factor in Tennessee’s offense with only 98 yards and a 2.1-yards-per-carry average through three games. His 31 yards on 13 carries and 1.6-yards-per-carry average against Denver were his worst numbers of the season.

Cleveland’s defense, which hasn’t exactly slammed the door on opponents’ ground attacks, must make the most of its youth and ability to swarm to the football to prevent Johnson from having his long-overdue breakout game.

Meanwhile, Tennessee’s defense has been fairly stout. The Titans sacked Kyle Orton twice, and they made a huge stop early in the fourth quarter when they stuffed Willis McGahee on a fourth-and-goal.

Like the Browns, the Titans have a first-year head coach in Hall-of-Famer Mike Munchak. Like the Browns, they are looking to find their identity.

Pat Shurmur’s two career victories so far have come on the road and at home.

Although Munchak is still seeking that first road win, he is no doubt feeling a sense of comfort from the fact that the Titans will have an experienced quarterback on their side Sunday in Hasselbeck.

>>Be sure to tune in Monday through Friday, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. ET, for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford” on ESPN 850 WKNR or catch the live stream right here on ClevelandBrowns.com.

>>Have a question for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford”? Ask me at Twitter.com/viccarucci


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