In Week 4 of the 2011 NFL season, the 2-1 Cleveland Browns face off against the 2-1 Tennessee Titans. Both teams are tied for first in their respective divisions, and both teams had fared better thus far than experts predicted.
While Tennessee doesn't exactly look like a Super Bowl contender, it is a far tougher opponent than any of those the Browns have faced so far this season. However, while winning this game will definitely be a challenge for Cleveland, victory is well within its reach.
Following are five ways the Browns can shut down the Titans on Sunday and move to 3-1 on the season. Please be sure to add your own keys to victory for the Browns in the comments below!
Last season, we saw the Browns come out strong early on in games only to completely lay down and die in the fourth quarter over and over again.
They've had some trouble with that this season as well (with the exception of last week's fourth-quarter comeback against Miami), but the bigger problem in 2011 seems to be that they're starting off too slowly, rather than finishing that way.
I'll spare you the stats on the Browns first-quarter point totals so far this season, but let's just say they're rather unspectacular. With slow starts to their game in the first quarter, particularly on offense, the Browns have put themselves in a position of either having to play catch-up late in the game or not giving themselves enough cushion in case their defense tires and starts ceding points in the fourth quarter.
Last week's game is a good example of this. The Browns looked a little slow on the uptake in the first half, and as a result, they had to mount a last-minute touchdown drive to win the game, and were still in danger of losing by a field goal as the last of the clock ticked away. Fortunately the defense did an excellent job of keeping Miami out of field goal range at the end, but the finish, even with a win, was way too close for comfort.
For the Browns to beat the tougher teams coming up on their schedule, they need to be more aggressive early in the game and attempt to put up more points in the first half, both to keep momentum going through the second half and to give themselves some insurance in case an opponents' offense starts to overpower their tiring defense toward the end of the game.
Fortunately for the Browns and everyone else the Titans play, Tennessee superback Chris Johnson hasn't looked all that super so far.
After holding out during the preseason, Johnson has logged just 98 total yards on the year. And coming in second in rushing yards for Tennessee is none other than their punter. That's right, the second-best rusher on the Titans is none other than punter Brett Kern, who has posted a whopping 21 yards on one carry.
All of that means is that this is an excellent week for the Browns to prove they can stop the run, something they've struggled with thus far in the season. Johnson has averaged just 2.1 yards per carry over the first three games of the year and has left the door open for the Browns to contain him as well.
Bad stats or not, Johnson is simply too talented to continue at this mediocre pace. He'll have a breakout game eventually and get his stride back. For the Browns, it's hugely important not to be the team that allows him to do that. It will prove that they can contain a top-level running back, and more importantly, tremendously improve their chances to win.
Much to the surprise of many fantasy football owners who were extremely skeptical about whether Tennessee's top receiver could put up huge numbers in 2011, Kenny Britt began the season doing exactly that. Fantasy owners kicked themselves for not drafting Britt earlier, and Titans fans breathed a sigh of relief that their team was secure at the WR position after all.
But alas, the celebration was short-lived, as Britt tore both his ACL and MCL during Week 3, landing himself on the IR and ending his season.
For the Browns (and everyone who faces the Titans from here on out), this was an immensely lucky break. Without Britt, the Titans still have a dangerous WR in Nate Washington, but at least now QB Matt Hasselbeck has just one top-notch receiving option rather than two.
This gives the Browns a much better chance to contain the Titans' passing game than it would have appeared they would have just a week ago. Good news, but it's still going to be a test for the Browns, who have been hot and cold so far when it comes to shutting down opponents' aerial attacks.
I've never been terribly impressed by Hasselbeck, but he has managed to keep a starting job in the NFL for a very long time and has put together some pretty good seasons over the years. However unspectacular he may look, he's clearly getting his job done.
That means the Browns defense can't afford to take the Titans' passing game lightly, even with Britt out of the equation. Still, losing him was a huge blow to the Tennessee offense, and if the Browns' defense (the secondary in particular) can be at the top of their game on Sunday, they should be able to contain the Titans' weakened passing game.
It was a pretty common conclusion among Browns fans that the team essentially beat itself against the Bengals in Week 1. Many, including myself, have argued that the team would be 3-0 right now if not for foolish and costly mistakes against Cincinnati.
Obviously with a young team learning new systems on both sides of the ball, there are bound to be errors. However, those errors, while somewhat excusable given the state of the team, will still cost the Browns wins if they aren't avoided.
We learned that the hard way in Week 1, and we almost learned it again in Week 3 when yet another game where the Browns committed entirely too many and very ill-timed penalties.
To be fair, there were some very questionable calls by the officials last week against Miami, but there were also plenty of penalties incurred by the Browns that were completely legitimate and that came at potentially damaging points in the game.
I fully expect that the Browns will continue to improve in this area as they learn and adjust, but they have to be consistent from game to game in not making such errors, or opponents will be able to take advantage of it and the Browns will continue to beat themselves.
The Tennessee defense, a very shaky group in 2010, has been surprisingly good against the pass this season. They have ceded just 516 passing yards so far in 2011, good for second in the league.
That means the Browns will have to rely heavily on their ground game to move the ball down the field against the Titans defense.
Unfortunately, the Titans haven't exactly been bad against the run either, ranking eighth in the league with 267 yards given up. Still, particularly in light of the struggles the Browns receivers have had at various points so far this season, an offensive game plan based largely on a ground attack seems like the way to go.
Luckily, the Browns will have Peyton Hillis back on the field this week after he missed last week's game with a bad case of strep throat.
Hillis has yet to truly bulldoze an opposing defense this season, prompting some to indulge their Madden Curse paranoia. More likely, though, it's just a product of the offense having not yet truly gelled in a way that would allow him to steamroll the competition. The blocking Hillis has gotten so far, particularly from the right side, has not been great. And remember, we only have two games' worth of numbers to judge Hillis on. It is these things, not a video game curse, that have kept Hillis from posting any monster numbers so far.
This week will be a big one for Hillis. He's coming off missing a game and facing a defense that will curtail his teammates' passing attack. Provided he really is fully healthy, Hillis should get 25-plus carries this week and will have a chance to play the hero for the Browns offense against the Titans.