Titans vs Browns: 5 Things We Learned About Cleveland In 31 - 13 Loss
What looked like it could be an evenly matched game on paper as two 2-1 teams faced off turned out to be a lopsided train wreck of a game that was just one fourth quarter Browns' touchdown away from being a total blowout.
We knew this would be a tough game for the Browns, as they faced by far the best opponent they've seen yet this season. We knew there was a good chance the Browns would come out on the wrong end of this one. But most of us didn't expect the Browns to actually regress this week, and unfortunately, that's exactly what happened.
Following are five things we learned about the Browns in their ugly loss to the Titans on Sunday.
1. The Browns Were in Trouble Right out of the Gate
Over and over again, Browns fans have bemoaned the team's slow starts. Inability to be productive and a lack of aggressive play have been commonplace in the first quarter for the Browns this season, even in the games they won.
This week was no exception. While the Browns struck first with a 48-yard Phil Dawson field goal (and the first score they've posted in the first quarter of any game this season), that one drive was the extent of their early productivity.
I suppose in this game, you can argue that the Browns were sloppy, unaggressive and lackadaisical throughout all four quarters, but the fact still remains that the Browns have serious issues getting things going early, and this game proves they haven't made any progress on that.
Furthering the problem, the Browns scored just six points in the entire first half, while their defense ceded three touchdowns to the Titans.
With the score at 21-6 going into the half, it became clear that this problem isn't just about putting points on the board to give the team a cushion later in the game or to score consistently throughout all four quarters.
A deficit that big heading into the locker room at the half breeds a nasty vicious cycle of flat play and lack of productivity for the team throughout the entire game.
They can't score and thus get behind early, so they're deflated going into the half, and then they can't score and get further behind late in the game, because they were deflated from not being able to score in the first place. It's an ugly catch-22 that the Browns can't seem to escape, and we've now seen what that results in against a legitimately tough opponent.
2. The Browns Couldn't Bring It Home
To me, the Browns performance in this game was the equivalent of a baseball team losing after leaving countless numbers of runners stranded in scoring position.
The Browns handily beat out the Titans in time of possession, first downs and passing yardage, yet they lost by 18 points. What that essentially means is that the Browns wasted a lot of time moving the ball but never managed to move it far enough in any one drive to have it do them any good.
Colt McCoy threw for 350 yards, yet the team came away with just one touchdown and two field goals. They also had nearly 14 minutes more time of possession than the Titans—almost an entire quarter, essentially—yet couldn't convert that into points.
The numbers evoke a vision of the Browns milling around in the middle of the field, wasting time and moving the ball without every really going anywhere. While that sounds like a comical exaggeration, it is essentially exactly what happened.
While the Browns were picking up yardage, they weren't putting together good, complete drives, and they couldn't get anywhere near the end zone. Yardage, while lovely for fantasy football, and time of possession, while lovely in a close game where you're trying to run down the clock, are both useless if you can't make them translate into points.
If the Browns are ever going to put together drives that lead to scores consistently, they're going to have to stop spinning their wheels at midfield.
3. McCoy and the Wide Receivers Are Still Not in Sync
Oddly enough for a game where the Browns produced just one touchdown, the wide receivers didn't really play what you would call "badly."
While their performance was far from flawless, we didn't see an egregious amount of dropped passes or bad routes this week.
What we did see, however, was that McCoy and his receivers were simply not in sync. Whatever the root cause (which could be myriad different things in this game), they just didn't seem to be on the same page today.
Some of this may have been indirectly the fault of the O-line, which collapsed all too frequently and forced McCoy to throw on the run and under pressure.
Still, in a good offense, a quarterback and his receivers can hook up even when they have to do it on the fly. What we saw today was a terrified, scrambling McCoy who reverted to his "safe" targets whenever he was in trouble, those "safe" targets being RB Peyton Hillis and TE Ben Watson.
Watch McCoy's eyes when he's under pressure; he's not looking for Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie, Greg Little or even Josh Cribbs. He's desperately searching out Hillis and Watson. That's fine if they're open, but when they're not, it results in bad passes, such as the one that was intercepted by the Titans and returned for a touchdown. The pass was intended for Hillis, but didn't land anywhere near him.
While McCoy clearly needs to get better at recognizing all the options he has even when under heavy pressure, it's not all his fault. The receivers, for their part, aren't helping him out. It's not really the result of huge mistakes by either party in most instances (though you can throw a lot of the blame for it at the O-line), but rather the result of a quarterback and receiving corps that aren't yet always synced up.
4. The Secondary Was Positively Shredded by Matt Hasselbeck
It was a pretty commonly held opinion among Browns fans prior to today's game that the Browns would need to adjust their style of coverage to account for Hasselbeck's accuracy against a zone defense on a three-step drop.
While the Browns clearly knew what they were dealing with, they still botched their defensive approach to Hasselbeck and the Titans, particularly in the secondary.
Hasselbeck's stats don't look spectacular for this game—10-for-20 with 220 yards—but unlike the Browns, who put up a lot of yardage but didn't do much with it, Hasselbeck and his offense made the yardage they did accrue count.
Obviously, Hasselbeck's running game helped him out a lot, but what really helped him was the total lack of good coverage by the Browns' secondary. Bottom line: Nobody cares if you have a 50 percent completion percentage if you also throw for three touchdowns and bring home a decisive win.
Pretty much every component of the Browns' offense and defense shares some blame for this loss, but the secondary gets a particularly big portion of that. They were routinely burned by Tennessee's wide receivers and let Chris Johnson mow them down with his first 100-yard rushing game of the season.
Mike Adams had a nice interception for the second game in a row, but any praise for the secondary this week ends there. Sheldon Brown got burned for a touchdown yet again, and Joe Haden was unusually quiet and not much of a factor at all, logging just one tackle.
The front seven, for their part, didn't help much either. Hasselbeck was hit just one time. They gave him all day to throw and missed key blocks on running plays. They didn't look quite as inept as the secondary, but they didn't help matters much either.
5. The Browns Are Crushed by Big Plays
The major problems that caused the Browns to lose this game were different from the ones that plagued the Browns in their other loss in Week 1 in Cincinnati, but there was one common one: The Browns were crushed by big plays in both losses.
Today, we saw Jared Cook log an 80-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter, and we saw S Jordan Babineaux return an interception 97 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. So in two plays that took probably less than a minute total, the Titans put up 14 points and essentially buried the Browns without having to even bother putting together a drive that produced even a single first down in either instance.
LB Scott Fujita came right out and said it in his postgame interview: "Big plays killed us."
He was absolutely right.
Without those two big touchdown plays, the score is 17-14. Maybe in that close a game, the Browns would have been more motivated and found a way to win, not having to suffer from the deflation that results from giving up huge plays and being way behind on the scoreboard. And even if they still do lose, at least it's a close game where they hung tough against a good team.
But in just two plays, that hope was obliterated and the scoreboard indicated a near-blowout rather than a near-win.
The point is that this is, in a way, another instance of the Browns once again beating themselves. They didn't make the Titans work for it. They allowed them to put 14 points on the board on just two plays. Rather than making them earn it by forcing them to engineer full drives, they let them take the easy way out and score with minimal planning and exertion.
At least for now, this may be the biggest thing the Browns need to learn how to control—and fast. This is the second game this season where giving up big plays like these proved to be their undoing, and it will happen again and again until they start making opponents work harder to put points on the board.