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In Cleveland, hope dies last

Browns vs. Titans – 3 things to watch for in Week 5

browns titans preview mainThe Cleveland Browns return to action today as they travel to Tennessee to take on the Titans.

This is the beginning of an important stretch as the schedule takes a decidedly favorable turn for the Browns. While it is never a safe bet to mark down any game as a win at this point, during the next five weeks the Browns face the Titans, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay – all winnable games if the Browns can keep their act together.

The Browns have had two weeks to stew in the disappointment of a last-second loss to Baltimore, and the game against Tennessee offers a prime opportunity to reclaim the momentum. The Titans come into the contest riding a three-game losing streak where they have been outscored by a combined 66 points, giving the Titans the third-worst point differential in the AFC. (Jacksonville and Oakland are first and second, respectively, not that we’re looking ahead.)

“We can’t think about our schedule or look at our next opponent beyond Tennessee,” Browns head coach Mike Pettine said earlier this week. “That’s just not how we operate. I think it is a dangerous thing. I talked about being confident at 1-2, but it is so hard to win in this league. There’s so much talent parity-wise that your mindset, to me, is equally important or more important than how you are physically.”

Pettine is right, of course, especially when talking about a Browns team that is just 7-34 on the road since the start of the 2009 season. But the opportunity is there to continue turning things around this weekend, all the Browns have to do is reach out and grab it.

So what do the Browns have to do to walk off the field with their first road win in more than a year? Here are three keys to the game to keep an eye on:

browns titans preview 1Browns run defense vs. Titans running game

The Titans are rushing for an average of 120 yards per game, which only ranks them 17th in the NFL, but they are averaging 5.0 yards per carry, which is fifth-best in the league.

Any running game is currently a challenge to a Browns defense that is giving up 153.7 yards per game (29th in the league) and 5.2 yards per carry (31st in the league).

The Titans have rolled out a quartet of running backs this year as Dexter McCluster, Leon Washington, Shonn Greene and Bishop Sankey have all received carries, with Greene (4.7 yards per carry) and Sankey (5.1 yards per carry) being the most effective.

“All of them are different,” Browns middle linebacker Karlos Dansby said in published reports. “You have to know exactly what they like to do, each and every guy. You have to try to figure out their strengths and weaknesses, and you don’t have a lot of time. You have to put some time in; that’s the only way you’re going to be able to go out and have success against these guys.”

The Titans are currently the worst team in the NFL on third down, converting just 28 percent of the time. If the Browns can keep the running came under control and get Tennessee into a third-down situation, that would go a long way toward helping the cause.

browns titans preview 2Keep the offense going

The Browns offense has been off to a solid start in terms of scoring points, as they have scored more than 21 points in the first three games of the season for the first time since 1969.

They are 10th in rushing at 132.7 yards per game, second in scoring at 24.7 points per game, have yet to have a turnover and quarterback Brian Hoyer has been sacked just four times.

Hoyer has kept the offense rolling with a group of wide receivers that has no dominant player (although Andrew Hawkins is currently on pace for 112 receptions and 1,300 receiving yards) and has been playing with an injured Jordan Cameron.

The offense should also get a boost with the return of running back Ben Tate, who in five career games against Tennessee has averaged 6.7 yards per carry.

The biggest advantage for the Browns may come from the fact that the offensive line is getting better each week. Joel Bitonio has settled in at left guard (playing between Joe Thomas and Alex Mack certainly helps) and John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz have been effective on the right side.

The line will have its hands full, though, with Tennessee’s Jurrell Casey, a player that Pettine calls the “best defensive player in the league that nobody’s really heard of.”

Casey lines up at various slots along the defensive line – he has played 71 snaps at left end and 100 at right end – and the Titans will certainly be looking to find a hole in the Browns offensive line.

Just do your thing

The Browns have done a nice job through the early part of the season in keeping the offense in balance. Gone are the days when they come out in the second half and abandon the run game; so far they’ve stuck to the plan as best they can and the results have been positive, for the most part.

For the most part, no one on the offense has tried to do too much (which helps explain, in part, why the team hasn’t turned the ball over through three games), a lesson that the defense needs to learn.

At times, the defense has looked good this year but something seems to always go wrong at an inopportune time.

“It was good over the bye week to show the guys that if one guy breaks structure or one guy’s not getting his job done what can happen with explosive plays in the run and pass game,” defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said earlier in the week about the problems. “Great defenses aren’t great because they have a bunch of great individual players – they play great together and everybody gets their job done. It was good for the coaches to see it. It was good for the players to see it.”

If the defense can start following the offense’s lead and just play their game, the Browns could be getting ready to turn this season into something special.

The Prediction

In some ways, the Browns have played better than their 1-2 record would indicate, but the reality is they haven’t played a full 60 minutes of solid football yet this season.

With a new coaching staff and an influx of new players, we knew it would take some time for the Browns to figure things out, but we have to say they are further along than we expected, especially when you consider the opening three games of the season came against Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Baltimore.

The Titans have faced a similar tough stretch, playing three of their first four games on the road and facing three teams that made the playoffs last year. But they have looked far worse than the Browns while navigating their tough schedule.

Tennessee hasn’t scored a first-quarter touchdown this season and has trailed by double digits after the first quarter in their past three games.

If the Browns can get out to an early lead and if the defense can play up to its ability, the Browns should be able to pick up their first road win of the season.

We like the Browns to win, get their momentum back, and set up what should be one heck of a home game next week with Pittsburgh.

We started playing around with a program, Piktochart, that lets you create infographics. Here’s our first attempt at putting something together:

browns vs. titans preview graphic-2

(Photos courtesy of clevelandbrowns.com and titansonline.com)

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