Winless Browns hobble into game with Titans
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It was generally understood before the season started that the Cleveland Browns would be one of the NFL's worst teams. Then the injuries began, and haven't ended yet.
In losing its first five games, Cleveland played five quarterbacks. Opening-game starter Robert Griffin III (shoulder) is out for the year, second-game starter Josh McCown (shoulder) just resumed practicing this week, third-stringer Cody Kessler (chest/ribs) was knocked out last week and waiver-wire pickup Charlie Whitehurst (knee) was released with an injury settlement Tuesday after limping off the field near the end of last week's 33-13 loss to New England.
Converted quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who has actually played quite well at wide receiver, finished last week's defeat under center. To replace Whitehurst, the Browns promoted rookie Kevin Hogan from the practice squad.
Adding left guard Joel Bitonio (mid-foot) to the infirmary for Sunday's game at the Tennessee Titans further weakens an offensive line that doesn't need weakening.
“You obviously don't want any injuries,” left tackle Joe Thomas said, “but you understand they are part of the game. That is why it is important to build your depth on any team. In the NFL, it is not a matter of if injuries are going to happen, it is a matter of when.”
Bitonio's injury seems particularly ill-timed considering Tennessee (2-3) demonstrated last week in a 30-17 victory at Miami that it can get after the quarterback. Working over a Dolphins offensive line that started two backups, the Titans bagged six sacks of Ryan Tannehill.
With Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan and Jurrell Casey coming off two-sack games each, it would seem like Tennessee has a real chance to terrorize whoever takes snaps for Cleveland.
“We are not going to put together an entirely different scheme together based on the injury to (Bitonio),” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. “We have got a set scheme. We are going to attack. Dick LeBeau does a good job attacking where he thinks weaknesses are, and we will go from there.”
Until last week, LeBeau could have had a grand old time attacking his own team's offense. Tennessee was averaging just 15.5 points before its victory in Miami, which saw DeMarco Murray rush for 121 yards on 27 carries and Marcus Mariota threw for three touchdowns and rushed for a fourth.
Of course, that was on the road and the Titans' next three games are in Nissan Stadium. Most teams are better at home, but Tennessee isn't most teams, as it has painfully proved over and over. Since the 2014 season's beginning, the Titans have lost 16 of 18 at home, with both wins coming against Jacksonville.
“I don't think consistency has been something we've done around here,” Mariota said. “If we're able to do that and build one good game after another, we'll like the direction we're going in.”
Like his team, Mariota has struggled at home, turning the ball over three times in a 17-10 loss to Oakland on Sept. 25. But he has shown glimpses of his considerable potential with four four-touchdown games in his first 17 starts, matched only by Charlie Conerly of the 1948-49 New York Giants.
Mularkey was happy with Mariota's decision-making at Miami.
“He really took what the defense gave us and that is what we're looking for,” Mularkey said. “We didn't make any crucial mistakes, which we had made in earlier games while he was trying to make more happen.”
Regardless of whether McCown or Kessler gets the call at quarterback for the Browns, they figure to base their offense around running back Isaiah Crowell. Despite being held to 22 yards last week as New England stacked the line of scrimmage, Crowell is fifth in the NFL with 416 yards through five games.
Crowell, Pryor (24 catches, 338 yards) and versatile backup running back Duke Johnson give Cleveland some nice weapons offensively. But a revolving door at quarterback and the lack of depth on the offensive line has hampered first-year coach Hue Jackson's efforts to build a dangerous attack.
“I know it is frustrating for the fans,” Pryor said. “It is frustrating for us. It is probably frustrating for some of you guys that are Cleveland Browns fans and reporters, as well.
“This is the time we have to stick together and keep fighting. If we don't quit, good things are going to come out.”