The Tennessee Titans (1-1) travel to Cleveland to take on the AFC North’s Browns (1-1) at Cleveland Browns Stadium this weekend. Expect a physical contest with the battle of the trenches being key to determining the victor. The Titans will be fielding a historical run defense unit, but they shouldn’t take the Nick Chubb-less Browns lightly.
Following their Week 2 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, the Titans have held eight consecutive opponents under 100 rushing yards. That represents the longest active streak in the NFL. Tennessee’s suffocating run defense is currently the league’s fourth-ranked unit, allowing the opposition to rush for just 65 yards per game. It’s thus far been an appropriate follow-up to last year’s top-ranked run defense that allowed 77 rushing yards per contest.
Something will have to give. The Browns are confident in their rushing attack, which is currently averaging a No. 1-ranked 202 yards per outing. The aforementioned superstar running back Chubb suffered a season-ending knee injury in Cleveland’s Monday night loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Just how much Chubb’s absence impacts Cleveland’s rushing attack is a question that’s in the process of being answered. Chubb is a legitimate difference maker, but the Browns will attempt to replace his efforts with an intriguing by-committee approach.
Chubb was replaced by sophomore running back Jerome Ford, who enjoyed a breakout performance after totaling just 14 offensive snaps as a rookie last season. Ford finished with 106 rushing yards on 16 carries for an average output of 6.6 effective yards per carry. Ford won’t be tasked with replacing Chubb by his lonesome.
The Browns agreed to terms on a one-year contract worth up to $4 million with free-agent running back Kareem Hunt. It represents an unlikely reunion after Browns general manager Andrew Berry previously showed no intention of re-signing Hunt earlier this offseason. That changed with a new-found need at the position. A patient Hunt had been waiting for an injury to reveal the right opportunity. It happened in familiar surroundings. It’s a stark reminder that business is business, and grudges are non-existent.
Hunt accounted for 678 total yards of offense for the Browns in 2022. Over the previous three campaigns, Hunt had accumulated 2,383 total yards and 20 touchdowns. He should create an intriguing tandem with Ford, who’s a dual-threat playmaker himself. Ford added three receptions for 25 yards and his first career touchdown to Monday’s offensive totals. The Browns won’t be tipping run/pass when Ford/Hunt are in the backfield. Both are capable of executing all assignments.
The Titans arguably have the league’s most stifling run defense. The Browns are typically excellent across the offensive line and consistently run the football well after fielding last season’s sixth-ranked rushing offense (146.5/game). What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
The opposite battle will also be intriguing. The Browns have equaled the Titans’ run-stopping efforts thus far. Both defenses are holding opponents to the aforementioned third-ranked 65 rushing yards per game. Unlike the Titans however, it marks a significant improvement for the Browns, who fielded a putrid run defense last season (135/game).
The arrival of ex-Titans defensive assistant Jim Schwartz as Cleveland’s defensive coordinator has led to drastic improvement. Schwartz will understand the task, even if the personnel is different. The Titans currently own the league’s 11th-ranked rushing attack. It still centers around Derrick Henry, even if Tyjae Spears has added a dynamic element.
Another familiar face:
Schwartz isn’t the only reunion. The Titans will be squaring off with Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson used to quarterback their AFC South division rival Houston Texans before the two sides underwent an ugly, highly-publicized breakup. Watson last played versus the Titans in January of 2021.
Watson has a record of 3-3 against the Titans, but he’s been significantly better than the record indicates. He’s completed 73.1% of his career passing attempts (141-of-193) against the Titans with 17 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Watson has averaged an impressive 9.0 yards per attempt with a quarterback rating of 119.2 in six meetings.
One reunion that won’t be taking place is the one between the Titans and Browns starting right tackle Jack Conklin. Conklin recently underwent season-ending knee surgery, and has been replaced in the starting lineup by fourth-round rookie Dawand Jones. Jones has handled himself appropriately given the circumstances, but there could be some opportunities for Harold Landry and/or Arden Key to expose his foot speed.