The Tennessee Titans enter the second quarter of their season facing what looks like a much easier schedule.
But the Cleveland Browns that come to Nashville are a far better team than many league insiders imagined they would be. Given what's unfolded for these teams so far, the Titans are more likely to be a pushover Sunday.
ESPN.com's Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Browns reporter Pat McManamon chat about the matchup.
Paul Kuharsky: So when we looked at the schedule before the season, a lot of us suspected this would be the game where Johnny Manziel made his debut as the Browns' starting quarterback. But Brian Hoyer has done quite well through three games. What has been the key to his performance so far?
Pat McManamon: You weren't the only ones suspecting that. It was the general feeling in Cleveland as well that this would be Manziel's first start. But Hoyer has ended that talk by doing three things: taking care of the ball, scoring points and leading the team.
Hoyer has not thrown an interception this season in 95 throws, or in 156 overall going back to one year ago. He has guided the Browns' offense to score 27, 26 and 21 points. Cleveland ranks 12th in the league with 24.7 points per game. Finally, Hoyer has settled in since being named the starter and grabbed hold of the job. With Manziel ready and eager to play, Hoyer brought the Browns back from 24 down at halftime in Pittsburgh to nearly pull off an upset. That half gave him a huge boost in confidence.
He needs to play better at the end of games -- he had chances to win in Pittsburgh and against Baltimore -- but Hoyer returning to the form he showed in 2013 has been the biggest difference between the Browns of early preseason and early regular season.
Paul, it seems the Titans are going through issues at quarterback like the Browns have for years. Searching, dealing with injuries, the young guy on the bench becoming the fan favorite. Who plays this weekend and can that position be effective for Tennessee?
Paul Kuharsky: It'll be Jake Locker, who was back to practice Wednesday after missing last week with a right wrist injury. Charlie Whitehurst wasn't the team's big issue, as it got clobbered in Indianapolis and Zach Mettenberger got a couple of series at the end. He's not ready, but he certainly is more in line with Ken Whisenhunt's style of quarterback and system.
Locker doesn't really fit, but they are giving him a chance to be more of a pocket guy. The fact is, he has not been so great on the move in his career either. But Whisenhunt should be tailoring things to him more than he has so far. Let's see if there is more play-action and some rollouts and bootlegs.
Titans defensive coordinator Ray Horton was in the same post with the Browns a year ago. What has Jim O'Neil changed from what Horton started putting together there?
Pat McManamon: Pretty much everything, though most of the credit or responsibility goes to the head coach. O'Neil is under a one-year defensive coordinator apprenticeship with Mike Pettine, the same way Pettine was when he coached under Rex Ryan with the Jets. O'Neil is running Pettine's system, calling Pettine's defense.
There are two main differences between Horton's system and Pettine's, though both rely on aggressive and complex zone blitzing schemes. Pettine/O'Neil will rely on their corners to play man-press coverage a little more often than Horton did, and Pettine/O'Neil do not seem to blitz as frequently. The numbers prove that, too. ESPN Stats & Information reports that in 2013 the Browns blitzed 35 percent of the time, 10th in the league. Through three games this season, they blitz 30.9 percent of the time and rank 15th in the league.
One constant over the past two seasons: The defense has struggled to finish games well. A year ago, Horton's constant lament was the team's inability to finish. This season, the Browns gave up winning drives to Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
The Browns haven't stopped the run. The Titans average 119.5 yards per game. Can Tennessee be effective depending on the run, or is that not Whisenhunt's style?
Paul Kuharsky: It needs to be their style. They are averaging 5.0 yards a carry. I know that probably goes down with more carries, but they need to take pressure off the quarterback and off the defense. Time of possession has been a giant issue in two of their losses. And while the distribution of work to the running back committee was good in the opening day win at Kansas City, it has not been since.
Shonn Greene has done nothing wrong. But beyond tight end Delanie Walker, rookie running back Bishop Sankey has been the biggest spark skill player they have. Sure, his second-half work has come in games that were no longer in doubt. But why not see if he can do it while the Titans are still in it? I think they need to get to him earlier and more often.
Sankey had fumble issues in the preseason and Whisenhunt may not be over them. But he hasn't fumbled in a regular-season game, and if they aren't holding interceptions against Locker, they shouldn't hold preseason fumbles against Sankey at this point.
Ben Tate was the big signing for the Cleveland run game, but he's got an injury history and has been hurt again. How have the Browns managed in the run game with so little of him?
Pat McManamon: First of all, expect Tate to return to the starting lineup Sunday. Barring a setback, he should be over the knee injury that sidelined him for two games.
As for the team, they managed by addressing a position of need aggressively in the offseason. A year ago the Browns had nothing in the backfield after the trade of Trent Richardson, and it showed. The team did not have a back with a 100-yard game, and had four rushing touchdowns all season. Twice a receiver led the team in rushing, once a safety did it on a fake punt.
In the offseason, the Browns not only added Tate, they drafted Terrance West and signed Isaiah Crowell. All have contributed. The other significant move: going from a power running scheme to a zone-read system advocated by Kyle Shanahan. The zone-read fits the strength of the Browns' offensive line, which is its ability to move. Combined, all have served to minimize the loss of the team's starting running back for two games. The Browns are 10th in the league in rushing with 132.7 yards per game.
The Browns have scored 21 points in the first three games for the first time since 1969. Pretty amazing stat there. The Titans have given up 41, 33 and 26 points the past three games. What happens when those two forces collide?
Paul Kuharsky: Great question. They've got to be in a one-score game or have a lead to give their defense a chance. The pass pressure is insufficient, first-year starting cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson has struggled (and could be out with a concussion) and the linebacking corps doesn't have playmakers or big hitters.
If the Browns can start well, the crowd will quickly turn and any home-field advantage will fizzle. And I think the Titans will slump if they face another significant deficit. There is no indication they are equipped or built to come back. The Titans haven't scored in the first quarter in four games, and they've only crossed midfield once.