Browns must stop Johnson

Published 11:52 pm Saturday, October 1, 2011

CLEVELAND (AP) — Sooner or later, Chris Johnson will bust through the line, break a tackle, fake a defender out of his cleats and outrun everyone to the end zone.

It’s going to happen.

It’s just a matter of when, not if, Tennessee’s star running back gets loose.

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“Let’s hope the time isn’t Sunday,” cracked Cleveland cornerback Sheldon Brown.

The Browns’ (2-1) main objective will be to stop Johnson when the Titans (2-1) visit Sunday looking to shift a running game that has thus far been revving in neutral through the season’s first three weeks.

Johnson, who sat out training camp in a contract dispute, has gained just 98 yards on 46 carries — a jaw-dropping 2.1 yards per carry.

One of only six players in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, Johnson isn’t giving the Titans much of a return on the $53 million investment, including $30 million guaranteed, they gave him about a week before the season started.

He’s taken the money.

Now, it’s time to run.

“Everybody on offense has to pick their game up,” Johnson said.

In a win over Denver last week, the Titans lost top wide receiver Kenny Britt to a season-ending knee injury, a major loss for a team searching for its offensive footing.

Britt was averaging 17 yards per catch and had scored three touchdowns, and without him quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has lost one of his most dependable weapons.

To this point, Tennessee hasn’t been able to count on Johnson.

By missing weeks of practice time while waiting to get paid, and because of the lockout, Johnson may not yet be in “football shape.”

The tiny holes he slipped through in the past are currently sealed, and the former track star’s world-class speed isn’t quite at its usual warp levels.

Still, he’s dangerous and the Browns will be mindful of No. 28’s every move.

“We’ve just got to be aware of winning first down,” said Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, selected the AFC’s defensive player of the month for September.

“We know he’s going to get a lot of touches, so we got some things set up this week to where we’re always going to keep an eye on him — not to give away what we’re doing — but we’ll have a special eye out for him.

“We know he’s going to get his touches, we know if we contain him we increase our chance of winning.”

Not that they have to prove their legitimacy, but the Browns know a win over a quality opponent will improve their image around the league.

Cleveland’s first three opponents — Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Miami — are a combined 1-8, so a victory over a team with a winning record would add credibility to the Browns’ start.

A win would make Cleveland 3-1 for the first time since 2001.

To do that, Johnson must be contained and the Browns need to put pressure on Hasselbeck, the Titans’ 36-year-old QB enjoying a rebirth in Tennessee.

Signed as a free agent before training camp after 10 seasons in Seattle, Hasselbeck is off to the best start of his career.

He’s third in the league in completion rate (69.6) behind only Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and New England’s Tom Brady, and thrown for 932 yards with five TDs and two interceptions.

Not bad for a guy many thought was washed up.

Browns coach Pat Shurmur wasn’t one of them. Shurmur has followed Hasselbeck’s career closely, and has been impressed with how quickly he has adapted to a new offensive system in Tennessee.

“I have always been fond of his style of ball,” said Shurmur, who coached Hasselbeck’s brother, Tim, in Philadelphia.

“He does a good job of executing the offense. He keeps the tempo good. He’s a very accurate passer. I’m seeing some of the concepts that he ran in Seattle, the West Coast-type concepts and seeing the (Titans offensive coordinator) Chris Palmer influence. It is a little bit of a blend, but it looks like Matt’s executing extremely well and that’s important. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons that they are off to a very good start.”

With their running game, well, grounded, the Titans have turned to Hasselbeck and he has delivered.

He celebrated his 36th birthday last week by passing for 311 yards, and his three-game total of 932 is the highest for the franchise since Warren Moon in 1992.

Hasselbeck is certain the Browns will be well prepared for him. After all, he was raised in the league by Browns president Mike Holmgren, who coached him with the Seahawks. Between Shurmur and Holmgren, the Browns have a thorough knowledge of Hasselbeck’s every tendency and tick.

“They probably know me better than I know me in a way,” he said. “For sure, Mike. But I wouldn’t say the same thing about the guys playing on their defense.”

Like Tennessee, Cleveland’s offense has struggled so far this season. However, the Browns defense has responded and rescued the club from a disastrous start.

Last week, the Browns recorded five sacks before stopping Miami near midfield in the final minute to preserve a 17-16 win. Cornerback Joe Haden held Dolphins star wide receiver Brandon Marshall in check and this week he’ll likely be matched against Tennessee’s Nate Washington, who will assume Britt’s role as the Titans’ No. 1 target.

Haden, though, will be on guard to stop Johnson.

He’s due, maybe overdue, to have a big game and the Browns don’t want to be the first team Johnson runs through.

“We know anytime it can happen. He’s CJ2K,” Haden said. “He is really good, elusive, fast and one of the best players in the league. We just have to make sure we keep him contained and everybody stays to the run. That puts a little more pressure on us in the secondary knowing that we are going to have to put an extra person in the box to contain him, but in the back of our minds, we have to just lock it up.”