|Tennessee Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck makes a call from the line against the Cleveland Browns in the first quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 2, 2011, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)|
Hasselbeck's 3 TD passes lift Titans over Browns
CLEVELAND—Matt Hasselbeck's free agent contract with Tennessee included a few perks.
One of them wasn't a rocking chair.
The 13-year veteran quarterback, who left Seattle after a playoff-filled decade, threw three touchdown passes in the first half and safety Jordan Babineaux returned an interception 97 yards for a TD as the Titans thumped the Cleveland Browns 31-13 on Sunday for their third straight win under first-year coach Mike Munchak.
Hasselbeck picked apart Cleveland's secondary in the opening half, throwing for 194 yards on several big plays while helping the Titans (3-1) build a 21-6 lead. The 36-year-old finished 10 of 20 for 220 yards -- 26 on just two completions after halftime.
When the Titans signed Hasselbeck to a three-year deal in late July, the decision caused some head scratching around the league. Now, other teams may be kicking themselves.
"We thought he had a lot left in the tank from watching him in the playoffs last year," Munchak said. "We didn't bring him here to retire quietly. We brought him here to do exactly what he's been doing."
The Titans were playing with heavy hearts. On Saturday, they learned that Mike Heimerdinger, their beloved former offensive coordinator known as "Dinger" died of cancer at 58. Heimerdinger died while in Mexico to receive experimental treatments for a rare form of the disease.
Heimerdinger and Munchak spent several seasons on former Titans coach Jeff Fisher's staff.
"I was a young coach, and we grew together," Munchak said. "He was great. It's a big, big loss to the organization."
Tennessee's Chris Johnson finally broke out of his early season funk, rushing 23 times for 101 yards, three more than his total in three games.
Johnson was glad to finally contribute to an offense Hasselbeck has humming.
"Of all the quarterbacks I've played with, he's most like a coach on the field," Johnson said.
Hasselbeck said the transition has been easier than expected, and credited offensive coordinator Chris Palmer for making it smooth and seamless.
"I'm the new guy, but our five guys up front have been together for so long," he said. "And when the defense scores points, you love it. Chris is really running the show on the passing game. He's patient with me. What we are doing is very different from my past and I make rookie mistakes. He gets me through it."
The Browns (2-2) didn't build momentum following a comeback win last week over Miami, and Cleveland enters its bye with renewed problems the club hopes don't worsen. Cornerback Joe Haden, arguably Cleveland's best player, sprained his left knee and will undergo further examination on Monday. Also, wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi hurt his shoulder.
"Disappointing loss," coach Pat Shurmur said. "This was a team loss. There's a lot of things we need to get better at, and it starts with me. We just didn't play extremely well. That's my responsibility."
Colt McCoy went 40 of 61 for 350 yards and one TD against the league's No. 1-ranked defense, which sacked him three times and chased Cleveland's second-year QB all afternoon. But as he tried to rally Cleveland in the second half, McCoy forced a pass that was picked and taken all the way back by Babineaux.
McCoy set club records for completions and attempts.
Cleveland's defense thought it might have an advantage against Hasselbeck because of his past with Browns president Mike Holmgren, who first had the QB in Green Bay and then traded for him with the Seahawks. But if the Browns learned something from their boss this week about Hasselbeck, they didn't apply it.
Playing without injured wide receiver Kenny Britt, Hasselbeck threw a 12-yard TD pass to tight end Craig Stevens, hooked up with tight end Jared Cook on an 80-yarder and lobbed a 4-yard score to Damian Williams -- all before the half, and all but ending Cleveland's chance to go 3-1 for the first time since 2001.
"Big plays killed us," Browns linebacker Scott Fujita said.
After the Browns pulled within 7-6 on Phil Dawson's 51-yard field goal, Hasselbeck needed just 18 seconds to put the Titans back in command.
Cook got behind Fujita, caught a short pass from Hasselbeck and took off up the left sideline. With Fujita in pursuit, Cook stayed in bounds after a weak attempt by safety Usama Young to tackle him and went the distance, putting Tennessee ahead 14-6 early in the second quarter.
"Coming in, we knew about the way Cleveland came back to win a week ago," Hasselbeck. "We wanted to get out to the lead if we could. We made some big plays. That happens sometimes when you (Cleveland) are in man coverage. When you play physical like they do, up on a guy, sometimes it backfires."
Meanwhile, the Browns had trouble finishing drives, and sensing his team needed a spark before halftime, Shurmur went for a fourth-and-1 near midfield. But Titans safety Michael Griffin made a nice, open-field tackle on Armond Smith to give it back to Tennessee.
Rob Bironas' 39-yard field goal gave the Titans a 24-6 lead in the third, and McCoy had little choice to take some risks. One backfired badly.
At Tennessee's 29, he scrambled to buy time but threw toward the end zone. Babineaux was waiting, picked it off and made his way down field for the fourth-longest interception return in franchise history.
Babineaux followed Hasselbeck to Tennessee, signing with the Titans a few days after the QB.
"That's why we called him 'Big Play Babs' in Seattle," Hasselbeck said.
Notes: McCoy's 40 completions were five off the league mark held by Drew Bledsoe in 1994. ... Titans safety Chris Hope broke his arm in the first quarter. Munchak did not know if Hope will need surgery. Stevens injured a rib and OL Leroy Harris twisted a knee. ... Dawson's 51-yarder was his longest since a 56-yarder at Buffalo in 2008. ... Titans rookie QB Jake Locker made his NFL debut in the final minutes. His only pass was incomplete.