The Cleveland Browns brought a much talked-about defensive front into their Week 1 game against the Tennessee Titans and came away with a loss.
That’s not to say the loss was the fault of the aforementioned group. The defensive line and linebackers were stout against the run for most of the game and limited Tennessee’s rushing attack, save for a few red-zone carries. The big chunk plays didn’t happen on the ground.
They did happen in the air, though, and it was a byproduct of a few factors: Cleveland’s acknowledgement that Tennessee would rely on a run-first game plan, the Titans’ use of play-action off that expectation, and quarterback Marcus Mariota’s mobility, which allowed him to evade the rush.
The Browns sacked Mariota four times for a total of 32 yards lost. But there were more than a half-dozen additional snaps in which the Browns were this close to taking down Mariota, but he instead was able to get rid of the football.
Check out photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Jets Monday by team photographer Matt Starkey
The Browns registered 12 pressures of Mariota on a total of 32 pass-blocking snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, which isn’t a gaudy total but is just outside the top 10 in the NFL for pressure percentage. Cleveland pressured Mariota on 37.5 percent of possible dropbacks and hurried Mariota seven times, again per PFF.
Those are solid numbers, and match up more with what was visible on tape than what the box score showed. But we all know what “almost” only counts in, and it isn’t football. So how do the Browns get home more often in the weeks ahead?
"I think it is complementary football, No. 1,” defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said Friday. “They are close, so we got to make sure that we are a little closer on the backend to make them hold the ball a little bit more. We talk about that all the time trying to complement one another. Good coverage is going to make the quarterback hold the ball. Good pass rush is going to make the quarterback get rid of the ball quicker. So that is going to be the key, complementary football. The biggest thing with us this week, I know they like to go over the top with (wide receiver) (Robby) Anderson, No. 11, we can not give up the big play like we did last week."
Browns defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson was one of the defenders who was consistently in the face of Mariota and batted one of his pass attempts, but did not bring him down. He offered a different take on how the Browns could bring down the quarterback more often.
“How do you close that gap? Tighter hand work,” Richardson said. “A few rushes, we’re running into each other a little bit, miscommunication. Just knowing where we’re going to be at on the field. That’s it, really.”
He and the rest of the Browns’ defense will head to New York aiming to do more than push Jets QB Trevor Siemian. They’d like to rack up enough sacks to remind Jets fans of their own fabled New York Sack Exchange. It’ll start with clearer communication, and hopefully, it ends up looking like complementary football.