This has been this game’s matchup to watch for well over a month.
As soon as Taylor Lewan’s suspension became public knowledge, a large section of football-knowing eyes turned to Myles Garrett. Everyone knew the Browns awaited the Titans in Week 1.
With the three-time Pro Bowler Lewan out of the picture for the first four weeks, the Titans were aware they had to replace him with an adequate player for at least Week 1. Fortunately, they had a month’s time to prepare for such a task, turning to usual backup right tackle Dennis Kelly to take the place of Lewan.
A six-year veteran, Kelly has made 27 starts at right tackle and right guard. He’s a career-long stopgap, filling in last season for Jack Conklin when he was injured. He’s been here before.
But he hasn’t been on the left side of the line, which any professional lineman will tell you is an adjustment. He’s had an entire training camp to practice it, though, meaning this might not be as big of an advantage as some might think.
One should still expect Tennessee to provide Kelly with some assistance in the form of a running back chipping on Garrett, or a tight end doing something similar. There will be additional attention dedicated to Garrett.
Check out photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Titans Sunday by team photographer Matt Starkey
“Not just the Titans, but I am sure most teams throughout league are going to look to try to look and help on Myles’ side and try to chip,” Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said Thursday, “which I think is going to open things up on the other side for Olivier Vernon, as well as an inside look for (DT) Larry (Ogunjobi) and Sheldon (Richardson). We feel like we are talented across the board and they are going to try to come in, particularly being depleted a little bit at the left tackle, try and protect a little bit more and give the quarterback time to get the ball down the field.”
The expectation is for max protection on longer down-and-distance situations, and quick passes in shorter situations. And for those opportunities Wilks mentioned to come about fairly frequently.
That is what makes this matchup the one to watch. It’s not just Garrett vs. Kelly plus-one, but how that matchup will open room for others — Vernon, Richardson and Ogunjobi — to shine.
“Whatever happens, we’ll just adjust to it,” Vernon said Thursday, “and whoever got the one-on-one, just gotta finish and win their rush.”
The Titans finished last season tied for 22nd in the NFL in sacks allowed with 47, a bottom-third mark that one would think needs to improve. They also posted such a number with Lewan appearing in 15 of a possible 16 games, but had to deal with a shuffling of linemen at other spots on the line, with Conklin only playing nine games in 2018.
That sack mark also includes Tennessee’s 21-0 loss to Baltimore in Week 6, a contest in which quarterback Marcus Mariota was sacked an incredible 11 times. The sack total from the game was misleading, though, as it became apparent in the second half that some of the sacks were not the fault of the offensive line, which cannot realistically block forever.
Still, such a number should widen the eyes of Garrett, who has his focus trained on reaching the 20-sack mark in 2019. It should also excite his teammates, who know they’ll get a chance to make a difference, thanks in part to Garrett and his opposition.