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Defensive line ready for first true test of 2019 season

It wasn't but two weeks ago that the Browns' defensive line was slicing through the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive line like a hot knife through butter.

But as far as Sheldon Richardson is concerned, that performance never happened.

"No, that was just preseason," he said dismissively when asked if his position group will dominate every game like they did in Tampa.

It's a valid response. Preseason is good for the game reps but not a barometer of how good or bad a team will be.

So how good could this defensive line — which sends Myles Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, Richardson and Olivier Vernon to the field with each series — end up being?

"We will find that out Sunday," Richardson quickly replied.

The Browns, while frequently the center of attention during an offseason that seemed to last forever, will not allow an exhibition game to inflate their egos. They're about proving it with their play.

The first chance to do so comes Sunday, when they host the Tennessee Titans at FirstEnergy Stadium.

Tennessee comes to Cleveland without its Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan, who was suspended four games for violating the NFL's policy on banned substances. His replacement, Dennis Kelly, has never started a regular season game at left tackle.

The average thinker would see that as a weakness for the Browns' defensive line to exploit. Perhaps it might affect pregame preparation and change Cleveland's approach to the season opener.

Wrong, according to Richardson.

"The same way we approach it if he was there," Richardson said. "It does not matter who you stick out there. We are all going to be finished one day, that's how you look at it. Even if you paid the man a million dollars or practice squad money, it does not matter."

Richardson has a very valid point. With the world's top 1 percent of football players filling out the NFL, Kelly is more than qualified to protect quarterback Marcus Mariota. But he's also not a Pro Bowl left tackle who recently commanded a hefty contract extension. 

And he's also going against an edge rusher in Garrett who's poised to break out, or at least is aiming for such a season, telling reporters during camp his goal is to break the 20-sack mark and win Defensive Player of the Year.

Vernon believes it's possible but also knows it will only come as part of a greater, season-long effort.

"What have I not seen from him? Explosive," Vernon said of Garrett. … "His ability to bend that corner, man, I haven't seen nobody bend the corner like that. Especially at his size. But he comes in every day and he works hard. Always hungry. That's one thing everybody respects. Pleasure to be on the line with him, Larry O, Sheldon, all those guys right there. Now it's just time to work together and make something happen."

The potential for something unseen in these parts in well over two decades is clearly visible when viewing the Browns' defensive line working together at once. Their twists and stunts are fluid, smooth and in sync. It's like watching a professional ballet, but with pads, helmets and full contact. Football art.

That is what has Garrett believing he can whip up a masterpiece in 2019, starting with Sunday's game. Richardson, a believer, is still saving his judgment for after the final touches are applied.

"He was a little extreme on the words, but definitely," Richardson said. "Everybody wants to be great on the defensive line and the defense period. It is fully competition between us all like seriously. Nobody wants to be second to anybody. It is fun, but we know we have to get the job done."

Check out photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Titans Sunday by team photographer Matt Starkey