It is finally here. We’ve mercifully reached the regular season.
The anticipation has made the journey to this point a unique challenge, but after months of waiting, Game No. 1 arrives Sunday when the Browns host the Tennessee Titans.
Tennessee enters 2019 after finishing 9-7 and coming one Week 17 win shy of earning a wild-card berth under head coach Mike Vrabel. The Northeast Ohio native returns to the region this weekend with a team that plays well as a unit on both sides of the ball and might be going a bit overlooked this season.
The Browns, of course, are not going overlooked. Eyeballs and television cameras have all but burned holes in them since the start of a busy offseason.
Here are the Browns’ keys to victory over the Titans Sunday.
1. Pressure Marcus Mariota relentlessly
He’s again working under another new offensive coordinator, so we don’t have a massive sample size to work with in relation to Mariota, but we do know a few things about him: He’s mobile, he’s a former Heisman Trophy winner and No. 2 overall pick, and he does have an issue with getting hit too often for his own good.
Mariota has added 10-plus pounds of good weight in an effort to better sustain the many hits he takes over the course of the season. Staying healthy and available has been an issue for him in recent years and carries the potential to sink Tennessee’s season if he can’t remain on the field. The question is, though: Does that added weight take away a bit of his speed? Does it also embolden playcallers to run more read options with Mariota? And does it really matter all that much?
Not to the Browns, who will need to get to Mariota regardless of how big or small he is. The reason: He’s the one handling the football, and he won’t make a mistake unless you frequently make him uncomfortable.
“He does a good job of managing the game,” Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said Thursday of Mariota. “He is not going to try to force things in there. He is going to check it down, but he will take his shots down the field. It comes off the play action.”
Play action is naturally a longer-developing play, meaning the Browns might get a half-second’s worth of additional time to win their rushes. They have the personnel up front and the matchups, with Dennis Kelly replacing LT Taylor Lewan and RG Kevin Pamphile questionable for Sunday — to do so. They’d benefit significantly from removing Mariota from his comfort zone in what should be a raucous environment. That’s when the turnover opportunities arise.
2. Stay home
Tennessee understands what is coming in the form of the Browns’ defense, especially in the front seven, but that isn’t going to scare the Titans into deviating from what they do best: run the football.
A Tennessee franchise that was frustratingly avoiding use of Derrick Henry in past years appeared to learn from that mistake last season, especially later in the campaign, and helped establish the team’s identity. But Henry is a question mark due to a calf injury that has kept him out of most preseason activity.
That should shift more of the running back responsibilities to Dion Lewis, a diminutive but elusive runner who makes Tennessee that much more dangerous in space. Combine that with the mobility of Mariota, and the Browns have a lot of areas to pay attention to in order to bottle up these Titans and force them into longer down-and-distance situations in which the Browns can feast.
“I expect him to be ready,” Wilks said Thursday of Henry. “As I mentioned earlier, Lewis a very good back, as well. No. 33 does a tremendous job of getting to the perimeter as well and can run in between the tackles. I think they are going to try to come in and try to establish the run game being on the road for the first game of the year. That is what they do and then create the vertical shots down the field.”
That will require maintaining gap integrity, a key part of any defense but an especially important focus in Wilks’ scheme, and maintenance of contain. Basically, don’t get caught out of position. The environment will be electric and this defense will surely be running on adrenaline early, but its members need to stay disciplined. No matter how talented, any team is a busted coverage or missed assignment or two from a Week 1 loss.
3. Strike early and often
This begins with the play of the Browns’ interior line, notably right guard Eric Kush, who will get a healthy helping of Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. The former USC Trojan is a bringer of nightmares inside, has a high motor and excels at winning leverage battles in part because he’s shorter than your average defensive tackle. That makes him even more powerful to the naked eye, and someone the Browns must account for. He’ll ruin an offense’s day if he gets to the quarterback enough.
"They’ve got a talented group,” Browns center JC Tretter said Friday. “Obviously DT Jurrell (Casey) kind of makes everything kind of work and he is in a lot of the games. Whether he is trying to take you one on one or just trying to bring you into a pick game. He is a really good player. A really good player. So it will be a tough test. We have been trying to plan for all of the different games and stunts and blitzes they bring. It will be a challenge. It will be a battle."
It’s imperative, then, that the Browns get out to a fast start and take away some of the aggressiveness of the Titans’ defense up front. Baker Mayfield is the ideal quarterback for getting the ball out quickly and navigating a less-than-perfect pocket, but as with any quarterback, establishing an offensive rhythm could go a long way toward winning the game. The same will be necessary for running back Nick Chubb, who looks fantastic but didn’t see much game action in the preseason. He saw plenty of full-speed reps in camp, but Week 1 of the regular season is different, and he’ll need to get going early, too.
There’s also the added element of this being the first game of the season, and the home opener. No one enters a game planning to dig themselves out of an early hole, but it would behoove the Browns to build an early lead and attempt to crush Tennessee’s will as quickly as possible. That will help with more than just the score, and allow everyone’s nerves to settle just enough to sustain success Sunday.
Check out photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Titans Sunday by team photographer Matt Starkey