As the late, great Tom Petty once wrote, “The waiting is the hardest part.”
After what felt like the longest off-season in sports history, the wait is finally over. The Cleveland Browns will kick off their regular season at First Energy Stadium this Sunday vs the Tennessee Titans, who are coming off their third straight 9-7 season.
With the Browns looking to win only their second season opener since 1999, we take a look at the three keys to victory for the week one match-up:
1. Pressure Marcus Mariota
Three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan is suspended for the first four games of the 2019 season for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances. As a result, superstar edge Myles Garrett should have a feast of Thanksgiving dinner level proportions vs offensive tackle Dennis Kelly.
In 2018, Garrett ranked T-3rd in sacks, 5th in quarterback hits, and T-7th in total pressures1, all while being limited to two pass-rush moves. Now with more freedom, Garrett should be able to capitalize vs Kelly, who has only lined up at left tackle on 15.3% of career pass snaps.
Garrett will team up with Olivier Vernon, who had the 7th-best pass-rush grade and 8th-best pass-rush win rate in 2018 (per Pro Football Focus). The tandem should be a formidable presence off of the edge and dominate the Titans’ offensive tackles, which will put immense pressure on quarterback Marcus Mariota, who had the highest sack rate when under pressure in 2018.2
2. Stop the Run
Running back Derrick Henry will be the focal point of the Titans offense in 2019. The 6-3, 247-pound back is a violent runner that can cause serious damage when he reaches the second and third levels. In 2018, Henry had the following ranks (per Pro Football Focus):
The Browns struggled mightily versus the run in 2018, allowing the 2nd most first down runs (130) and the 5th most total rushing yards (2,163). In order to mitigate the situation, the Browns added veteran defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson during the off-season. At 6-3 and 295 pounds, Richardson is a difference-maker and top-tier 3-technique tackle. In 2018, he recorded 18 run stops on 272 run-defense snaps, which equates to a 6.6 run-stop percentage.
Richardson and fellow defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi will have to set the tone early up the middle and take away the most pivotal part of the Titans style of football.
By removing Henry from the game, the Browns would force the Titans into passing situations, which would strongly advantage the home squad, as discussed in key 1. above.
3. Protect Baker Mayfield
The Browns have a smörgåsbord of playmakers at their disposal in 2019. However, this is a moot point if quarterback Baker Mayfield is constantly under duress. One of the key factors in the team’s success down the stretch last season was the protection of Mayfield, where he was kept clean on 74.2% of snaps. As we saw in the third preseason game versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, there is cause for concern for this offensive line, specifically at the right guard position. However, head coach Freddie Kitchens and offensive coordinator Todd Monken should be able to hide the weakness by reducing the time from snap to pass and utilizing max protection when necessary.3
With adequate protection, the offense has a chance to flourish in week one versus a Titans secondary that is among the NFL’s best when playing at full potential but is frequently inconsistent. For example, cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Adoree Jackson ranked 74th, and 84th, respectively, in coverage snaps per reception in 2018. Further, Jackson (823) and Butler (778) allowed the 4th and T-9th most receiving yards, respectively, among cornerbacks with at least 250 coverage snaps. Butler, in particular, was a prime example of inconsistency in 2018, allowing a passer rating of 141.8 from weeks 1-9 of the 2018 season and 40.4 from weeks 10-17.
The Browns must put playmakers in the best position to succeed, target them early and often, and win one-on-one battles in order to claim victory on Sunday afternoon. This will only be possible with consistent and sufficient offensive line play.
Cleveland Browns season openers have been nothing short of Groundhog Day since returning to the league in 1999, but these aren’t the Browns of yesteryear. With a new look, new attitude, unprecedented hype, and a foundation of trust/accountability, the team has a good chance to win week one if the above keys are achieved.