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After last weekend's demolition job against the Tampa Bay Bucanneers, the Tennessee Titans look to their next match-up, a battle against the Cleveland Browns. After getting an early look at both squads in week one, we'll preview what I think we will see from the Titans on the offensive side of the ball...
For Tennessee, Marcus Mariota will get all the attention whether they win or lose. We'll get to him in a minute, but I thought it apt to start with his targets and supporting cast. Kendall Wright is poised to put up big numbers in this offense with Mariota tossing him the ball, as evidenced by his electric display last week. He's deadly in open space, and thrives on the timing routes that see the ball get into his hands quickly.
"My mindset this season is to do everything exactly right. Not just right, but exactly right...I want to do what I can to be in the right spot for Marcus (Mariota). And I want to do things exactly how the coach wants it run."
That is a stark contrast to what he was asked to do in the past, where his freelancing didn't serve the team all that well. Wright showcased his premier speed and new attitude against Tampa Bay, recording over 100 yards and more than 25 ypc. He will face a tougher challenge this week against a secondary that's among the league's best units. Joe Hayden will cover him when he lines up outside, and while Wright has historically stepped up to the level of his competition, he will have less free releases off the line. Haden won't fear his speed deep either.
The focus of the Titans offensively should be through Delanie Walker (should he play after sustaining a hand injury vs TB) and Wright, whom I expect the Titans to put in the slot as often as possible to get some favorable match-ups. Harry Douglas will also be utilized in this fashion. While Tennessee only has four WRs on the roster, they have the TE depth to play 12 and 13 personnel often, and in Tampa that created some mismatches all by itself. Walker will dominate the middle of the field if allowed, and I expect the Browns to chip him heavily at the LOS. Hopefully the Titans can get some added production out of Justin Hunter and Dorial Green-Beckham, with the focus of the Browns D elsewhere.
Mariota will no doubt have a harder time finding his targets against an aggressive and talented Browns defense, but he won't likely have to put up 42 again to win this week. Ryan Fitzpatrick was able to eek out two touchdowns against the Browns last week; I am confident Mariota can do the same or better. As we have seen in the wonderful work of our writers here at MCM, the "Oregon Style" option plays sprinkled into this Titans offense are deadly if executed properly, and there is an argument to be made that Mariota is the best to ever operate it. His execution of play action was simply astonishing last week. Here's to hoping that continues against Cleveland. As an extra runner, defenses are forced to account for him on every play, tilting the numbers game in the Titans favor, especially when they split TEs like Anthony Fasano out wide. I expect him to continue to work through his reads quickly to find the open targets, and distribute the ball with accuracy. Mariota put Tampa's Cover 2 to the torch last weekend, but the Browns defense will present a different challenge.
The quickness of the plays also makes the offensive line's job all the easier. Jeremiah Poutasi got his first start last week and had a decent showing. He still needs to work on leveraging his opponents, but he is a rookie and still learning at this juncture. Taylor Lewan is the cornerstone of this offensive line, and a tone setter in only his second season. Both men will be tasked with running edge rushers out of the play, allowing Mariota to step up into the pocket. They will both have a tougher challenge this week facing Barkevious Mingo and Paul Kruger.
Inside, Brian Schwenke will not be facing Gerald McCoy this week, but this Browns line has plenty of quality to give him trouble, including the likes of Danny Shelton. The Browns defensive line didn't have their best game last week, but I expect them to bounce back from that. They have more talent on defense than they showed against New York.
Chance Warmack seemed to be out of position on several power run plays last week, and the entire line will need to execute to get the same kind of production on the ground as they did in Tampa. Warmack in particular will be expected to get to the second level and get a hat on the Browns linebackers, looking to spring Bishop Sankey and co. free. As in Tampa Bay, I expect the Titans to heavily utilize their stable of tight ends to create favorable situations in the running game, but perhaps less heavy/stacked offensive formations. Browns Head Coach Mike Pettine took note of Sankey's improvements;
"He was impressive...I think he runs low. He’s gaining positive yardage. They used him as a receiver, as a kick returner, but it’s clear that he’s elevated his game from his rookie year."
Terrence West will get his shot versus the team that drafted him only a year ago, but it will be Sankey taking the lions share of the snaps. This Titans running game isn't anything to write home about, but Sankey got the job done last week, seeing the holes and making his carries count, getting into the end zone twice: once through the air and once on the ground. Dexter McCluster will also get his name called. Ken Whisenhunt mixed up his personnel last week, with McCluster and Fowler earning snaps in the backfield often alongside West or Sankey. The Browns' run defense was fundamentally sound in the first half of their game against the Jets last week, but they fell apart in the second period, allowing 4.3 yards per clip on the day and over 150 yards.
As we have noted in this week's film reviews, the Titans want to use their personell to run in heavy, often unbalanced formations. Running in a stacked box, even with extra blockers, is never going to be an easy task, but Terrence West seems to have the mindset and the physicality to earn some hard yards in these situations. And he should have a chip on his shoulder this weekend too.
With a potentially highly efficient passing game, the Titans may only need their ground game to be "average" to keep them on schedule, but obviously in the NFL, average running games often don't cut the mustard. While we have all been impressed with Mariota, this fact is especially true regarding teams with rookie QB's starting. It will be worth watching if this offensive line and running back group can make their mark and help out the rest of the offense. As we've seen in the past, closing out games is just as important as being able to tote the rock in the first quarter. They need to prove them can do that in Cleveland, a game in which they should be able to outscore the Browns.