After months of waiting regular season NFL football is finally here! This year I want to take a slightly different approach to previewing games. SWOT analysis is a method of study often employed by organizations as a framework for strategic decision making. The term “SWOT” is simply an acronym for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. We will use that format to breakdown the Browns matchup this week.
1. Titans secondary
There are some metrics that don’t love what the Titans pass defense did last season — Football Outsiders DVOA had them as just the 21st best pass defense in the NFL — but there are others that do:
- 9th in the NFL in completion percentage allowed
- 8th in the NFL in yards allowed per pass attempt
- 8th in the NFL in opponent passer rating allowed
- 8th in the NFL in net yards per passing attempt (factors in lost yards due to sacks)
- 6th in the NFL in total passing yards allowed
- 3rd in the NFL in total passing touchdowns allowed
Regardless of which stats you choose to believe, I feel strongly that the secondary was a clear strength of this roster last year. Kevin Byard, Kenny Vaccaro, Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler, and Adoree’ Jackson are all back together again this year along with defensive coordinator Dean Pees and secondary coach Kerry Coombs. That continuity figures to be helpful for a unit that requires excellent communication and coordination to be successful.
The Titans are also adding fourth round pick Amani Hooker to the mix. He has been very good in camp and preseason action and gives the coaching staff a lot of flexibility with some “big nickel” and “big dime” packages that I think we will see added to the defense this year. It’s a talented and deep group that should be as good or better than they were last season.
2. Titans inside linebackers
Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown, and Wesley Woodyard give the Titans one of the most talented and diverse groups of off-ball linebackers in the NFL. Woodyard, after leading the Titans in tackles each of the last two years, figures to take a step back this year into more of a rotational role. While it’s fair to say that he’s begun to slow down a bit heading into his age-33 season, the primary driver for his expected reduction in snaps has been the emergence of Evans and Brown.
After playing as a rotational coverage linebacker during his rookie season, Brown enjoyed a true breakout year in 2018. He finished the season second on the team in tackles (97), second on the team in sacks (6), 2nd on the team in tackles for loss (8), 3rd on the team in quarterback hits (10), 5th on the team in passes defensed (6), and tied for the team lead in forced fumbles (2). Pro Football Focus rated him as the ninth best off-ball linebacker in football last year. Brown is, quite simply, a playmaker. He has tremendous speed and athleticism, but his football instincts are what make him special. I believe Brown is the best NFL player that casual fans have never heard of.
Joining Brown in the starting lineup this year is 2018 first round pick Rashaan Evans. Evans started slow last season after dealing with a nagging hamstring issue that cost him all of training camp and preseason. However, the light clicked on for the Alabama product around midseason and he was outstanding from that point forward. Evans is the thumper of the Titans linebacking corps, capable of shocking offensive linemen with his heavy hands while also possessing the speed to run sideline to sideline. He also offers some ability as a pass rusher on passing downs.
Evans and Brown are one of the better linebacker duos in the NFL right now.
3. Titans... pass catchers?
I know... this felt strange to even type, but I think the Titans pass catchers are going to be a real strength for the team this season. Delanie Walker is back and has looked like his old self during camp and preseason. The connection that Marcus Mariota has with him is unique and I think his return will be a big boost to his quarterback’s confidence.
Corey Davis started to emerge as a legitimate WR1 last year. Looking at his volume stats don’t tell the whole story, in an offense that passed the ball a league average number of times, Davis would have finished with over 1,200 yards at his production rate. The tape showed a guy with elite physical tools who was starting to put it all together despite having little help from his supporting cast. In camp, Davis stole the show early on, turning in a red hot stretch that featured spectacular catches at least once a day.
This year Davis won’t have to be the lone dangerous Titans pass catcher. In addition to the return of Walker, the team also signed former Bucs slot receiver Adam Humphries and drafted A.J. Brown with the 51st overall pick. Humphries gives Mariota a Walker alternative in the middle of the field and is the type of receiver that quarterbacks can trust to get open and be in the right spot at the right time. He’s also pretty good with the ball in his hands after the catch.
Brown is a big-bodied receiver at 6’-0” and 226 pounds, but he’s got quick feet and good speed to go with that linebacker’s build. His best attribute is his natural ball skills and ability to track passes in the air. After being hampered with an injury early in camp, Brown has ramped up activity in recent weeks and flashed some of his skill set during the second and third preseason games. I would expect Tajae Sharpe to get the “start” as the Titans third wide receiver, but don’t be surprised if Brown plays a good number of snaps.
1. Titans right guard & left tackle
The Titans are lucky to have Dennis Kelly. When Jack Conklin went down last season, Kelly stepped in at right tackle and played excellent football, finishing the season as PFF’s 18th ranked tackle. He’s among the best backup swing tackles in the NFL. However, he’s not Taylor Lewan. I can’t imagine Kelly being a total disaster on the level of a Will Svitek versus J.J. Watt situation or anything remotely close to that, but he’s going to need help handling Myles Garrett and/or Olivier Vernon this weekend.
At right guard, Kevin Pamphile is set to get the start after holding off Jamil Douglas and Corey Levin during a preseason position battle. He’s a replacement level player though and I’d imagine the Browns will look to get Sheldon Richardson lined up over him as much as possible on pass rush downs. The Titans will need Rodger Saffold to play like an 11-million-dollar guard this week, because center Ben Jones is likely going to need to keep his eyes on Pamphile in that matchup.
2. Titans pass rush
The Titans pass defense was good last year in spite of their pass rushing counterparts. Starting edge rushers Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan — both now retired — famously combined for two sacks over their combined 26 starts last season and the team really struggled to get pressure without blitzing.
The team is hopeful that Harold Landry will continue to progress in his second season and brought in veteran pass rusher Cameron Wake in free agency. The question is whether that will be enough to take this group where it needs to go. Landry was held out of all four preseason games — at first for maintenance, but later for an injury — and we saw just ten snaps for Wake so we have no idea whether those two will be able to combine with Jurrell Casey to create enough pressure on opposing QBs this season. I’m optimistic, but until we see it happen, this has to be listed as a weakness.
3. Field goal kicking?
The Titans put Ryan Succop on IR this week and signed former Bucs kicker Cairo Santos. Santos has been a pretty accurate kicker in his five year NFL career, checking in with a career mark of 83.2%, but he doesn’t have a big leg so long field goal attempts are probably not going to be on the table as much as they might have been with Succop.
I don’t think Santos is a huge downgrade from Succop in the accuracy department, but if the Titans need a late field goal to win the game this Sunday, those extra few yards of leg may be missed.
1. Establish the run
I’m not generally a huge “establish the run” proponent — I firmly believe that passing attacks win football games in the modern NFL — but I might make an exception in this game. The Browns defense is built to defend the pass. They have an elite edge rusher in Myles Garrett, a few other very good pass rushers in Olivier Vernon, Larry Ogunjobi, and Sheldon Richardson, and one of the best young corners in the game in Denzel Ward.
Where the Browns struggle is defending the run. Last season, Cleveland ranked 28th in rushing yards allowed, 31st in rushing touchdowns allowed, 24th in yards per attempt allowed, and 25th in run defense DVOA. By any metric, this team struggled to stop the run.
The Titans finished last season as the hottest rushing offense in the league down the stretch as Derrick Henry’s breakout December almost pushed them into the playoffs after a 5-6 start. The entire offseason narrative surrounding Henry has been whether or not he can pick up where he left off. With a calf strain keeping the big back out of the first couple weeks of camp and no preseason action to evaluate, it’s impossible to know if Henry — and the Titans offensive line — can return to that level.
It’s fair to expect a drop off in play along the offensive line with Lewan being out, but there are reasons for optimism here as well. Rodger Saffold is an ideal fit for the zone blocking scheme that Arthur Smith is carrying over from last season, Jack Conklin looks like he’s returned to his All-Pro form based on early returns, and even Kevin Pamphile should be an upgrade when it comes to run blocking compared to Josh Kline.
The best way to slow down an elite pass rusher is to keep him off balance and prevent him from being able to pin his ears back and rush. It will be critical for the Titans to stay ahead of the chains in this game and that means that being able to have success with the run on early downs is a must. Forcing Garrett, Richardson, Ogunjobi, and Vernon to eat a few run blocks and then building the passing game off play action can slow those guys down and give Mariota time to find his upgraded targets downfield.
2. The Browns offensive line
There has been a lot of talk heading into this game about how the Titans offensive line will hold up against Myles Garrett and the Browns front four, but the Browns offensive line is in even worse shape heading into this game. Cleveland is solid at left guard and center with Joel Bitonio and J.C. Tretter, but after trading away stalwart right guard Kevin Zeitler to land pass rusher Olivier Vernon, the other three starters range from terrible to below average. Left tackle Greg Robinson and right guard Eric Kush are proven liabilities. Right tackle Chris Hubbard is a replacement level player.
Whether the Titans can take advantage of a highly suspect offensive line is one of the keys to this game. It’s not only about getting after Baker Mayfield either. If Tennessee’s front can control the line of scrimmage and bottle up explosive Browns running back Nick Chubb, that will go a long way towards helping them find success. While Mayfield was excellent last year, he wasn’t particularly good on 3rd and long situations. When facing 3rd and 6-plus, the Browns ranked 25th in the NFL in success rate according to Sharp Football Stats.
Getting Cleveland in 3rd and long will also give the Titans pass rushers a chance to take advantage of the suspect Browns offensive linemen. If Jurrell Casey, Harold Landry, and Cameron Wake can get some opportunities to pin their ears back on obvious passing situations, I suspect they’ll have some success in this one.
3. Delanie Walker vs Browns linebackers and safeties
It’s hard to overstate exactly how much the Titans offense missed Walker last year. Yes, they were able to find some production from Jonnu Smith, Anthony Firkser, and MyCole Pruitt late in the season, but tight end was a virtual black hole for the offense until Week 9.
Walker is back and highly motivated this season. Beyond that, he’s got more help than he’s had at any other point in his time with the Titans. Corey Davis and Adam Humphries will require some attention from the Browns defense and should give Walker some favorable one on one matchups against a group of linebackers and safeties that are generally suspect in coverage outside of Joe Schobert.
Schobert plays the Mike position in the Browns defense so I wouldn’t expect him to draw Walker in coverage. It’s more likely that those duties will fall to Christian Kirksey or Morgan Burnett in this game. That’s a matchup the Titans should like quite a bit when they get it. I’d expect new offensive coordinator to have some packages dialed up that are designed to get Walker one on one in space against this defense.
1. Baker Mayfield’s explosive plays
From Week 3 on — when Mayfield took over as a starter — the Browns ranked fourth in the NFL in explosive plays and were one of just four teams to rank in the top ten in both explosive runs (tenth) and explosive passes (fifth) per Sharp Football Stats. And that was on a team that didn’t feature Odell Beckham Jr., one of the most explosive receivers in the league.
This is a bit of a strength on strength matchup as the Titans defense ranked third and seventh in the league in preventing explosive plays, a nod to star safety Kevin Byard’s influence. Tennessee must keep the Browns from creating chunk plays in this game.
2. Myles Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, Sheldon Richardson, and Olivier Vernon
We’ve talked about this group a good bit already, but if you want to play out the worst case scenario for the Titans offense in this matchup, it revolves around the Browns defensive line taking over the game and making life miserable for Marcus Mariota. Garrett is obviously the ring leader, coming off a 13.5-sack season, the former first overall pick is developing just like most expected he would. His blend of size, speed, and strength can overwhelm opposing tackles.
The other three are no slouches either. Ogunjobi is coming off a successful sophomore season when he had 5.5 sacks from his defensive tackle spot, Richardson had 4.5 sacks with the Vikings last year, and Vernon had 7 sacks with the Giants. While none of these guys are elite game-wreckers like Garrett, they’re dangerous enough to cause problems, especially when teams direct extra attention to #95.
If I was Arthur Smith, I would try to slow this group down with the run game, screens, and play action off the run game as much as possible.
It’s going to be tough for the Titans coaching staff to have a good grasp on what the Browns are going to look like on both sides of the ball going in. There have been significant changes in Cleveland on both the coaching and personnel fronts. Bringing in OBJ, Vernon, Richardson, and Morgan Burnett while shipping out Zeitler and Jabrill Peppers changes the make up of the talent on both offense and the defense.
The bigger issue here is that the Browns have a head coach that has exactly eight games under his belt as a playcaller at any level of football. Those eight games obviously came in an interim capacity after Cleveland fired Hue Jackson in the middle of last season. He had tremendous success as a playcaller in that stretch, but it’s hard to say how much he might tinker with the offense this offseason. Kitchens did bring in Air Raid practitioner Todd Monken to be his offensive coordinator, though the head coach is retaining playcalling responsibilities. This offense is a bit of a mystery heading into 2019 and it will be exceedingly tough for the Titans coaching staff to have a good read on tendencies with such a small sample size of data to work from.
It’s a similar story on the other side of the ball as well. New Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has exactly one season of defensive playcalling to study — his 2017 season in Carolina as defensive coordinator under defensive head coach Ron Rivera. Last season, as the head coach in Arizona, Wilks entrusted those duties to his defensive coordinator, Al Holcomb. That means it’ll be very hard to peg exactly what the Titans should expect from him in certain situations as well.
This is going to be a situation where in-game adjustments are critical. The Titans will surely have a plan in place, but Mike Vrabel and his staff must be ready to change and adapt quickly if the Browns come out with some unexpected looks.