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Attacking the Cleveland Browns

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NFL: Preseason-Cleveland Browns at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

The Titans kick off their season FINALLY on Sunday in Cleveland to take on 2019’s offseason champs.

Mike Herndon has written his own excellent breakdown of this match-up. Highly recommend you check out his SWOT Analysis if you haven’t yet.

Meanwhile, I watched all of the Browns 2018 games and a bunch of Steve Wilks in Carolina to try and find weaknesses and matchups the Titans can exploit on both sides of the ball in this game.

Titans defense against Browns offense...

If you prefer to hear your analysis instead of reading it, James and I discussed here:

The key to stopping the Browns will be containing Nick Chubb. Chubb is a powerful back who picks up yards after contact and falls forward.

After assuming offensive coordinator duties midway through last season, Freddie Kitchens began employing a quick passing game, with lots of quick outs and quick slants that allowed Baker Mayfield to quickly identify a target and get the ball out of his hand.

This and the short dumpoff game — screens, screens with misdirection, clear-out routes that leave the running back open underneath — are used as extensions to the running game. Kitchens worked in a lot of misdirection screens and moving parts on the offense to keep the defense guessing on where the play is actually developing.

The Titans defenders will need to stay assignment-sound and not let their eyes drift or else these misdirection plays will lead to big gains. It will be interesting to see how often Nick Chubb is used as a receiver with Duke Johnson traded away and Kareem Hunt suspended.

Kitchens often lined up four pass catching options to one side of the field, leaving a single receiver alone on the other side. This 4x1 set-up can attack both man and zone defenses. On the one hand, it creates a potential one-on-one matchup on one side of the field. If the defense rolls a safety to take away that one-on-one, it leaves 4 targets on the other side of the field. Those four targets can create confusion and potentially overload a zone defense.

The Browns didn’t have a player like Odell Beckham, Jr., to use as the single receiver in this 4x1 set last season. That only makes this spread look more dangerous this year.

Kitchens likes to play a lot of uptempo offense as well. Many times the ball was snapped with 25 or more seconds left on the playclock. The Titans defense will need to be ready to move quickly between snaps. The Browns obviously won’t run the entire game like this, but there will be plenty of drives focused on playing fast.

The Titans will need to bottle up the running game and play close to the line of scrimmage to keep Cleveland behind the sticks. Mike noted in his SWOT Analysis that Baker Mayfield wasn’t great in third-and-long situations last year, but more importantly in my opinion is giving the Titans defense a chance to take advantage of the Browns below average offensive line.

At center and left guard, the Browns are pretty solid. J.C. Tretter is an established veteran, and Joel Bitonio was a 2nd-team All Pro last season. However, the other three spots should have Titans pass rushers licking their chops.

Starting at right guard will be journeyman Eric Kush. As a 7-year vet, Kush has never been a full-time starter. Jurrell Casey should be matched up with Kush more often than not, which will force the Browns to help with the center.

At left tackle will be Greg Robinson. The former number two overall pick spent last season with Detroit before landing in Cleveland halfway through the season. He’s never managed to “figure it out,” so to speak. Opposite him will be Chris Hubbard, a career backup who has started exactly 10 games in 4 years.

On third-and-longs, the Titans will likely roll out a special pass rushing package that will see Rashaan Evans lined up as the 3T. Evans will likely take snaps rushing over both guards, whomever Casey is not matched up against. Getting pressure up the middle as Harold Landry, Sharif Finch, and Cameron Wake force Mayfield to step up in the pocket could create big problems for the Browns.

Cleveland likes to spread it out, but I expect them to mix in a good dose of play-action passes to work deep, because their offensive line will not be able to protect on standard long dropback pass plays that don’t attempt to slow down the pass rush.

Match-up wise, I think the Titans should line up Logan Ryan on Jarvis Landry. Ryan is a great matchup for Landry: he’s a very good tackler and he has excellent ball skills. Ryan can prevent Landry’s excellent run-after-catch ability and break up passes where Landry is usually a fantastic contested catch machine.

Malcolm Butler has a history matching up with Odell Beckham, Jr. As a Patriot against the Giants, Butler held Beckham to 2 receptions on 9 targets for 5 yards... after opening the game by allowing an 87-yard touchdown. Butler can play physically against Odell and unless he is repeatedly beat early on, I think Butler is a good matchup, with safety help to prevent the big play.

Adoree will play a lot of snaps, too, even if he isn’t on the field in base defense. I think he should match up primarily on Rishard Higgins. The Titans haven’t traditionally used cornerbacks to follow receivers outside of Adoree against Josh Gordon last season, but I think they would be wise to do so in this game.

Getting pressure on Mayfield will be the key. If the Titans linebackers play like they did against Saquon Barkley last year, they can stop Nick Chubb. Evans and Jayon Brown will also likely be used to blitz a good deal, as well.

Baker Mayfields’s strengths

Mayfield excels at getting the ball out quickly within the structure of the offense. Lots of quick passes with good accuracy make it difficult for a defense to get pressure.

The second-year quarterback also aggressively attacks downfield. This is a huge component of creating the big plays that the Browns excelled at a season ago.

Not only does Baker attack aggressively, he does so as he extends plays. He’s proficient at escaping the pocket and making things happen downfield. When he buys time, he is rarely looking to run. In fact he’s rarely looking short at all, typically pushing the ball towards the end zone after a play breaks down.

Baker’s weaknesses

There’s something I noticed about Mayfield throwing over the middle that he seems to struggle with at times, especially against defenses — both man and zone — that utilize robbers in the middle of the field.

Sometimes it feels like Mayfield just doesn’t see or understand the coverage. Other times, it feels like his passes travel with low, flat arcs over the middle, which can allowing linebackers the chance to knock them down. For whatever reason, robbers over the middle on slants and digs seem to give him trouble.

Mayfield loves to escape the pocket to his right. But he gets into trouble if you force him to roll left.

“When Mayfield was out of the pocket and moving to his right, he was an impressive 25-40 for 315 yards and threw four touchdowns to just one interception. When working to his left side, Mayfield was just 5-11 for 96 yards and two touchdowns, but he also threw two interceptions.”

Ultimately, if you can keep him in the pocket, he can start to get antsy.

Titans Offense Against Browns Defense

Again, if you prefer to listen rather than read, here is James and I discussing how the Titans offense can attack the Browns defense:

The Browns will likely be running new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks’ traditional 4-3 defense that operates mostly from a 4-2-5 nickel base.

Their defensive front is stout with Myles Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, Sheldon Richardson, and Olivier Vernon. Jack Conklin will likely be matched up with Vernon.

As Mike also pointed out in his breakdown, the best thing the Titans can do in this game is run right at the deadly pass rush. The Browns were not great at stopping the run, and while Morgan Burnette is a solid box safety, the Browns linebackers and secondary players had trouble with missed tackles all of last season.

As Cleveland writer Jake Burns notes...

Despite making 103 tackles in 13 games, the Browns’ middle linebacker Joe Schobert led the NFL in missed tackles with 24. Schobert led the NFL with a 9.8 percent missed tackle rate, and the defense felt the sting of the tackling issue as a whole.

I think the Titans should run right at him like they did in Week 15 against the Giants last year. Vernon will know what to expect from the Titans having just played them “four” weeks ago (in football time). It will be interesting to see if he lines up on the right side or left side - as Mike pointed out to me, last year both players took the majority of their snaps on the left side, so that will have to change for one of them.

Something odd that was pointed out by Paul Kuharsky and relayed by @FWordsPod was that on the initial depth chart, Garrett was actually listed on the right side with Vernon on the left. Letting Conklin match up with Garrett would probably help the Titans, as Conklin appears to be in a much better place at the moment than Dennis Kelly.

A staple of the Steve Wilks defense is often lining up his inside linebackers (the “2” in the 4-2-5) in the A Gaps pre-snap to disguise the defense. Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert will start many snaps here and either both drop, one will blitz, or they will both blitz the A Gaps hard.

Like Dean Pees, Wilks loves showing blitz with multiple guys at the line and then dropping some of them into coverage. This can make it difficult for the quarterback and offensive line to determine individual blocking assignments pre-snap.

Wilks LOVES to blitz. If you break down his tendencies by down from 2017 (passing plays only), the Panthers were first in blitz rate on first down (44%), third on second down (41%), and second on third down (48%). According to Football Outsiders, Wilks’ Panthers had the highest overall total blitz rate at 42.7% in 2017.

With no Taylor Lewan, the Titans will have to attack the Browns strong pass rush with a commitment to the running game and a good mix of screens, quick passes, and QB-rollouts.

In Wilks final season as defensive coordinator of the Panthers in 2017, they ran zone coverage on over 70% of pass plays, tops in the league.

What’s unknown is how much Wilks will remain in his base defense when the Titans go with 11 personnel. I expect the Titans to test this early on to find out what the Browns are doing.

With the Panthers, Wilks often remained in base defense and asked Shaq Thompson to cover slot receivers.

Beating Wilks’ quarters defense — supported by such a dangerous pass rush — will require a nice peppering of quick passes. I expect Adam Humphries to have the best matchup of any Titans receiver in this game. If the Browns don’t use nickel defenses against the Titans 11-personnel, which Wilks hesitated to do as his one year calling the shots for the Panthers defense, it will leave a linebacker or a safety to cover Humphries, and likely a similar matchup for Delanie Walker. Choice (or “option”) routes over the middle might be open all day against this defense.

A.J. Brown showed tremendous abilities to read zone coverage and adjust his routes on the fly at Ole Miss. Tajae Sharpe has also shown a propensity to get open against zone coverage.

Pass concepts that stress the flat corners will be key. The 4-2-5 quarters that Wilks likes to run can convert to man coverage for certain corners or safeties based on what routes the receivers run, or even their alignment pre-snap (like, for example, if a receiver is detached from the formation far enough). Running trips to one side can create those one-on-one matchups for the single receiver opposite the trips alignment. The Titans also favored a three-receiver set, all to one side of the field. This can be used to overload a zone while at the same time, running routes to the “open space” can make man coverage very difficult.

Corey Davis beat Stephon Gillmore when the Patriots tried to man him up all game. Denzel Ward is a talented cover corner who excels in man, so I expect the Browns to utilize his abilities and make him the guy that converts to man coverage most often. Whether or not Davis can win this matchup may determine how successful the Titans offense is.

Overall, though, the Titans and Browns offensive gameplans will likely look similar. Mitigate the overwhelming disadvantage both offensive lines face by staying committed to running the football, working the quick passing game, and utilizing play-action and screen passes to help the offensive line as much as possible.

The Browns have all the hype heading into this game, but I like the Titans’ match-ups in this one. As long as they can avoid complete disaster in pass protection on the level of the Ravens game last season, they should be able to move the ball.

Final score prediction: Titans win 20-17.