It’s been a long 252 days since Blaine Gabbert coughed up a chance to send the Titans to the playoffs in Week 17, but we finally get a chance to wash some of that terrible taste out today. Going on the road to face the media darling Browns is a fitting way for the season to start for a team that is constantly overlooked or outright dismissed by those outside of Tennessee.
If you just listened to the various talking heads of the national media, you’d think the Titans were coming off three straight 4-12 seasons instead of three straight 9-7s. Mike Vrabel’s message to his team this offseason has centered around the mantra “good to great” and if this team is going to break through that glass ceiling of “good”, beating the Browns on the road to open the season would be a great first step.
Of course, that will be easier said than done. The Browns are media darlings for a reason — they possess some of the best young talents in the NFL in quarterback Baker Mayfield, running back Nick Chubb, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., pass rusher Myles Garrett, and cornerback Denzel Ward. If the Titans are going to take down Cleveland in what is sure to be a raucous FirstEnergy Stadium, they’ll need big contributions from the six guys below.
The fifth year quarterback is playing for his future in 2019 and everyone knows it. After four injury riddled seasons filled with inconsistent play, Mariota came back healthy, bulked up, and boasting an upgraded set of weapons around him on offense. Yes, there are some questions on the offensive line — especially during the four games the team will spend without Taylor Lewan — but most NFL teams have questions at a few spots on the offensive line. Mariota can help the Titans overcome them by getting the ball out on time and effectively moving in the pocket.
The Titans have won just one opener in Mariota’s first four seasons — his first opener against the Bucs when he announced himself to the NFL world with a scintillating 13 of 15 for 209 yards and 4 touchdown performance. That Sunday afternoon feels like a lifetime ago now, but it would be nice to see 8 remind us of that prodigious talent we saw carve up the Tampa Bay secondary in his debut.
Arguably the most important upgrade to the Titans offense around Mariota this year is the return of his favorite pass catcher, Delanie Walker. Walker had been selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons with Mariota at the helm before going down with a gruesome leg injury in last year’s opener.
Walker is now 35 years old, but he still looks like the dynamic athlete that Titans fans have become used to seeing flying up the seams. The trust that Mariota has in him is obvious and it makes a big difference in the Tennessee offense.
The next touchdown Walker grabs will tie him with Frank Wycheck for the most by a tight end in franchise history. That could happen today. He also has a chance to pass Wycheck in career receiving yards for a Titans/Oilers tight end by the end of 2019. Walker needs 751 yards through the air to pass Wycheck, a total he’s beaten in each of his last four healthy seasons.
Records aside, the Titans need Walker in Cleveland. One of the mismatches that most favors Tennessee is Delanie versus the Browns linebackers and safeties. His ability to win quickly and let Mariota get the ball out on time will be critical to negate the pass rush.
Another player who should help Mariota this year is free agent addition Adam Humphries. Humphries was a highly sought after slot receiver on the market this spring, but the Titans were able to secure his services despite a strong push from the Patriots.
After an impressive start to his career in Tampa Bay, Humphries now brings his dependable route running and hands to a Tennessee offense that has lacked dependability in recent years. He’s worked hard to develop a connection with Mariota throughout the offseason and the two seemed be on the same page often in training camp and preseason. Like Walker, Humphries’ ability to uncover quickly with his sudden style of route running will be critical to the Titans success. I would also expect the team to feature him on some wide receiver screens to slow down the pass rush and take advantage of his shifty run after catch skill set.
Humphries is expected to draw Browns corner T.J. Carrie in the slot on most plays and that matchup should be an advantage for the Titans.
We haven’t seen Landry on the field this season after the second year pass rusher sat out all of preseason. He did, however, get a lot of work in camp and looks noticeably bigger and stronger.
After a season in which the Titans got almost nothing from their edge rushers, Landry’s emergence in year two as a threat to opposing quarterbacks would give the defense a chance to go from good to great. He spent the offseason working hard on adding strength as well as developing new pass rush moves to compliment his trademark speed rush.
Today we will get to see how that work pays off. Landry should spend much of the day matched up with Browns left tackle Greg Robinson. The former second overall pick has been a major bust at the NFL level and is one of the worst starting tackles in the league. Baker Mayfield’s quick release will help Robinson, but Landry should have a chance to make some noise today.
Last year Butler had one of the stranger seasons a corner can have. He was absolutely roasted early on, giving up a handful of long touchdown passes, but he rebounded in a big way after the bye week, limiting opposing quarterbacks to the lowest passer rating in the NFL on throws into his coverage over the last 8 games of the season.
The question now becomes whether the Titans will get the early season Butler or the late season Butler in 2019. In this game, it would be particularly beneficial for the answer to be the latter as Tennessee will have their hands full with a talented Browns receiving corps. Butler has had success against Odell Beckham Jr. in the past and it will be interesting to see if the Titans choose to have someone shadow Beckham in this game.
The Titans will be starting Kelly at left tackle for the first four games while Taylor Lewan serves his suspension. Last season, Kelly was outstanding at right tackle, filling in admirably for an injured Jack Conklin and posting a top 20 grade among all tackles according to PFF.
He will draw a tough assignment today though. It’s unclear whether Myles Garrett or Olivier Vernon will spend more time lined up across from him, but both are threats. I’d expect the Titans to help Kelly as much as possible, but there are going to be times where the big fella needs to win one on one matchups against Garrett or Vernon. Whether he’s up to the task will go a long way towards determining the direction this game goes.