First down: Another barrier to smash.
The changing of the Browns’ culture started last season when several barriers – historical and psychological – were knocked down. A simple victory after 19 consecutive non-wins, beating a division rival, a road win, multiple wins in a row, a division road win, winning a game in prime time on the road … they seem so simple now, but they were giant barriers at the time. Necessary steps in the path to relevance. This year brings new, higher mileposts, and it begins at the beginning. Winning a season opener. The Browns haven’t won a season opener since 2004. Current players say they had no idea about this drought. Just as well, but to understand their fan base they should know the history. The Browns are 1-18-1 in season openers since the team returned via expansion in 1999. That has translated to a 25-54-1 record over their first four games – the so-called first quarter of the 16-game season. Winning the first game sets the tone for the first month. A loss is not a death sentence. But a win gives a team twice as good chance of making the playoffs.
Second down: Finding Myles, missing Olivier.
Two members of the Titans’ offensive line have been limited in or missed a practice this week because of injuries. But the larger concern to them, of course, is the absence of three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan because of a performance-enhancing drug suspension. His replacement, Dennis Kelly, is a capable veteran reserve who has never started a game at left tackle. His first assignment is blocking Myles Garrett, who has been unblockable all summer and preseason and is determined to win defensive player-of-the-year honors in his third season. In what may be viewed as a precursor to a “breakout” season, Garrett has broken out of his soft-spoken image of late by authoring a hype essay for The Players’ Tribune declaring his team “here” and ready for big things, and by posing semi-nude for the ESPN 2019 Body Issue and stating, “I always want to look like a Grecian god.” The mismatch of this game on paper is Garrett v. Kelly. But Titans coach Mike Vrabel won’t let it come to that. He will use a second tight end, possibly MyCole Pruitt, to double Garrett and will also employ third-down back Dion Lewis to chip Garrett. All of which should leave one-on-one matchups for tackle Sheldon Richardson and end Olivier Vernon. The Browns also may counter by flipping Garrett and Vernon to opposite sides throughout the game. In any case, we see this Garrett-v-Kelly matchup as possibly a better opportunity for Vernon than Garrett to rack up a big sack day.
Third down: Smashing Henry.
Vrabel’s Neanderthal offensive philosophy is to pound 238-pound back Derrick Henry, complement that with quick, short, safe passes to new slot receiver Adam Humphries and, if successful, take an occasional strike downfield to vertical threat Corey Davis. When it all breaks down, quarterback Marcus Mariota can still keep alive a drive by running. But it all starts with Henry, who is a physical runner, like Nick Chubb, who has the quicks to bounce it to the outside edge. Henry did not play in the preseason, but not because of the bubble-wrap approach the Browns used to preserve, and conserve, Chubb. Henry missed a lot of practice with a calf injury. He did not appear on the Titans’ injury report this week, and Vrabel contended he is not concerned about Henry’s readiness. If nothing else, it’s not unreasonable to expect Henry to have stamina issues in the fourth quarter. He presents the first test of defensive coordinator Steve Wilks’ commitment to improve the franchise’s decades-old problem with the sport’s most basic fundamental – tackling.
Fourth down: Yin and yang.
The Browns’ kicking operation has been entrusted in the hands and legs of untested rookies Austin Seibert (kicker) and Jamie Gillan (punter and holder). This is the biggest risk taken by GM John Dorsey and coach Freddie Kitchens in the selection of their team. On a young team expected to challenge for the playoffs for the first time in 18 years, assigning one rookie to either of these important disciplines would be a minor risk. Putting two rookies in charge is a major risk. The divergent personalities of Seibert and Gillan may help each through some nervous times. Seibert is tightly-wound and almost solemn in his approach; Gillan, aka the Scottish Hammer, whose background is in rugby and soccer, is loosey-goosey and carefree, oblivious to the pressures of the job. While both players earned the trust of team and coaches with good performances in the last two preseason games, how they react to pressure situations will have a lot to say about the early portion of the season.
Prediction: Browns, 27-6.
My record: 9-6-1 (last year).