This week, the Cleveland Browns take on the Tennessee Titans in Week 6 of the NFL regular season. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
- One of the reasons that QB Marcus Mariota is getting the edge this week is because of his status: I would feel like I’m being too much of a homer if I ranked the former second overall pick as “even” with QB Cody Kessler, a third-round pick who has about 2.25 starts under his belt. Mariota has far better physical tools, but Kessler appears more savvy at this point when it comes to reading defenses.
- My hesitation in giving Tennessee the edge should be a big tipoff that Mariota has been productive enough over the first 17 starts of his career. He has all the tools -- the big arm, the threat to run (he had an 87-yard touchdown run in 2015), and is coming off one of the best games of his career. The big issue with Mariota is his decision-making. Through five games, Mariota was thrown five interceptions and lost two fumbles. The good thing is that he’s taking less sacks in 2016 and actually has a running game he can rely on.
- Kessler will get the start for Cleveland. Before his unfortunate safety that removed him from last week’s game, he engineered a touchdown-drive that inspired more confidence about his command of the offense.
- Health-wise, Kessler practiced in full on Thursday and Friday, so the team says he’s good-to-go. But I’m sure he’s still a bit sore, and Cleveland had some more shuffling on the offensive line this week. If something happens to Kessler again, then fellow rookie QB Kevin Hogan will make his debut. Veteran QB Josh McCown has already been ruled out for this Sunday’s game as he tries to work his way back.
- Browns running backs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson were at the top of the NFL prior to last week’s game against the New England Patriots. Now, we may know another reason why they struggled in Week 5: not only did Cleveland have another shuffling of players at center and right guard, but LG Joel Bitonio, one of the team’s best run blockers, was dealing with a foot injury that now has him on IR.
- Uncharacteristically, both Crowell and Johnson dropped passes on simple dumpoffs last week. Johnson’s led to an interception after the deflection. The Titans’ defense has done a very good job at shutting down running backs from being a factor in the receiving game.
- While the Browns still have a Top-5 rushing attack statistically, the Titans have leaped all the way up to the No. 2 rushing attack in the NFL, and it’s been sustained success after years of struggling for them. The last time the Titans had a solid rushing attack was way back in 2009.
- RB DeMarco Murray has seen a re-birth in Tennessee, and he’s back to his workhorse days from when he was with the Cowboys. How refreshing it must be for the Titans to not have to rotate through failed backs like Terrence West and Bishop Sankey, to no avail. Over the past two games, Murray is averaging 26 carries a game. He’s also the team’s leading receiver, averaging nearly 5 catches a game.
- Murray has 633 total yards on offense (461 rushing, 172 receiving) for 5 touchdowns. He's also averaging 5.0 YPC. When he’s not running the ball, the team has also found success with backup RB Derrick Henry, a second-round pick in this year’s draft. He has 34 carries for 151 yards (4.4 YPC). He hasn’t caught a pass in the last three games.
Wide Receiver / Tight End
- If you’re asking, “who are these guys?” when it comes to the Titans’ receivers, don’t worry: you’re not alone. Offensively, you're going to see the Titans use a lot of two- to three- tight end sets. If there was ever a week where Cleveland didn't need the nickel defense very often, this would be it.
- The Titans’ four contributing receivers are WR Rishard Matthews, WR Tajae Sharpe, WR Kendall Wright, and WR Andre Johnson. Of the four players, Sharpe is receiving the most playing time. He’s a fifth-round pick who has 18 catches for 189 yards on the season. The other three receivers will each see between 30-60% of the playing time.
- Johnson is the biggest name on the list, but he’s on the back end of his career. Still, the team values him as a reliable receiver who can still do good work in the red zone. He has 9 catches for 85 yards and 2 touchdowns. Matthews is a respectable receiver and has 16 catches for 212 yards and 1 touchdown. Wright returned to action two weeks ago, but has just 3 catches for 23 yards.
- The biggest threat for Tennessee is TE Delanie Walker. Despite being in his 11th season, he’s gotten more utilization with age. After a 1,000+ yard season in 2015, he has 16 catches for 225 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2016. We know how much tight ends have killed Cleveland this year, so they’ll have their hands full with another one this week.
- We saw Cody Kessler get a little more comfortable with WR Andrew Hawkins last week before he had to exit the game, which is a good sign. If Cleveland is able to get him in the slot this week, they might be able to exploit CB Brice McClain (more on that later).
- Terrelle Pryor’s utilization is always fun to watch, but Cleveland needs either WR Ricardo Louis or WR Rashard Higgins to start carving out a niche. Louis’ strength is supposed to be the deep ball, but quarterbacks haven’t been able to connect with him downfield yet. Higgins doesn’t even have a catch yet, go finding a way to get some more separation at the NFL level is key for him. It might just involve sitting down in zone coverage for a short gain — something to get him feeling good.
- The Browns are still a bit banged up at the tight end position. Starting TE Gary Barnidge was limited all week with a forearm/hip issue. Backups Randall Telfer and Seth DeValve remain out. TE Connor Hamlett caught a touchdown on his first NFL reception last week, and the team signed TE/FB Dan Vitale off the Buccaneers’ practice squad as insurance.
- The Titans' starting offensive line is: LT Taylor Lewan, LG Quinton Spain, C Ben Jones, RG Josh Kline, and RT Jack Conklin. If you recall, the Titans selected Conklin with the 8th overall pick after the Browns traded down. The deal has worked out great for Tennesee so far, as Conklin has been solid all around, particularly as a run blocker.
- Here is a nice snippet from PFF that explains just how good the Titans have been at the tackle positions:
Conklin is the league’s only right tackle to not surrender a sack or QB hit yet this season. The only left tackle to achieve this is Conklin’s teammate, Lewan. While the Titans’ scheme makes the tackles’ job a little easier, it is still impressive how well the pair of OTs have protected Mariota.
The rest of the Titans line is playing at a respectable level. Cleveland has faced several teams with some holes on the offensive line, but Tennessee isn’t one of them.
- The only starters left from a year ago for Cleveland are LT Joe Thomas and RG John Greco. That’s because LG Joel Bitonio was placed on IR this week with a foot injury that may require surgery. Thomas, Bitonio, and Greco were holding things together on the offensive line, and Bitonio was particularly good in run blocking this year. His loss will be evident.
- The Browns do get C Cameron Erving back this week. If I’m being pessimistic, I can say that the Browns had more stable play at the center position since his departure. If I’m being optimistic, we still want to use this season for evaluation purposes, so it’d be really nice if things just “clicked” all of a sudden one day for Erving. Alvin Bailey will move over to left guard this week.
- The Titans' primary three defensive linemen includes DE DaQuan Jones, NT Karl Klug, and DT Jurrell Casey as they operate from a 3-4 defense. DL Angelo Blackson will also see some work as part of the rotation, but overall, Dick LeBeau likes to keep the amount of players he uses up front to a minimum.
- Part of the reason LeBeau can go with a short rotation is the fact that Casey is a workhorse and one of the best defensive lineman in the NFL. Because the Browns have faced the Titans three straight years now, I feel like a broken record praising him. With Alvin Bailey at left guard and Cameron Erving at center, Cleveland should have some real concerns about their ability to contain him after doing a fair job against him in 2014 and 2015. Casey can generate a good pass rush from his position too — he had 7 sacks last year and has 2 already this year.
- One goal for the Browns this week should be to get DE Carl Nassib some more snaps. In his first game back (broken hand) last week, he was limited to just 34% of the snaps. Given the lack of an impact that DE Xavier Cooper has been having in my opinion, Nassib should be eating significantly into his playing time if his hand permits him to do so.
- We’ll see how the Browns’ defensive line handles Tennessee’s ground game this week, with my eyes keyed in on NT Danny Shelton. Shelton has graded well against the ground game, but he’s also had a lot of match-ups against teams with vulnerable centers. That isn’t quite the case this week. The Titans get the edge because of Casey’s individual dominance, and also because their depth is far more polished than Cleveland’s.
- The Titans’ starting linebackers are: OLB Derrick Morgan, ILB Wesley Woodyard, ILB Avery Williamson, and OLB Brian Orakpo.
- This might be the best pass-rushing duo the Browns will have faced this year. Orakpo is tied for third in the NFL with six sacks. PFF says that Orakpo has 21 pressures, which is the fifth most among 3-4 outside linebackers this year. His counterpart, Morgan, has two sacks, but together they can bring the heat.
- The Titans took OLB Kevin Dodd one pick after the Browns grabbed OLB Emmanuel Ogbah. He’s been a limited rotational player thus far, but does have one sack. At inside linebacker, Woodyard and Williamson have played at a higher level than usual, perhaps benefitting from the other talent around them.
- The Browns’ young defenders are scoring some positive marks from Pro Football Focus, but I’m still looking for more, and the edge rushers will have their hands full against a pair of solid offensive tackles this week. If my projection that Cleveland won’t need the nickel defense as much this week comes to fruition, then I’d really like to see OLB Joe Schobert get the bulk of the playing time opposite Ogbah.
- The main key this week for ILB Christian Kirksey and ILB Demario Davis is to finish tackles like they did last week against RB LeGarrette Blount. I’ve got them down as having four out of five decent games so far. The Titans get the edge because of their outside linebackers’ pass rushing abilities.
- The Titans' starting cornerbacks are Jason McCourty and Perrish Cox. Their starting safeties are Rashad Johnson and Da'Norris Searcy. Although McCourty is still a solid player, the secondary represents the area where Tennessee’s defense is still lacking.
- Earlier, I talked about a possible advantage for WR Andrew Hawkins against Titans nickelback Brice McCain. Here is why, courtesy of Pro Football Focus:
He has now allowed 15 of 20 targets when he is the primary man in coverage to be completed on the year, and QBs have a 147.9 passer rating throwing into McCain's coverage.
Cox has also been struggling mightily. I don’t know if the Titans will assign someone specific to Terrelle Pryor. If it is Cox, then I love Pryor’s upside in that one. If it’s Louis or Higgins, this is a chance for them to have a breakout performance.
- The Browns will get CB Tramon Williams back this week. I’ve made no secret that I don’t think Williams contributes much to the team at this point, and in his absence, I liked CB Jamar Taylor taking on the duel outside/nickel role. What I’d actually like to see Ray Horton do is stick with that this week: in three receiver sets, just but Williams back on the outside and let Taylor cover the slot.
- The safety position has gone down to “atrocious” levels in my opinion for Cleveland. I’m also not too keen about how the team has been utilizing them. Jordan Poyer should play deep, with Ibraheim Campbell or Derrick Kindred as more of an in-the-box of covering-the-safety type of role.
- Ryan Succop is the Titans’ kicker -- I didn’t even know he was still in the NFL before I saw his name on the depth chart. He is 6-of-7 on the year in field goals, and also missed one extra point.
- Brett Kern remains the Titans’ punter. Kern's average is exactly the same as Britton Colquitt's, but Kern's net average is the worst in the NFL because the coverage units have allowed two touchdowns this year. The Titans’ coverage on kickoff returns hasn’t been the best either, and Succop kicks a lot of returnable balls.
- CB Marc Mariani handles both kickoff and punt returns for the Titans. He is aggressive in attempting returns -- he's attempted 11 kickoff returns and 11 punt returns this season. That is 24 combined attempts as a team; compare that to the Browns, who have just 18 combined attempts.
This year, we are listing predictions for multiple staff members here at DBN.
Chris Pokorny: “I felt resigned to the fact that I’d be picking the Titans after the news of Joel Bitonio landing on injured reserve, but then I woke up Saturday and started to feel like I was in a more generous mood — maybe it has something to do with the Indians fever running through my veins.
Tennessee has pulled off two wins this year, but their secondary is a concern and Cleveland might be able to negate some of the Titans’ pass rush if they utilize Terrelle Pryor in the read-option again, and timely calls with Kessler in the playaction pass.
Marcus Mariota isn’t making the best decisions and I think Ray Horton will have something extra in the gameplan this week to account for how bad the defense has been at stopping tight ends. Cleveland’s been looking for a way to finish games, and this week it’ll come via a big defensive play in the fourth quarter.” Browns 24, Titans 20.
Matt Wood: “Browns struggle to slow down the Titans pass rush that is coming off their best performance of the season. This one is a slow burn with Tennessee pulling away.” Titans 31, Browns 14.
Jon Stinchcomb: “At this point, I don't feel confident picking the Browns to win until the prove me wrong.” Titans 27, Browns 10.
rufio: “Browns look good with Kessler until he gets hit and re-aggrivates his injury. We struggle to do anything on offense after he leaves the game. The defense eventually gives up as they become frustrated with the offense's futility.” Titans 34, Browns 17.
Mike Krupka: (Just a score) Titans 24, Browns 13.
Josh Finney: “Browns recover some of the offensive efficiency they showed versus Washington and Miami, but they struggle to stop the run game in the second half.” Titans 27, Browns 16.
Dan Lalich: “Both of these offenses are bad, and losing Bitonio certainly won't help the Browns move the ball any better. Still, I think we'll get a big TD play from, let's say, Duke Johnson and that will be enough to hang on for victory.” Browns 11, Titans 5.
Who do you think will win, Browns fans? Let us know in the comments section below!