Any Given Sunday
The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Titans over Browns

Titans sack
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

The easy headline of Cleveland's stunning blowout at the hands of the Titans was one that picked up on the preseason storyline that the offensive line was maybe not quite as good as it seemed last season. Cleveland re-signed Greg Robinson and traded away Kevin Zeitler, and didn't address tackle or guard in a meaningful way in the offseason. Hopeful developmental tackle Desmond Harrison was released. Austin Corbett couldn't beat out Eric Kush for a starting job.

Then, against the Titans, the Browns had their depth tested. Robinson was kicked out of the game after kicking Kenny Vaccaro in the head, and backup tackle Kendall Lamm was hurt.

So it made some sense to see the pull of the storyline, and the Titans defense definitely made life somewhat uncomfortable for Mayfield with five sacks and 13 quarterback hits. But ... it doesn't quite all add up neatly like that.

Mayfield, per NFL Next Gen Statistics, had an average of 2.82 seconds to throw last week -- not top-10, but not far off from that. It was not remarkably different from the average time that Lamar Jackson had to throw last weekend on his way to running a layup drill on the overwhelmed Dolphins.

So what did happen? Well, it's a combination of things. Mayfield faced a game defense that threw some designer blitzes he hadn't seen before at him and asked him to handle it. He handled them poorly.

Mayfield hit the turf on this play because the Browns were max protecting and had no open options at the time of the throw that Mayfield could go to hot. Mayfield tried to scramble to buy time. He didn't succeed:

On this play, the Titans brought a cornerback blitz with Logan Ryan from the slot. The Browns never saw it coming, and neither did Mayfield:

Mayfield's accuracy was also shoddy. On two of his interceptions he was well behind the receiver he was targeting.

This is an important step in a young quarterback's development. Deshaun Watson spent the last six weeks of last season seeing slot cornerback blitz after slot cornerback blitz and having to learn to adjust to them. Without having spoken to Mayfield myself, he seems mentally tough enough to take this and learn from it. He was picked three times against the Texans last year and bounced back to play well over the last five games of the season.

There are other little nagging things here as a result of one of the most-penalized games Cleveland has ever seen. The Browns converted one third down on the game and got another via a Titans penalty. The average third down came with 12.3 yards to go. One of the interceptions came on second-and-14. That's going to put any quarterback in the pressure cooker. If there is one thing to be worried about, it's probably in offensive design. Freddie Kitchens is a first-year head coach, and what the Browns put on the field on Monday seemed to develop a little too slowly on a play-to-play basis. Perhaps Todd Monken should get more involved in the play-calling process.

Where the Game Swung

EdjSports GWC

The biggest play of the game per EdjSports Game Winning Chance was the screen pass to Derrick Henry that went 75 yards to the house. That upped Tennessee's chances of winning from 60.8% to 80.3%. The touchdown that Cleveland had scored just before, on a pass to David Njoku, was the first and only time in the second half that the Browns had more than a 30% chance of winning the game. It lasted exactly one play.

By the VOA

By the VOA
CLE -29.5% 15.5% 5.8% -39.2%
TEN 25.5% -34.8% 5.2% 65.4%

Not a lot of interesting commentary to be told by the VOA: by the numbers the Titans handily won on both sides of the ball.

The Early Arthur Smith Returns

It isn't like Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith was playing coy.

In his first press conference after being named OC, Smith pledged to get Derrick Henry the rock and try to emulate the success the Titans had with that in the last six weeks of the 2018 season. Fourteen different first-and-10 plays started with the Titans handing it off to either Henry or Dion Lewis. Despite how good Henry was, it wasn't a consistently good strategy for the Titans. They had eight separate unsuccessful first-down running plays.

But the salve to that was that Marcus Mariota ran a ton of play-action on first down out of run formations, and that was where the Titans made hay in this game. Per my layman's count, the Titans used play-action on a little under half of their passing plays. Almost every big play in the passing game came off of it.

The big play that got Tennessee a field goal to go up multiple scores came off of it:

The touchdown that all but sealed this game came off of it:

Even throwing out Henry's huge 75-yard screen catch for a touchdown, the Titans made a ton of free yardage off of just going to play-action.

They needed it, because without the play-action, Mariota was even more hurried than Mayfield. Mariota looked skittish at times, and he didn't deal well with resetting after that pressure. Almost none of Tennessee's passing production came out of a typical passing game structure.

That sets up the Titans, at least from what we've seen so far, as a true game-script team. Give them the ability to throw off play-action and ride Henry, and they'll make your life miserable. Give them the ball down 10 and ask Mariota to lead a comeback? That's an area we still need to know more about.

Still, in a league where play-action is quickly becoming a tell for who knows how the game is played, it is a positive sign for the Titans that Smith showed this kind of touch early on. Nobody is going to want to deal with this offense on first-and-10, and the play-action acting as a tendency-breaker is frightening.


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