Beatdown of the Browns -- the who, what, why and how
It was supposed to be a coming out party for the Cleveland Browns.
Instead, the Tennessee Titans came down hard on one of the NFL’s most talked about teams throughout the offseason and cruised to a 43-13 victory in the season opener Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium.
It was the franchise’s highest point total in a season-opener since 1991 when the then-Houston Oilers beat the then-L.A. Raiders 47-17 and the most points in any game since a 47-25 win at Green Bay on Nov. 13, 2016.
HOW IT HAPPENED
The Titans started slowly, built momentum throughout and were absolutely dominant at the finish.
They scored the final 28 points of the contest, including 21 in the fourth quarter when the defense intercepted three passes and forced two turnovers on downs. By comparison, Tennessee scored as many as 21 points in an entire game just once in the first seven weeks of 2018 and never had more than 17 in a quarter throughout the entire season.
The Titans won the turnover battle (they did not commit one), were the lesser penalized team (by a wide margin) and took advantage of big plays on a day when they were outgained 346-339 and converted just twice on third down.
WHY IT HAPPENED
The Browns were their own worst enemy much of the time. Cleveland was called for 18 penalties for 182 yards, which matched the franchise record for most penalties by a Tennessee opponent (Jacksonville also was called for 18 on Jan. 1, 2006). The 11-play, 87-yard touchdown drive that put the Titans ahead to stay in the second quarter included four flags against the Browns defense.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota was not spectacular but hit on a few big plays and managed to avoid any big mistakes. He finished 14-24 for 248 yards and three touchdowns, which made it the sixth time in 57 career appearances he averaged better than 10 yards per attempt (10.3, to be exact). The biggest play was a short throw that running back Derrick Henry turned into a 75-yard touchdown reception.
The defense shook off an opening drive in which it allowed the Browns to cruise 73 yards in eight plays for a touchdown. That unit yielded just five first downs on the next three possessions, the last of which ended with a safety, and finished with five sacks and three interceptions.
WHO MADE IT HAPPEN
Rookie wide receiver A.J. Brown had a notable NFL debut with three receptions for game-high 100 yards. He had a 47-yard catch in the first quarter and one for 51 yards in the third, both of which led to field goals.
Outside linebacker Cameron Wake had a memorable Titans’ debut with two and a half sacks, which gave him 100 ½ for his career. One was for a safety that increased the Titans’ early lead to six, 12-6, in the second quarter.
Cornerback Logan Ryan (pictured) was credited with a team-high eight tackles in addition to an interception (his first in two-plus seasons with Tennessee) and one and a half sacks. He was a particular force in the second half when Cleveland desperately tried to keep pace.
Henry scored a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown in the same game for the first time as an NFL player in what easily was the best Week 1 performance of his career (19-84, 1 TD rushing; 1-75, 1 TD receiving).
Jamil Douglas stepped in at right guard for Kevin Pamphile, who could not play because of a knee injury, and Dennis Kelly played the first of what is expected to be four games at left tackle while Taylor Lewan is suspended. The makeshift offensive allowed four sacks but hardly was overwhelmed by Cleveland’s dynamic defensive front, as many suspected might happen.
Tight end Delanie Walker silenced any lingering concerns about his return from an injury that cost him virtually all of 2018 with five receptions for 55 yards and two touchdowns. The last time he had two touchdown catches in a game was Dec. 20, 2015 at New England.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
The Titans have to prove that this was not a fluke. Recall that the last time they won their opener they did so in dominant fashion, a 42-14 victory at Tampa Bay in 2015 (Mariota’s first game). Then, it took two months before they won again.
Sunday, they will be at Nissan Stadium for the only home game among their first four, and it will be against a division rival that had its quarterback retire unexpectedly a couple weeks ago, the Indianapolis Colts. A win will make this the first time since 2008 (a season they went 13-3) the Titans start 2-0, including a victory against an AFC South team.