The Cleveland Browns will play their first home game of the 2015 regular season this Sunday as they welcome Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans to First Energy Stadium. The Titans are coming off of a dominating 42-14 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in week one, while the Browns lost their season opener by a score of 31-10 last week to the New York Jets. To make things more interesting, the Browns have announced that Johnny Manziel will be the starting quarterback for the home opener, as Josh McCown is still in the NFL’s concussion protocol and hasn’t been cleared to play.
If the Browns hope to emerge from Sunday’s game with their first win of the season and a 1-1 record, they will have to follow these keys to the game.
Establish the Run
The phrase “establish the run” will almost become a cliché for the Browns (if it hasn’t already) as the 2015 season marches on, but this Sunday is no exception for said cliché. Last week, the Browns failed to establish any sort of ground attack, albeit against a very stout Jets defense, as the offensive line and the running backs struggled all afternoon. While the Titans’ defense shouldn’t be considered a pushover, the ground game should be in for an easier day. Last week against the Titans, Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin rushed for 52 yards on 11 carries (a 4.7 yard-per carry average), meaning Isaiah Crowell and company should be able to find some success on the ground.
It is also important for the Browns to establish a strong running game to assist Manziel. While he did show some improvements last week (mostly in terms of being prepared, but he did make a few nice throws) a strong running game should go a long way to minimize the burden on his shoulders (and his elbow), and put him in a better position to succeed in the passing game (more on this later).
Tackle Bishop Sankey
Titans running back, Bishop Sankey, amassed 74 yards and 1 touchdown on 12 carries (6.1 yards per carry average) last week against Tampa Bay. While the Browns defense didn’t play the run very well against the Jets, they should be able to limit what Sankey can do on the ground provided they do one thing – tackle him immediately.
That might sound silly, but consider this. According to Pro Football Focus, last season Sankey finished the season ranked 14th among running backs (who received at least 25 percent of their team’s total offensive snaps) in yards after contact per rushing attempt, averaging 2.51 yards after contact. For comparison’a sake, Marshawn Lynch was the leader in this statistical category, averaging 2.96 yards after contact. Last week against Tampa Bay, 56 of his 74 total rushing yards came after contact, which equals 4.7 yards after contact per rushing attempt.
When speaking about Titans running backs it should also be noted that former Brown and current Titans running back, Terrance West, will also receive some carries (last week: 13 carries for 41 yards and 1 fumble lost) this week and will undoubtedly be “running angry”. If one was to place a bet on what game West has circled on his calendar and wants to have a big day in, this coming Sunday would be that day.
Set Johnny up for Success
As mentioned above, a strong running game on Sunday would go a long way to help Manziel. But Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo should also look to maximize something Manziel did well this past Sunday, at least statistically.
Overall, Manziel’s stat line last week read 13/24 (54.1 percent), 182 yards, 1 TD and 1 int. Not great. However, according to Pro Football Focus’ stats, Manziel did do something well. On passes that went for 0-20 yards over the middle and right side of the field Manziel had the following stat line – 11/16 (68.7 percent) for 113 yards and no interceptions. Now, that’s not going to get Manziel into the Pro Bowl, but it was good enough for an 88.80 passer rating.
According to the passing chart on PFF, the majority of these passing attempts, 12 of them to be exact, were “between the numbers” or over the middle of the field. On those 12 attempts, Manziel completed nine of them (75 percent) for 95 yards, good enough for a 97.56 passer rating. Now admittedly, this only looks at Manziel’s performance from a statistical standpoint and doesn’t take anything else into account (did me make an improper read or did his receiver help him out on a bad throw?) but some of the credit must go to Manziel here.
So, what does all that mean?
Getting back to the key here, the coaching staff needs to set Manziel up to succeed on Sunday. This can be done (in addition to running the ball) by putting together a game plan that simplifies things for Johnny in the form of quick hitting passing plays that don’t ask a whole of him with a safety outlet. This may potentially limit the “excitement factor” that seems to surround Manziel, but it will help the Browns offense drive up the field.
Hit a Big Play
Given the offensive strategy I’ve laid out here (strong running game with shorter, simple passes from Manziel) the phrase “big play” may seem a bit odd, but I feel it’s something that the Browns must do and should be able to do for a couple of reasons. First off, the offensive strategy will most likely cause the Titans defense to load up the box (if they weren’t planning on doing that anyway) to stop the run and possibly limit Manziel to hitting his check down/safety valve. This alone can provide an opportunity for a receiver to break loose for a game changing down the field play (ala last week’s 54-yard touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin).
The other reason that the Browns should not only look for an opportunity for a big play down field but try and make one happen, the Titans secondary is terrible and will (probably) be missing it’s best player in Jason McCourty. Once again according to Pro Football Focus, the 2014 Tennessee Titans pass coverage ranked 23rd in the league and while they may have played well last week against Tampa Bay, we are talking about a Buccaneers offense that was missing Mike Evans and was lead by rookie QB Jameis Winston. This Titans defense also gave up a 41-yard touchdown to Bucs TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, so there is already precedent for a big play. A strong running game and shorter, quick passes will be important for the Browns offense on Sunday to move the ball and control time of possession, but a game changing down the field play should also be part of the game plan as well.
The Titans aren’t loaded with talent but aren’t a team that can be taken lightly either. Defensively, they aren’t as stout as the Jets and certainly don’t have the same talent level in the secondary, but long-time Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau took his services to Tennessee this offseason, and he has pass rushing weapons at linebacker in Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan, as well as on the defensive line in Jurrell Casey. Despite this, if the Browns follow the above game plan (and I believe they will) they should come out on top by a score of 14-10.