Layman: Slow start dooms Titans, raises questions

Browns Titans Football
Posted at 5:55 AM, Dec 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-07 06:55:34-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A forgettable start, a memorable second half rally and a final score that announced one team is for real and the other one may be a little less of a sure thing as we thought. The Browns not as close as it sounds 41-35 victory over the Titans Sunday at Nissan Stadium turned heads around the NFL, and opened eyes in Tennessee to the continuing issues with the Titans and how they could haunt them down the stretch of the season.

In a game Cleveland had clearly circled as a chance to prove that its 8-3 start to the season was no fluke, Kevin Stefanski further cemented his candidacy for coach of the year honors with a creative game plan that saw his team score a franchise-record 38 points in the first half while building a 31-point lead against a Tennessee team that was outcoached, out executed and lost its composure as things went south.

The Browns entered with the NFL’s top rushing attack, but rode the hot arm of Baker Mayfield in the first half. The third-year signal caller threw for 290 yards and four touchdowns in the opening 30 minutes, taking advantage of a beleaguered Titans’ secondary to join Otto Graham in 1951 as the only other Cleveland QB to toss for four scores before half.

Cleveland scored on all six of its first half possessions, going 66 yards in eight plays for an opening possession field goal before scoring touchdowns on their final five possessions.

The Titans didn’t help themselves. On their opening possession, Derrick Henry and a pass to Corey Davis quickly moved the ball into Browns’ territory for a third and one play. Instead of just pounding forward with the NFL’s leading rusher, offensive coordinator Arthur Smith elected to try a play-action throwback to backup offensive lineman Aaron Brewer. It was open briefly, but Brewer was unable to secure the catch as he was tackled to the ground. Then on fourth and one, the Titans ran Henry out of a shotgun formation and he was stopped just short (or so the officials’ spot said) of the first down. It was a big missed opportunity to start a game that figured to be an offensive track meet.

Perhaps feeling the affects of that after the Browns marched down the field to take a 10-0 lead on Mayfield’s first TD toss, a two-yarder to Jarvis Landry, Henry then fumbled on the first play of the next drive as he was trying to make something happen against the backfield penetration of big Sheldon Richardson. It was Henry’s first fumble since Dec. 1, 2019 in Indianapolis and set Cleveland up with a short field it was able to capitalize on with a successful tackle-eligible pass to big Kendall Lamm.

Frustrations grew as the Titans surrendered conversions on seven of eight first downs and the deficit ballooned from 17-0 to 38-7 before half. The 38 points allowed by Tennessee was its most in any game this year. It was so bad many of the team’s supporters took to Twitter at halftime to suggest that they should wave the white flag and pull key players like Henry, Ryan Tannehill, A.J. Brown and others to ensure their health for the final four weeks of the season.

Credit to the Titans for regrouping and actually making a game of it in the second half. Tannehill threw for 389 yards and three touchdowns. Davis continues to step up and show he can be a consistent playmaker now that he’s fully healthy. The fourth year wide out set career highs with 11 receptions and 182 yards on 12 targets. And tight end MyCole Pruitt scored on the first two possessions of the third quarter, catching a 22-yard strike and recovering a fumble by Brown at the one-yard line before falling into the end zone to cut the deficit to 31-21.

But the awful first half meant the Titans had to be nearly perfect to dig out of the hole, and they couldn’t quite do it. Once again, the defense failed to get off the field on a key third down after they had clawed their way back to within striking distance. After forcing Mayfield into a rare mistake with an intentional grounding penalty, the Browns faced third and 12 from their own 23. But Mayfield got plenty of time to survey the field and hit tight end Austin Hooper right at the sticks for what would eventually be a 16-yard gain. Nick Chubb then broke the Titans’ backs with his biggest run of the day, a 29-yard jaunt that set up a field goal that pushed the lead back up to 20.

The Titans still maintained hope as they drove down the field once again, converting one fourth down via penalty and another on a terrific catch by Cameron Batson along the sideline. But Adam Humphries, playing his first game in over a month following a nasty concussion, bobbled a pass inside the 10-yard line that turned into a M.J. Stewart interception that all but ended Tennessee’s comeback hopes.

The defense did hold the Browns to just that one field goal in the second half and the offense tacked on two more fourth quarter touchdowns, including Batson’s leaping 13-yard grab with :28 left after Kenny Vaccaro returned a fumble 53 yards when Mayfield fumbled a QB sneak trying to run out the clock. But it was all too little, too late.

The pessimistic point of view would say the Titans were completely outplayed by the Browns when it mattered Sunday. The optimists out there will say that they didn’t pack it in and simply ran out of time in the fourth quarter. There’s a little bit of truth to both thoughts, but the bottom line is it’s a loss that takes away the team’s margin for error.

Tennessee still holds the tiebreaker advantage over Indianapolis, which is also now 8-4 after a win in Houston Sunday, based off the two teams’ record within the AFC South. But the Titans will have to finish strong over their final four games to wrap up their first division crown since 2008.

And that begins with a much better start next week in Jacksonville than the one that doomed them Sunday.