What you saw in Cleveland on Sunday was exactly what happens when one team gets lots of hype and a worthy opponent gets roundly ignored. The Titans bludgeoned the Browns 43-13 as they played with an aggressiveness the Browns failed to match, at least until after the game.
“Don’t ask me no questions like that,” Browns receiver Jarvis Landry hissed, when asked about whether Cleveland’s dud was a byproduct of a lack of preseason reps together.
Before we bury Cleveland, who is seeking a big turnaround heading into its Monday night matchup on the road against the New York Jets, it’s important to take a step back and look at why the NFL’s most-hyped offense struggled so much in the season opener.
So without further ado, the first item of my “Things I Noticed” weekly column of the 2019 NFL season is …
1. The Browns have protection issues and they’ll need to respond vs. a familiar face
The Browns got their asses kicked Sunday because they got their asses kicked up front.
Baker Mayfield had an uneven one touchdown, three interception performance as he was sacked five times and hurried seven times. It was a stark contrast to a year ago, when the Browns’ offensive line kept Mayfield from being sacked in five of the team’s last seven games.
I detailed this more in the video atop of this page. Most of the Titans’ pass rush came off the edge, especially when left tackle Greg Robinson — the starter during the Browns’ strong close to the 2018 season — was ejected in the first half.
Right tackle Chris Hubbard, the other bookend starter a year ago, took his place while Justin McCray slotted in on the right side. Between the two of them, they had a rough day, yielding multiple pressures and sacks.
The Browns also fell down by 20 points in the fourth quarter, allowing the Titans to tee off against the pass, which can make even the best line look foolish. So there’s enough blame to go around, as Mayfield was responsible for some of the sacks and pressures by holding the ball too long.
“I think he will continue to get better with his eyes and put his eyes in the right place,” Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens said. “He will continue to get better, and the ball will start coming out quicker.”
Things would have been different if Robinson didn’t get thrown out of the game, but the Browns’ protection issues deserve scrutiny going forward, especially with Monday’s road test looming against the Jets, who racked up nine quarterback hits in a loss against the Bills in Week 1. New York defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has never met a blitz he didn’t like and he has detailed knowledge of Mayfield’s habits as Cleveland’s interim head coach last season.
These days, the only thing that can sabotage a high-flying NFL offense is if the quarterback is being harassed too much. Here’s hoping, for the sake of one of the league’s most blustery (but interesting!) teams, that it doesn’t prove to be a long-term trend in Cleveland.
2. In a contract season, Sammy Watkins primed to fill Tyreek Hill void
Here’s a saying that has stood the test of time: the contract season is undefeated.
During my years as a beat writer covering the Kansas City Chiefs, I routinely saw players have career years in the final season of their deals. Justin Houston. Eric Berry. Dee Ford. And many more.
It’s worth noting that even though receiver Sammy Watkins has a year left on the three-year deal he signed before last season, Watkins is basically in a contract year, since his salary-cap number for 2020 is an unappealing $21 million. With a strong year, he’ll either have more leverage with the Chiefs for a restructure or be able to command more on the free agent market if he’s released.
So yeah, Watkins reported to camp in killer shape and showed it in the Chiefs’ season-opening win Sunday, torching Jacksonville for 198 yards and three touchdowns on nine catches, a few of which were even on the best young corner in football, Jalen Ramsey:
What’s more, Watkins showed as much elusiveness in the open field as he has in years, forcing three missed tackles, his most in a game, according to Pro Football Focus.
Watkins, 26, has the look of a receiver set for a career year, especially with the injury to the Chiefs’ No. 1 receiver, Tyreek Hill.
As long as Watkins stays healthy, and with Patrick Mahomes throwing him the rock, he can easily outpace his previous career highs in catches (65), yards (1,047) and touchdowns (nine) as the Chiefs’ offense keeps rolling while Hill recuperates from an injured clavicle.
3. Tyrell Williams, No. 1 receiver!
Any questions about whether Oakland’s offense would be better this year were answered during the Raiders’ 24-16 win over the Denver Broncos on Monday night.
Rookie running back Josh Jacobs looked elusive, rushing for 85 yards and a pair of touchdowns. What’s more, the man who has ascended to the Raiders’ No. 1 receiving option — free-agent wideout Tyrell Williams — caught six of seven targets for 105 yards and a touchdown. Here’s a look at all of his grabs, including an impressive 43-yard catch and a 24-yarder:
If Williams plays like that — and quarterback Derek Carr (completing 22 of 26 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown) remains as accurate — the Raiders will surprise a lot of people. The fact Oakland came out and played so well, so early, is a positive early sign that Gruden will avoid collateral damage to his rep after the Antonio Brown saga.
A solid offensive performance Sunday against a weaker Kansas City defense would only reinforce it.
4. The Denver showdown might not be as daunting for Mitchell Trubisky as we thought
Speaking of the Broncos, the Chicago Bears’ looming matchup against Denver looks a little more friendly after Denver’s defensive performance against Oakland.
They’ll need it to be, too. The Bears’ offense was inept in a 10-3 loss to Green Bay on Thursday, as third-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky — who completed only 58 percent of his passes for 228 yards and an interception — missed receivers all night and made some awful throws, including a doozy of an interception that ruined the Bears’ chances to tie the game late in the fourth quarter:
Listen, the Bears might indeed repeat as NFC North champs. Matt Nagy remains one of the best young offensive head coaches in football, so he’ll make adjustments and get Trubisky together.
They better hand the ball more to running back David Montgomery, who has a higher upside than Mike Davis, and let Trubisky use his legs more to get outside the pocket and make plays.
5. Taysom Hill is a football player’s football player
So I’m watching Saints-Texans on Monday night, minding my own business, and notice a player streak in from nowhere to nearly block the Texans’ go-ahead extra point with a minute left in the fourth quarter. Who was it? None other than backup quarterback Taysom Hill, who remains one of the most entertaining gadget players in the league:
On Monday night, Hill lined up at QB (rushing twice for 8 yards) and the slot (he was targeted twice, catching a 9-yard touchdown):
In all, Hill logged 15 offensive snaps and 23 special teams snaps. As Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh likes to say, it ain’t hard being a football player if you’re a football player. There’s zero doubt Hill qualifies for that distinction.
For more film analysis over the course of the week, check out my Snapchat (Terez_Paylor) on Mondays and Tuesdays.
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