Arthur Smith entered Cleveland understanding that his offensive line would be overmatched.
Myles Garrett would incinerate left tackle Dennis Kelly if given a fair chance. Olivier Vernon would do similar to Jack Conklin on the right side. The interior wouldn't be as much of a problem, but still a problem. Both Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson presented mismatch opportunities for the Browns defensive line. Smith understood that if he came out and called an expansive passing game, that would likely lose the game for the Titans.
So the offensive coordinator devised a gameplan to prevent Garrett and company from wrecking the game. It would be purposeful, rigid and would require Smith to show discipline and patience to stick to play designs even when they didn't gain good yardage. The intention was neuter the Browns' best chance of winning the game before then finding a way to win it yourself.
On the opening drive, Mariota executed a bootleg play fake away from Garrett that left Vernon unblocked by design, Mariota ran past Vernon in space before connecting with Delanie Walker. They followed up that play with a run directly at Garrett and then another hard play fake away from Garrett. This time the Browns defense anticipated Mariota bootlegging into the flat but instead he executed an initial bootleg action before settling in the center of the pocket.
As Mariota settles in the pocket, there are three backside edge defenders waiting for him to run into the flat. Meanwhile, Garrett has drifted with the offensive line and has two blockers in front of him so he is not relevant to the outcome of this play. When Mariota looks downfield, he can only has two receivers to throw to. The Titans have prioritized shutting down the pass rush and traded off Mariota's options in routes downfield to do so.
But it's been done intelligently. This three play sequence concludes with AJ Brown catching a deep ball down the left sideline when the safety overplays the opposite side of the field anticipating the bootleg.
Smith didn't get carried away. He immediately went back to a run with Henry up the middle that involved a fullback pulling against the grain of the offensive line to trap Garrett. These plays are putting Garrett in a reactive mindset, he can't just explode upfield and expect to find space.
On the ensuing second down, the Titans use a straight dropback from shotgun for the first time. The failed run means this play occurs behind the down-and-distance.
It's Second-and-11. This is prime pass rush opportunity for the Browns defensive line. They're hoping to explode upfield and penetrate the pocket to pressure Mariota. Garrett has a receiver aligned tight to the formation, directly in front of him in his wide alignment. The point of that wide alignment is to stress the offensive tackle wide so he's forced to play in more space. More space makes it easier for the pass rusher to win.
That space is taken away by the receiver initially engaging Garrett. The sole purpose of this is to slow Garrett down. Kelly can't match his quickness off the snap, so the receiver stops Garrett while Kelly sets himself up in his stance. But that chip isn't all Smith gives his left tackle. He also has his running back release past the outside shoulder of Kelly, Garrett sees that and has to react to it.
Garrett can't simply focus on Kelly and accelerate to close the space, he's got to be wary of taking a hit from the running back so he hesitates for a split second. While all this is happening, Mariota is reading the coverage from a clean pocket. The quarterback is releasing the ball at the point Garrett is only setting up his pass rush.
What Kelly did on this play was almost irrelevant.
Just because Garrett is getting so much attention it doesn't mean Vernon gets an easy play. The Titans don't give their right tackle any direct help but they force Vernon to hesitate off the snap with their alignment. The triple bunch means Vernon can't take a wide alignment and explode off the edge. The way the tight end releases into his route also gets into Vernon's initial space so he takes a wider route to engaging the right tackle.
Vernon explodes into Jack Conklin, as does the left side defensive tackle who is double teamed, meaning that Conklin is immediately on the ground when he's contacted. But it doesn't matter because of play design.
A further note here is the play of left guard Rodger Saffold. Saffold, the former offensive tackle turned left guard, is able to contain Larry Ogunjobi at a distance. He shows precise, active hands while moving his feet to maintain his power. Ogunjobi can't get near Mariota despite being the defender who is given the advantage by design.
Ogunjobi isn't a bad player by any measure. He's closer to an emerging star than just an average starter. But Saffold is the one high-quality player on the Titans offensive line. He was paid huge money to make plays such as this one and solidify the team's pass protection.
But due to some questionable route running downfield, Mariota's only open option was a two-yard throw. That sets up a Third-and-9, again favoring Garrett and Vernon.
Garrett moved to the left side to work against Conklin. The Titans came out with no tight ends or receivers close to either tackle. So the ends knew they could accelerate off the line. Conklin does a good job of getting wide in his pass set to encourage Garrett inside. The Titans want Garrett to come inside so they can throw the screen in behind him.
This screen likely would have had a chance to get a first down. The problem is Dion Lewis dropped the ball.
Again, Garrett didn't get any opportunity to impact this play outside of the actual play call. This was the totality of the Titans first drive. They didn't score a touchdown, they kicked a field goal, but the defensive line was already being slowed. They were being shown different looks, treated differently on different snaps and never got a chance to tee off as pass rushers.
The first drive of the game is always the pre-planned drive. It reflects how the offense wants to approach the game as a whole. But being an offensive coordinator isn't easy and you can't script the whole game so often teams don't stick with the overall philosophy for four quarters. That was a major problem for Freddie Kitchens in this very game.
Kitchens asked Mayfield to be a dropback passer and make reads over and over again without running the ball or setting up easy reads that created opportunities for short throws that turned into big gains through YAC. Smith stuck rigidly to his gameplan. This was showcased by Derrick Henry's role.
Henry had 19 carries for 84 yards and a touchdown. An efficient 4.4 yards per attempt. But his first four carries gained three yards and he had nine carries that gained two or fewer yards (not including his one-yard touchdown run). Outside of his two longest runs, Henry's yards didn't come easily either. Smith had to show patience to continue to run the ball when there weren't big rewards statistically.
On that second drive of the game, Vernon gave Smith a reason to stick to his gameplan in an obvious passing situation.
This isn't exactly a wide open play call from the Titans offensive coordinator. He keeps his running back in to pick up any blitzing linebackers and gives Kelly a chipping tight end to help at left tackle. Vernon uses that contact to his advantage, absorbing it to move himself inside before exploding past Kelly's inside shoulder.
Kelly was badly exposed, his lack of physical talent relative to Vernon was made obvious.
Vernon is immediately in Mariota's face and against most quarterbacks he'd come away with an easy sack. But through a combination of awareness and quickness, Mariota is able to react to the defender and set himself up to accelerate away. He crosses the line of scrimmage to gain five yards on Third-and-13.
13 of Mariota's 24 pass attempts came with at least one extra blocker staying in pass protection. Twice Smith used a seven-man protection and twice he used an eight-man protection. There were four screens called and eight passes came after a play fake, most of which were hard play fakes. The Browns defensive front were pulled in every different direction to create time for the quarterback in the pocket.
Even with every precaution taken, Garrett still got two sacks.
Late in the second quarter, Smith got overly ambitious for a misguided moment. He spread the field with five receivers and didn't give Mariota an immediate option to throw to. The quarterback held the ball by design, Garrett warped through Kelly's attempted block before wearing the tackle like a cape as he sacked Mariota.
The holding penalty was called even if Mariota had managed to escape.
If you compare this play to the how Garrett moved in the prior situation, there's stark contrast. He's able to move at full speed from start to finish here. He's an unblockable specimen for good starting offensive tackles, so a backup with such limitations that Kelly has is always going to be moved aside this easily.
Garrett's other sack was late in the fourth quarter when Mariota slid behind the line of scrimmage outside of the pocket instead of throwing the ball away. He gave Garrett the sack so he could keep the clock moving toward a conclusion.
Mariota finished the game throwing three touchdowns on his final three attempts. Smith had a big role in that success.
Before we look at Mariota's first touchdown, we need to take note of this play from the second drive of the game. It's a bootleg initially with Mariota turning over his left shoulder to execute a fake handoff before running to the right side of the field. He turns back to throw to Derrick Henry who is set up with blockers for the screen.
The Titans receivers on the left side streak across the field to take away the defensive backs.
Although the Titans got the look they wanted, they couldn't make the timing of this play work. Mariota is under pressure at a point when Henry is in between defenders and offensive linemen. He executed the fake going upfield so he had to get outside with a right angle through traffic. That led to Mariota throwing the ball to nobody outside.
Smith noted this play. Noted how the Browns reacted to it. Noted what caused it to fail. Then he came back to it at the end of the third quarter immediately after the Browns had scored a touchdown of their own.
The Browns show the same defense, the Titans run the same play design. The Browns defense reacts just like it did previously. The only difference between these two plays is Derrick Henry doesn't run through the handoff, instead he drifts immediately before the ball so he can escape outside of the offensive linemen in front of him.
Instead of getting caught up in all the traffic in the middle of the field, Henry is immediately open for Mariota to toss the ball to him. From there, it's all on Henry to outrun everyone to the endzone.
This was a critical play at the end of the third quarter. Early in the fourth, Smith used the situation to exploit the Browns defense for another touchdown.
The second touchdown came when the Titans were leading by nine points in the fourth quarter. They had taken over a short field thanks to a Baker Mayfield interception, before three consecutive runs got them into the redzone. This was a relatively simply call from Smith as he takes advantage of the Browns anticipating run to create space for Walker over the middle of the field.
But the important part is that he called this play on first down and he sold the run design by pulling Rodger Saffold from left guard to pick up Myles Garrett at left defensive end.
The final touchdown is a beautifully designed pick play. Again, Smith uses the run to set up the pass, this time he sells a running play with every single initial action from every single player on the field. Nothing about this play says pass until Delanie Walker turns around. Prior to that point, Walker had advanced as if he was going to block down, trailed by the outside receiver who had motioned from a wider alignment.
That receiver motioning was important because it sold the run further but it also meant the defender who was most likely to react to the pick and follow Walker was taken out by someone who wasn't initially in his line of vision.
Stopping this play is extremely difficult in this scenario. It exemplified how the Browns were futilely chasing the Titans play designs all game.
Arthur Smith's first game as the Titans offensive coordinator couldn't have gone any better. He's only in this position because Matt LaFleur was plucked away from the Titans after one season by the Green Bay Packers. But Smith had a greater positive impact on this game than LaFleur had in any of his 16 in Tennessee last season.
He identified exactly what needed to be done to maximize the Titans' opportunity to win the game and then stuck to that plan. He was innovative, intelligent, adaptive and disciplined. Everything you need in a coach.