NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans kick off the season facing a couple of top pass-rushers in Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon. Making the situation much more difficult is the absence of Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan, who is serving a four-game suspension. It's going to take a lot of planning and execution to keep quarterback Marcus Mariota upright.
Tennessee is turning to reserve tackle Dennis Kelly to fill in for Lewan during the suspension. Kelly mostly played right tackle last season, so he has to adjust to playing on the other side. Fortunately, he has played the position before, and the coaching staff thinks he has had a solid camp.
“The guys that have to replace Taylor are going to have to step up and do their job,” tight end Delanie Walker said. "They get paid to play tackle, so you have to be a tackle and block their best rusher."
The first test will be Garrett, the Browns' Pro Bowl defensive end who posted 13.5 sacks last season. Titans offensive line coach Keith Carter is well aware of how Garrett can impact a team's protection plan.
"Myles is a really fast, athletic player. He's one of those guys that we have to take the right angle at the initial part of our set," Carter said. "We have to get to that intersection point and not let him beat us there but not overset so he can come up and under. That's what you have to work on against Myles constantly because he can bend the corner or set you up outside and slip underneath. The focus is getting to the right spot at the right time."
Lewan is an excellent pass-protector. But even if he had played, Carter said, the Titans would have needed to help him on occasion to slow an elite pass-rusher such as Garrett. To keep tackles out of one-on-one situations all game, the offense can use a tight end or running back to chip on the defensive end or have Mariota get the ball out quickly in the short passing game. That's why it's crucial to stay in favorable down-and-distance situations and keep the game close so the pass-rushers can't pin their ears back and go after Mariota without respecting the run.
Those chips by the tight ends and running backs are going to be more prevalent with Kelly at left tackle. Expect the Titans to use slide protection to help Kelly against Garrett and for Mariota to throw some quick passes to the running backs out of the backfield after they chip the defensive ends. The chip blocks can slow Garrett somewhat and give Mariota extra time in the pocket.
“You’re forcing a [pass-rusher] that’s used to rolling off the football to stop and start his momentum back up again or protect himself in some instances," coach Mike Vrabel said. "Those are different ways that we see guys chipping us or us chipping them. Everybody does it. Sometimes you use a receiver, a running back or a tight end.”
The Browns have a potent one-two punch in the pass rush with Vernon serving as the Robin to Garrett's Batman. Fourth-year right tackle Jack Conklin will mostly face Vernon in Week 1. Conklin will likely get more of the one-on-one battles since protection will probably slide to the left side to slow Garrett.
Kelly and Conklin will have to pick their spots when it's best to ride Garrett's outside rush upfield and run him out of the play. That will be effective only if Mariota has space to step up in the pocket, which is the responsibility of the interior offensive linemen.
Delanie Walker, Mike Vrabel, and Ben Jones discuss next man up at OT, chipping DEs, and keeping the interior pocket clean for Marcus Mariota. They know it will be a challenge for the #Titans. pic.twitter.com/NzC0jlyZg9— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_NFL) September 2, 2019
“We need to keep him clean as much as possible so he’s able to step up and move around," center Ben Jones said. "That’s our goal as an offensive line, to have a good pocket for him. They have a lot of good guys on that team. We know on third down especially we have to bring our big-boy pants.”
The Titans invested heavily in free-agent guard Rodger Saffold and extended center Jones' contract last week. That part of the interior offensive line is good, but the right guard position currently held down by Kevin Pamphile is still a question. Cleveland defensive tackles Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson will be looking to get penetration and collapse the pocket.
The playbook could be condensed somewhat against Cleveland, given that longer-developing routes will be harder to run with less pocket protection. The best way for the Titans to win could be to focus on running the ball and using play-action passes.
Beyond Week 1, it won't get any easier for the Titans as they work through the other games to start the season. In Week 3, they face the Jaguars, whose pass rush is fueled by Calais Campbell (10.5 sacks in 2018) and Yannick Ngakoue (9.5).