It’s about the talent, and the Tennessee Titans’ defense still lacks it | Estes
Last season was so hideous that it’s making this one look more attractive than it is.
This season’s Titans – having played four of their six games against teams with losing records - are 24th in the NFL in yards and points allowed. The predominant narrative about the Titans (4-2) hasn’t changed: Their offense is still having to carry their defense.
Because the Titans still aren’t good enough defensively.
They are better, though.
Better at rushing the passer. Better at getting off the field on third down. Much better in the red zone.
The clutch factor is important if you’re going to do the bend-but-don’t-break thing, and the Titans have that. If nothing else, this defense has recaptured some of the heart and determination that would show up on the goal line in the Dean Pees days.
That said, the willingness to fight wasn’t in question. The Titans’ defensive problems last season were never about “won’t.” They were more a matter of “can’t.”
Too many players couldn’t execute too many calls. Either they didn’t know what to do, which was an indictment of the coaching staff. Or they simply weren’t good enough, which was an indictment of the front office.
It was probably both. Mike Vrabel didn’t get a pass for last season, and he didn't deserve one. Not the way he bizarrely withheld the coordinator title from Shane Bowen, creating an unnecessary mess and then continuing to bristle and mishandle it publicly.
As the Titans move further into 2021, though, it’s getting easier to tell what’s still holding back their defense is more the personnel – and less the coaching.
First off, you must acknowledge the development of defensive players under this coaching staff. Guys like linebacker David Long, safety Amani Hooker, defensive linemen Teair Tart and Larrell Murchison, they've all improved on the field, to the point that they are outperforming expectations with the Titans.
Meanwhile, Landry is on a tear. Cornerback Kristian Fulton showed dramatic improvement in Year 2 before getting hurt. Ola Adeniyi was immediately more productive after arriving in Tennessee.
The Titans are coaching 'em up.
How about on the field? There have been blown assignments this season, no question, though you're not hearing the communication talk as well. Bowen has said the Titans have simplified the scheme to get everyone on the same page and playing faster.
I don’t consider myself an authority on the intricacies of NFL defenses, so I asked someone who is: Jackrabbit Jenkins.
The veteran cornerback – in his first season with the Titans – will turn 33 next week. Jenkins has played for four different NFL teams, and he had a fascinating take when I broached the topic of defensive complexity with him.
“I feel like everywhere I’ve been,” Jenkins told me, “it’s the same defense, but it’s just different terminology. At the end of the day, if you go here, Chicago, it’s the same thing.”
We obsess over the X’s and O’s, but the reality more often is that Jimmies and Joes decide games in the NFL. Elite talent separates teams. That’s no secret, though teams will often treat it that way.
No one inside a team – be it coaches or players – is going to insult anyone and admit being overmatched by calling out a lack of individual ability. Instead, they’re going to use words like “communication” and “execution” and make it sound overly complicated when it's not.
All you have to really do is look at the Titans’ offense – Derrick Henry and Julio Jones and A.J. Brown and Ryan Tannehill – and then at the defense.
One side, obviously, doesn’t have the same caliber of dudes.
Against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 5, the Titans’ starting defense had two former first-rounders: Jeffery Simmons and Rashaan Evans. On Monday, the Buffalo Bills started six former first-rounders on defense against the Titans.
The average draft position for that Titans starting 11 in Jacksonville was 4.18 (meaning high fourth round). The Jags’ defense – they were huge underdogs remember – was at 3.27. In their games against the Titans, this season, the Bills and Indianapolis Colts were each at 3.18 on defense. The Cardinals back in Week 1 started a sizzling 2.45.
Draft position isn’t everything, of course. Denico Autry, for example, was an undrafted free agent in 2014 (if you're curious, I counted UDFAs as eighth-rounders in calculating the above numbers). Autry is one of the Titans’ best players. He’s a big reason the Titans’ pass rush is better, along with the ongoing breakout season by Landry.
That secondary, though …
It was disheartening Thursday to see Bowen at a podium having to talk up the virtues of fringe cornerbacks Greg Mabin and Chris Jones – “we’ve got guys that are familiar with us, at least” – while preparing to play the Kansas City Chiefs (3-3) on Sunday (noon, CBS).
Because it was a troubling reminder of last season. It shows that the personnel shortcomings from 2020 were not adequately fixed in an offseason in which the Titans unloaded several top defensive backs (evidently, the Titans also thought it was the players and not the coaches) and drafted a cornerback in the first round.
Can't help a season-ending injury, but rookie Caleb Farley hadn't been healthy since he arrived in Tennessee. Fulton has proven he can play, but he's been hurt a lot, too. And their absences are going to put Bowen and the Titans in a bind.
Nothing against Mabin or Jones or Breon Borders or Chris Jackson, but that's not who you want across from Tyreek Hill.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge,” said Vrabel of his secondary facing quarterback Patrick Mahomes. “I know guys will compete and do their best to execute the game plan, and hopefully we can get some help from the guys up front.”
And a lot of points from the offense, too.
Same as last season.
Reach Gentry Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.