With the offense reeling, Tennessee Titans rest their 2022 hopes on a 'chaotic' unit| Estes
Didn't quite feel that way, though.
This sounded like two different teams holding different discussions, distinguished by how bitter the aftertaste was from last season's final game. In other words, which side of the football shoulders more blame for the divisional playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals?
Easy question. You know which side. The Titans obviously do, too. And that couldn’t have been more noticeable in Tuesday's post-practice interviews.
There was a contrast of sunny and stormy, bright vs. gloomy, overwhelming optimism vs. tough topics.
Defense versus offense.
The confidence of the Titans’ units has flipped entirely from a year ago. They've gone full circle from the early days of the 2019 season and the end of the Marcus Mariota era, back when the defense so clearly carried the team.
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If these newly gathered Titans are to make a Super Bowl run in 2022, it’ll likely be on the shoulders of an experienced, resurgent defense – rather than an offense with new faces and concerns, many of which didn’t exist a year ago.
Last offseason, those questions were being lobbed at coordinator Shane Bowen’s defense. The answer was a season far better than expected, leaving everyone wanting more. Meanwhile, the Titans’ 2021 offense – plagued by injuries and with a new coordinator in Todd Downing – couldn’t match its preseason hype or its stellar 2020 season under Arthur Smith.
Momentum keeps picking up steam in each direction, too.
Offensively, quarterback Ryan Tannehill is coming off a season in which his performance dipped to its lowest point with the Titans in three years. And Tannehill was the only prominent offensive player that stayed healthy all season. Derrick Henry broke his foot. Julio Jones never got over his hamstring and was released in March, a month before A.J. Brown was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles amid a contract dispute.
But the Titans’ defense? Looking pretty good all of a sudden.
Feeling good, too.
“The defense's excitement level is tremendous right now,” edge rusher Bud Dupree said. “... A lot of guys had the best years of their career last year.”
Dupree, the Titans’ expensive free-agent addition prior to last season, was coming off a knee injury then. He’s not now. No reason to think he won’t be a force in 2022.
Same goes for Jeffery Simmons and Kevin Byard and Denico Autry and Zach Cunningham and David Long and Kristian Fulton and the defensive player you weren’t sure about for a while: Harold Landry.
While the offense lost Brown and Jones, Landry’s return – via a pricey extension – was huge for the defense.
The Titans still must soon work out a monstrous raise for Simmons, who has earned such wealth in his second NFL contract. They are already spending a fortune on their defense – and specifically the pass rush. But the benefits of their investment started to show last season.
“By the end of the season, our confidence was through the roof,” said Landry, one of those defensive Titans coming off a career year. “And our confidence is still through the roof.”
Statistically, the Titans' defense outperformed the offense last season, and certainly in the biggest game. Their pass rush, barely able to cause a ripple in 2020, sacked Cincy quarterback Joe Burrow NINE times in the playoff loss.
Any defense with nine sacks should expect to win. But the Titans didn’t, mostly because Tannehill threw three interceptions and Henry averaged 3.1 yards on 20 carries while rusty in his first game back from the foot injury.
“I felt good, but I didn't play well enough,” Henry said Tuesday. “That’s no excuse.”
The defeat was a tough experience for all Titans, but it seems to have lingered for the offensive stars. Maybe too long.
Henry and Tannehill commiserated in March over autographs at a mall event in Huntsville, Alabama, with Tannehill mentioning the “dark” place he’d been in and Henry replying, “I feel the same way.”
“We all knew the potential we had,” Tannehill said, “and the way it ended hurt. We had to work through some of that. It wasn't easy.”
They’re working through it. Tannehill is being praised for taking a larger in-house leadership role on the offense. Henry said last season’s disappointment has fueled him in workouts, though I'm not sure Henry needed the fuel. He showed up to Tuesday’s practice looking like the same sculpted statue as always.
With Henry back on the field, a weight was lifted for this offense. When they still talk about offensive "identity," as Downing did Tuesday, the Titans basically mean No. 22. As long as the offense has Henry, it can’t be that bad, right?
But I like better the word that came up to describe this defense: “Chaotic.”
As in this from Dupree: “I feel like we’ll be a chaotic group.” He means it in the best way possible, as in wrecking plenty of offenses.
And perhaps by doing so, it'll end up carrying the Titans’ own.
Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.