Lost in the Tennessee Titans’ 3-13 record last year was the vast improvement on the defensive side of the ball. In the second year of a completely new scheme, the Titans jumped 15 spots in total defense…finishing just outside of the top ten.
With the moves that Tennessee made this offseason, a top five finish this season is not only a goal…but a real possibility.
And here’s why.
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Familiarity with LeBeau’s scheme:
When Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau came to Tennessee in 2015, he brought his legendary 3-4 scheme ideas and principles with him. The Titans had 4-3 personnel when new defensive coordinator Ray Horton introduced the scheme in 2014, and needless to say, there were serious growing pains that season. Tennessee’s defense looked lost at times, blowing coverages and giving up huge plays week in and week out. They finished the season ranked 27th in overall defense.
In 2015 things started to click. Veteran Pro Bowl 3-4 linebacker Brian Orakpo, who was familiar with LeBeau’s scheme, was brought on board and had a solid season. Middle linebacker Avery Williamson continued his maturation as the defensive signal caller, and Jurrell Casey looked much more comfortable in his new role, earning a trip to Hawaii. The Titans finished 12th in overall defense, and played well enough for Tennessee to have earned three or four more victories.
This season LeBeau has gone on record…stating that he will expand his array of exotic zone blitzes even further, giving teams (especially division opponents) looks that have not been put on tape yet.
Translation…LeBeau feels that his unit is starting to “get it”.
Jason McCourty‘s return:
After missing the last twelve games of the 2015 season, the Titans get Jason McCourty, their top cornerback, back in the starting lineup. Not only is McCourty an upgrade over the plethora of corners the Titans used to replace him last season, but his return also allows the others to return to their natural supporting cast role. The secondary was the Achilles Heel of the defense last season, due in large part to role players like Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Cody Riggs, and B.W. Webb having to log heavy starter’s minutes against elite caliber receivers. A knowledgeable and savvy veteran like McCourty back in the fold also aids LeBeau in expanding the playbook this season.
Tennessee’s linebackers were ravaged by injuries in 2014, and the secondary was ravaged by injuries in 2015. Two integral positions for a successful 3-4 scheme. So in 2016, general manager Jon Robinson made it a point of emphasis to load up on players at those two positions in free agency and through the draft. More importantly, the Titans are now targeting scheme-specific players, as opposed to having to re-train 4-3 drafted players. The depth not only gives Tennessee some much-needed insurance should the starters go down, but also allows the Titans to rotate players more frequently, keeping the entire unit fresh late in games. The lack of depth caused the defense to wear down late in games last season…losing some close fourth quarter heart breakers.
Exotic Smash Mouth approach:
Another reason for the defense wearing down late in games last season was the mere fact that they were on the field way too much. Ken Whisenhunt‘s pass happy system often led to three and outs and turnovers. As a result, the Titans were one of the worst teams in time of possession last year.
Tennessee is employing a new run based offense this season, and brought in players this offseason to fit that approach. The additions of center Ben Jones, rookie first round tackle Jack Conklin, and Thunder and Thunder (running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry) should allow Tennessee to stay more balanced on offense. The Titans should improve their time of possession considerably this season, and in turn, decrease the defense’s time on the field. That will help improve their overall numbers by default.
With all of the challenges the offense faced last season, finishing 12th in overall defense was a remarkable accomplishment. With the upgrades made on both sides of the ball, there is no reason why the Titans can’t finish in the top 5 this season, and join the elite units of the NFL.