The Tennessee Titans’ special team unit has been key for the team.
When the new NFL fiscal year begins each March, players with expiring contracts officially become free agents. For many fans, particularly those of struggling teams, this is their favorite time of year.
The idea of a team throwing excessive amounts of money at a player whose previous team no longer desires their services seems strange, yet fans love it. Each year, without fail, Twitter timelines become crowded with complaints that some team opted not to spend money on some player who probably won’t have a huge impact in the long run.
The Tennessee Titans have been no exception to this principle. This past offseason, fans clamored for the likes of Dont’a Hightower, Alshon Jeffery, and A.J. Bouye. Their wishes went unfulfilled, and, as those in charge of the Titans social media accounts at the time could attest to, the fans were not happy.
Instead of spending their money on those bigger name players, the Titans once again spent wisely on some under-the-radar free agents. Most of the money they spent went toward run-stopping safety Johnathan Cyprien and versatile cornerback Logan Ryan.
Aside from those two players, however, the Titans seemed to not be greatly focused on the offensive or defensive side of the ball during free agency. Their focus lied with the special teams.
Everyone gets excited when a team brings in a speedy receiver, productive pass-rusher, or hard-hitting linebacker. Perhaps the least sexy thing a team can do, on the other hand, is bring in players who find their greatest success playing special teams.
That’s exactly what the Titans did on the first day of free agency. They signed linebacker Daren Bates and safety Brynden Trawick, both of whom have been special teams aces throughout their careers, to multi-year contracts. A few days later, the Titans inked veteran receiver Eric Weems, another player known for his special teams prowess.
Additionally, the Titans helped their special teams by drafting cornerback Adoree’ Jackson in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Though Jackson’s primary position is obviously on defense, where he has excelled as a rookie, his ability to make big plays with the ball in his hands provides a massive spark to the Titans on both kick and punt returns.
These offseason additions made by the Titans, though not exciting, made them a much better football team. It is often said that if you never seem to notice a team’s special teams unit, then they’re doing their job. In 2016, everyone noticed the Titans special teams.
By mid-October of the 2016 season, the Titans had already allowed opponents to score on punt return touchdowns twice. They also struggled immensely when it came to their own return game. As a result, then-special teams coordinator Bobby April was fired midseason.
Now, with Bates, Trawick, Weems, and Jackson leading the way, the Titans special teams unit is arguably one of the NFL’s best. Aside from a long return in Week 1 by Cordarelle Patterson of the Oakland Raiders, a multi-Pro Bowl returner, the Titans coverage units have been extremely consistent in not allowing opponents to gain an inch on kicks.
The acquisitions have also brought a new energy to the Titans special teams. Since the identity of players like Bates and Trawick is their ability to play quality football on special teams, they approach the task with a lot more passion and seriousness than players who might see running downfield to cover a kick as more of a chore.
Against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wildcard round of the AFC Playoffs last weekend, the Titans completely bottled up Pro Bowler Tyreek Hill on returns. Hill, the NFL’s best return ace, totaled just eight yards on his two punt returns, and just 17 on his lone kick return.
Add in a kicker who is so consistent that he broke an all-time accuracy record and a punter who was named both a Pro Bowler and a member of the All-Pro team, and you have a special teams unit that can change games.
If nothing else, you can bet that the Titans will win the field position battle when they travel to the New England area to face the Patriots. Quality special teams play has become part of their identity, and head coach Mike Mularkey seems to praise their ability and progress every single week.
You may not notice the Titans special teams minus a big hit or touchdown return, but that just means they’re doing their job well; something they’ve done all season.