For the past few years, the Tennessee Titans defense has been solid, if unspectacular. But can these players help the team make the jump from decent to good or even great?
The Tennessee Titans finished 21st in defensive DVOA last season, ranking 7th in run defense and 24th in pass defense. The addition of cornerback Malcolm Butler and a trio of talented rookies will surely improve their depth chart, and I think it is fair to expect that the Titans will have a solid, middle of the road defense this season. But do they have a chance to be a top-tier defense?
When it comes to projecting a player’s performance levels, there is no such thing as a sure bet. But, barring injuries, you usually can have a pretty good idea of how a player will perform year to year (for better or for worse). When it comes to the Titans defense, there are a few reasonable expectations Titans fans can have: Jurrell Casey will be a beast on the line, Kevin Byard will be flying all over the field making plays, and Kevin Dodd will not miraculously turn into a Pro Bowler.
But it’s not the reliable players who can cause a team to swing from average to great (or average to bad). It is the unknown variables, the X-factors, who allow a team to over- or under-perform expectations. The following are players whose level of play could really go either way. If they hit their ceiling, the Titans could be one of the top defenses in the league. If they aren’t able to elevate their play, the Titans will probably remain an average defense, or even struggle.
How the Titans handle their linebacker rotation will be something to keep an eye on this season. After losing 4 year starter Avery Williamson, they drafted Rashaan Evans with their first pick to take his place. They also have solid veteran Wesley Woodyard and coverage specialist Jayon Brown returning. Some people think the Titans will lean on Woodyard and Brown early on while Evans gets acclimated to the NFL. But consider this: another Alabama product, CJ Mosley, played 98% of the defensive snaps his rookie year for the Baltimore Ravens. The man calling the shots then was Dean Pees, the new Titans defensive coordinator. Mosley and Evans share a lot of similarities beyond their alma mater, and I expect the Titans will want Evans on the field as much as possible.
But how can Evans impact the defense? According to Football Outsiders DVOA pass defense metrics, the Titans were 24th in the league defending tight ends and dead last defending running backs. The linebackers play a big role in defending both TEs and RBs, so if the team wants to see improvement defending those positions, it has to start with them. Evans will have a learning curve when it comes to coverage, as he wasn’t asked to do it often at Alabama. Brown and the secondary will certainly play a part in improving those metrics, but I think Evans will be the key.
With more teams passing on first down, teams will look to target the green rookie early on to determine his capabilities. And since Woodyard struggled in coverage last year, I can even foresee an Evans/Brown combination in obvious passing situations. For a guy who didn’t see much action in coverage during college, the Titans may be asking a lot of Evans early on. If he struggles, expect opposing offenses to have continued success passing to RBs and TEs. But if he surprises us with great work in pass defense, the Titans could shore up a major weakness that has hurt the team for years.
I was initially tempted to choose Adoree’ Jackson as a possible X-factor. He recorded no interceptions in 2017, and more picks in 2018 would help a team that finished 18th in the league in interceptions (pretty bad when you consider Kevin Byard was the league INT leader). But I opted to go with the “you are only as strong as your weakest link” mentality. The only remaining question mark in the Titans secondary is the strong safety position, with Johnathan Cyprien as the incumbent starter. If he can elevate his play, this secondary group could become one of the best in the league.
Looking at PFF scores, Cyprien was the only secondary starter to score below a 74 in 2017. His dismal score of 48.1 was likely a result of poor coverage and missed tackles. But I think it’s fair to say these struggles were partially a result of injuries and adjustment to a new scheme. He hurt his hamstring in the first regular season game and missed 6 games overall. Cyp finally started to look comfortable at the end of the season, playing well and making impact plays over the last 3 games.
Will the new scheme allow him to do what he does best, which is move up in the box and be a tackling machine? Will injuries and learning another new scheme result in another lackluster season? The hope is that he will be able to replicate his season from 2016, where he recorded the highest run defense grade for a safety in the last decade. And, like with Evans, if he can be utilized to help slow TE/RBs in the pass attack, he could turn the Titans secondary into a premier unit.
DaQuan Jones/Austin Johnson
DaQuan Jones and Austin Johnson are solid defensive lineman who complement Pro Bowler Jurrell Casey nicely. Jones is an excellent run defender, and Johnson consistently made positive strides in his first two seasons. There really isn’t any question about their run defense prowess, but there certainly is a little left to be desired when it comes to rushing the passer.
An underrated contributor to the Titans the past couple of years was Karl Klug. While he didn’t fill up the stat sheet, his consistent pressure of the QB made him a problem and freed up other pass rushers to do take advantage of 1 on 1 matchups. Klug was consistently one of the most productive pass rushers in the league, but wasn’t the same after his injury in late 2016. The combo of Casey/Brian Orakpo/Derrick Morgan had 4 less sacks from 2016 to 2017, possibly tied to the decrease in pressures provided by Klug.
Opposing offenses already have to worry about Casey, Orakpo, and Morgan, and now rookie linebackers Evans and Harold Landry are in the mix. If another DL can generate pressure, there simply won’t be enough bodies to block them all. Jones is most likely to make the jump; he started to heat up before his injury, racking up 3.5 sacks in 2 games (with only 2.5 sacks in his previous 3 seasons). Johnson had 6.5 sacks his senior year of college, so there is still hope for him to develop into an effective pass rusher from the nose. With Casey being the only real source of consistent interior pressure, having one or both of these guys contribute to the pass rush could make life extremely difficult for opposing QBs.