With a struggling four-man rush, Tennessee Titans DC Dean Pees must figure out how to generate pressure against Andrew Luck in order to win on Sunday and make it to the playoffs.
The news broke this morning that Marcus Mariota will not play in the Tennessee Titans’ regular season finale. Many fans are disheartened at the loss of Mariota, but — with no disrespect to him or backup Blaine Gabbert — QB play might not be the most important factor for the Titans on Sunday. As evidenced by the 38-10 shellacking the Colts laid on the Titans in November, the real key to victory will be slowing down Colts QB Andrew Luck and the rest of the offense; because if the Colts put up 38 points again, it won’t matter who is under center for the Titans.
Slowing down Luck is easier said than done. The oft-repeated stat of his 10-0 record as a starter against the Titans is evidence enough. So what do the Titans need to do differently in this attempt? A good place to look for inspiration is the Jacksonville Jaguars’ shutout of the Colts three weeks ago. The Jaguars sacked Luck three times and hit him nine times, with the constant pressure leading to Luck only averaging 4.76 yards per attempt on 55 passes.
Pressuring the QB was something the Titans could not do at all in their first match against the Colts. Not only did they fail to get a sack, they didn’t even manage one QB hit. And it’s not only the Titans who have struggled to pressure Luck — the Colts have allowed the fewest sacks of any NFL team (17). The Colts will be without their starting center, Ryan Kelly, but this is still a formidable unit.
Unfortunately for the Titans, they are going to face the Colts without their best source of pressure, Jurrell Casey, who was lost for the season last week against Washington. Outside linebackers Sharif Finch and Brian Orakpo had also been absent from the active roster in recent games. Orakpo is out and Finch will return, but it is safe to assume he won’t be playing at 100%.
The Colts’ impressive offensive line and the Titans’ lack of pressure generators in their front four poses a tough problem for Tennessee. And that is where defensive coordinator Dean Pees comes into play. The veteran defensive coordinator is known for his creative schemes and blitzes, and he will need every available trick stowed up his sleeve on Sunday. The Titans will be unlikely to generate pressure with their four-man rush, so Pees will have to devise ways to create pressure.
This isn’t a huge ask; Pees has been very successful manufacturing pressure this season. Currently, 51% of the team’s total sacks have come from non-traditional sources, meaning inside linebackers and defensive backs. Compare that to the Colts, who have the same amount of total sacks (38) but only 25% of their sacks have come from ILBs and DBs. This isn’t necessarily ideal, as the Titans surely wish they would get more production out of their defensive lineman and outside linebackers. But Pees has done a great job of making the most out of his roster.
Jayon Brown leads the league in sacks among off-ball linebackers, and Wesley Woodyard is tied for sixth. Pees has the benefit of a versatile ILB group that he can move all over the field, including in his pass rush. They are successful rushing up the middle and have the athleticism to come off the edge.
The Titans’ defensive backs had the most sacks of any DB unit in the league going into Week 17. This Logan Ryan sack is a good example of how Pees will disguise the blitz and use his DBs.
Pees unfortunately had to leave the first Titans-Colts game due to a medical scare. It’s hard to say how much his absence affected the final score, but it certainly made an impact. Even though head coach Mike Vrabel has experience calling a defense, he does not have the same experience calling Pees’ defense. It would be almost impossible to ask him to replicate Pees’ feel for calling blitzes and coverages. Having Pees on the sideline for the entire game could be a game changer.
It’s easier said than done creating pressure against Luck. And, even if the Titans are able to generate pressure, Luck is certainly skilled enough to overcome it. But given all day in the pocket, Luck will tear the Titans’ defense apart. Putting pressure on Luck won’t guarantee a win, but failing to do so will almost certainly result in defeat. If Pees can figure out how to create pressure, the Titans’ odds of winning are greatly increased.