The 2019 Titans haven’t quite lived up to the “good to great” billing this season, but Tennessee has still done a lot worth celebrating.
After 10 games, the Tennessee Titans come out of their bye week with a 5-5 record and are projected to barely miss the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
Tennessee hasn’t quite taken the jump from “good to great” that head coach Mike Vrabel was trying to emphasize going into the season. If anything, this year’s Titans team looks more like the same ‘ol Tennessee that fans have begrudgingly come to expect in recent years.
They’ve won games they probably should have lost, they’ve lost games they probably should have won, and a fourth straight 9-7 season looks like an increasingly realistic possibility with each passing week.
Titans fans can and will bemoan the consistency at which their team finishes in the middle of the NFL pack, but even if fans think Tennessee is underperforming based on expectations, it doesn’t mean their consistency isn’t something worth celebrating.
Since 2016, there are only six NFL teams that have had three or more consecutive winning seasons.
The NFL’s usual suspects are on the list. Teams like New England, Seattle, and Kansas City are all among the teams that have seen consistent success in recent seasons. But right alongside them as one of the six teams in the NFL with three or more winning seasons in a row is the Titans.
From the looks of it, Tennessee may once again be on the path to another winning season. The Titans would need to win four of their final six games in order to reach that mark, but Tennessee is coming off a win against one of football’s best teams in the Kansas City Chiefs, sending them into the bye week having won three of their last four games.
Considering what the Titans have been through in 2019, the fact that they’re in a position for a winning record at all is impressive. A 5-5 record isn’t where the Titans wanted to be through 10 games, but by taking a step back during Tennessee’s bye week to recognize the team’s achievements, it’s easier to appreciate what they’ve been able to accomplish.
The Titans offense opened the season against the Cleveland Browns thin on personnel and with inexperience on the coaching staff.
Former tight ends coach Arthur Smith was entering his first career game as an offensive coordinator, and was given the task of building a game plan without the services of two of Tennessee’s five starting offensive linemen. Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan began the season serving a four-game suspension for PEDs, while projected starting right guard Kevin Pamphile was out with an injury.
Despite injuries across the offensive line and Smith’s lack of practice as a coordinator, Tennessee began their season by routing the Browns by a final score of 43-13. While the power of hindsight tells us Cleveland isn’t as good a team as their preseason hype made them out to be, going on the road and winning a game in the NFL by 30 points will always be impressive, no matter which two teams are playing.
Beyond the scoreline, the Titans blowout win served as an example between a well-coached team and a group that struggles to stay disciplined. The Browns repeatedly shot themselves in the foot throughout the game with penalties and ill-advised turnovers. Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield threw three second-half picks against a talented Tennessee defense, and the Browns as a whole amassed 18 penalties that resulted in over 180 lost yards compared to the Titans six penalties.
Cleveland didn’t just beat themselves, though. The Tennessee defense created pressure all game and was able to force the Browns’ turnovers with good coverage and a pass rush that threw Mayfield off his rhythm. The Titans played well against the Browns as well, but struggled in the weeks after that game to find that same level of production. The defense, however, has been a consistently great unit for Tennessee. Despite underperforming their lofty expectations in recent weeks against Kansas City and Carolina, the Titans defense has had a great year that measures up well to the better groups in the NFL.
Entering week 11, Tennessee’s defense is ranked in the NFL’s top 10 in sacks, interceptions, and points allowed per game. The unit has taken a step back while facing some strong offenses in Tampa Bay and Kansas City, while also being hurt by injuries to key defensive starters Jurrell Casey, Jayon Brown, and a season-ending wrist injury to cornerback Malcolm Butler.
For every injury the Titans defense has been forced to deal with, there has been a player in the two-toned blue who has been able to elevate their game. Cornerback Logan Ryan especially has been having a dominant season for Tennessee. The seventh-year player has already recorded career-highs in passes defended, forced fumbles, and quarterback hits with six games still left on the schedule. By seasons end, Ryan could continue to break his personal bests. The cornerback is well within range to set career highs in sacks, tackles, and interceptions in a season as well, and could be on his way to making his first career Pro Bowl appearance.
Ryan isn’t the only player in Nashville having a career-best year for the Titans. Second-year edge rusher Harold Landry has been able to build off of a solid rookie season, and has quietly built one of the more impressive years a defensive player has had around the NFL. Landry is currently tied for 11th in the league for sacks on the season, alongside players like Justin Houston, Mario Addison, and Nick Bosa. Adding to his impressive stats, Landry is also tied for sixth in the NFL in tackles for loss with 10 on the year. The linebacker has come away with a sack in each of Tennessee’s last three games and even came away with his first career interception two weeks ago against Carolina.
Tennessee has been able to find success on defense in spite of their injuries. Even with their statistical decline, the Titans’ defense has been exceptional for most of the year. While playing with a Titans offense that averaged just 16.3 points through the first six weeks of the season, Tennessee never lost a game during their 2-4 start by more than two scores. For as frustrating as many of those losses felt, each of them were low-scoring affairs where the Tennessee defense was able to keep the opposing offense in check for most of the game. And while the Titans defense has taken one step back recently, the Titans offense has taken two steps forward.
The Titans offense has seen a resurgence in recent weeks, and it’s due in part to the quarterback change from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill. A Tennessee team that had been able to score more than 20 points just twice in six games has now cleared that bar four weeks in a row. Tannehill hasn’t been perfect in his four starts this season, but he’s been exactly what the Titans have needed.
Tennessee hasn’t been playing defenses anywhere near the top of the NFL in the four-game stretch where Tannehill became the team’s starter, regardless, the team has looked considerably better with Tannehill than Mariota. Over the last three games, the Titans have been in the top half of the NFL in yards per game, and have recently joined the top ten in points per game over their last three games.
These aren’t elite numbers by any stretch. Ryan Tannehill hasn’t set the world on fire with his passing, and he hasn’t put the Titans offense up there with the Cowboys and Buccanneers as the NFL’s best. What Tannehill has done, is make the offense good enough to keep the Titans competitive. He’s given the Tennesee passing game enough of a presence to take the pressure off of Derrick Henry and the run game.
In the four games since Ryan Tannehill became the Titans starting quarterback, Derrick Henry has averaged over four yards per carry each week. Prior to the team’s game against the Chargers in week seven, Henry had ended just two games averaging over four yards per run. Now, he’s reeling off efficient rushing games on a consistent basis.
Derrick Henry’s best performance of the season came in the Week 10 match against the Chiefs, where Henry ran for 188 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries, giving him an average of 8.2 yards per run. Henry and the running game look like they’re gaining momentum in the final weeks of the season, and the new-look offense finally looks good enough to shoulder some of the burden the Titans defense has been carrying all season.
What’s been especially impressive about Tennessee’s recent offensive success is how the team has been able to take such a big step forward while switching quarterbacks mid-season. Ryan Tannehill had never been in the Titans offense before this season. He had never worked with Mike Vrabel or Arthur Smith until this point. Tannehill hadn’t even played a down in 2019 until entering in the middle of a game against the Broncos in the middle of the season. In spite of all of this, Tannehill has the Titans in a position to win games and make a playoff push. Regardless of expectations, a failed “good to great” mantra or anything else, that alone is impressive.
And Ryan Tannehill isn’t the only piece of this season’s Titans team to be excited about. Throughout the year, Tennessee has proven they have the capacity to win games against anyone, in any way required. They’ve won blowout games against the preseason darling Browns, they’ve won gritty and low-scoring games the Chargers, and most recently they’ve won a shootout against one of the best teams in the NFL, the Kansas City Chiefs.
The defense is full of young, talented players in the middle of career-best seasons, the offense has been rough around the edges but is starting to click at the right time, and the Titans now control their own destiny in the AFC South. This season has been filled with its fair share of frustrations, but without question, the 2019 Tennessee Titans are not a lost cause. This doesn’t have to be a wasted year for Tennessee or simply a feel-good story for Ryan Tannehill. With six games left to go, the Titans can continue to build off of what they’ve done before their bye week, and give the fanbase even more to be excited about.