The Tennessee Titans sit at 3-6 and have proven to be a below-average football team at this point in the season.
That is not a huge surprise unless you expected this team would play to their absolute ceiling in every category, but one area of the team that did have fairly strong expectations coming into the season was their defense.
Specifically, their pass rush was expected to wreak havoc on several opponents, and their run defense had consistently been among the league's best in the past few years. Unfortunately, you would not know just by watching this year that these areas were supposed to be the clear strengths of this team.
While their front seven has turned in some very good performances this year, they have also been invisible several times, and just have not been as consistent as we expected them to be. Some of the problems in these areas are fixable, but overall, the regression is something that in hindsight, we could have more easily predicted.
The issues causing the decline of Tennessee Titans defense
To give you an idea of how much the Titans front seven has regressed, last year they were first in rush yards against per game at 76.9. This year they have taken a nosedive in that area, dropping to sixteenth in the league with 110.6 yards against per game.
Last year's surface stats are not a great reflection of the potent pass rush due to injuries, but when they were fully healthy in 2021, they were tied for the eighth most sacks in the league with 43. Keep in mind that even that number lies a bit too, as that was the first year that Shane Bowen was officially defensive coordinator, and they got better as the season went on.
This year, they are in the bottom half of the league with only 24. Since we are midway through the season, that number is not that much different than in 2021, but keep in mind that this version of the defense is much more healthy and established, and game-to-game inconsistency is part of why they do not have more.
When you look at the Titans' front seven on paper, you may wonder how in the world people thought they could be so great. The only bonafide talent on the front four is Jeffery Simmons, and the middle linebackers are pretty vanilla except for Azeez Al-Shaair.
Even then, their run defense last year was elite despite several injuries at middle linebacker. Arden Key had a Week 1 and looked like he was trending way upward, and Harold Landry has previously been great and recently come on after an expected slow start due to continued recovery from an injury.
Denico Autry too had been very consistent in the past two seasons and has continued to be as consistent as anyone else on the front four this year. We have seen the front seven be great before and during this year, but we cannot deny that a lack of truly elite playmakers contributes to their inconsistency.
At the end of the day, while Landry, Key, and Autry have played really well and are still very good players, they are not truly elite talents in the NFL. Simmons is, but he plays in the interior, and he cannot truly carry the pass rush in a league where the most elite pass rushers play on the edges.
Another issue with the Titans defense right now is giving up chunk yards on screens, or other plays where the ball carrier takes off from near the line of scrimmage. That is definitely due in part to the middle linebackers not being fast or athletic enough to make big plays at the second level, which can also explain the recent decline of the run defense.
But let's not pretend that coaching is innocent here. In particular, the move everyone comes back to is the departure of Jim Schwartz, who was consistently able to elevate the talent he had and in particular, make the pass rush a big threat.
Shane Bowen just has not been able to elevate the defense in the same way, and it is slightly aggravating because this group has been good before. He has seen the recipe for success and what made them great, so the fact that he cannot get them to consistently replicate that is a head-scratcher.
Part of the reason for the inability to replicate past success could be due to the deployment of Key, whose underlying numbers are actually way better than those on the surface. He is sixth in the league in pass rush win rate at 25% and is being double-teamed 20% of the time, which is eighth among those ranked in the top 20 of the latter statistic.
Despite that, Key has only played 115 snaps, which is the least amount of all but two guys in the top 20, and could help explain why he has appeared to be a disappointment this year. It is not like he has played nothing, but the fact that has not played at least 20 more snaps makes you wonder why that is.
Another glaring issue with the Titans all year has been their inability to finish tackles oftentimes, and it is also a clear reason why their run defense has not been as good. Tackling is mainly a discipline thing and one of those aspects that should be all but mastered at the NFL level, and the fact that the Titans have had such trouble with that is a good reason to question the job Bowen is doing.
It is also a fair reason for Titans fans to start questioning Mike Vrabel, and not call to outright fire him, but be open to the possibility of trading him at the season's end. Vrabel relies a lot on his coordinators but has put the wrong guys in charge many a time, and letting a proven defensive mind in Schwartz go in favor of his buddy Bowen is a continuation of a theme many are sick of.
The Titans are in a position now where they have to hope, but no longer expect their run defense to regain its elite form, and for multiple players to reach double digit sacks. Some of the problems are fixable, but the truth is that while we thought this front seven could be borderline elite, they need a truly great defensive mind in order to reach that given their current talent level.