Heading into the 2020 season, the Tennessee Titans were forced to go through a fair amount of change on the defensive side of the ball. The roster saw a few 2019 contributors go elsewhere, leaving Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel to work with what they had at the time, while also swiftly adding pieces wherever they saw fit.
The Titans were also was hit with a couple of unwanted departures on the coaching staff, and have yet to completely fill the gaping hole made by the coaches that exited in the off-season. As a result, Mike Vrabel’s defense has struggled significantly this year, and not just in a couple of measly defensive categories either.
Multiple problems exist within this defense — and to be quite honest — there’s just not a lot of easygoing solutions that’ll make this situation even less stressful. What are these problems and what can the Titans realistically do to solve them?
And if they can’t solve them all, which they probably won’t, what will they just have to hope will improve as the season goes on?
The Problems That Exist On The Titans’ Defense
Poor Play From The Cornerback Group
Once you turn on the tape and truly get a chance to watch this Titans defense, you’ll more than likely see the poor play from the secondary stand out. Malcolm Butler, Johnathan Joseph, Chris Jackson, and Kristian Fulton have played the majority of the snaps at corner so far this season and none have consistently impressed.
They can’t keep up with speed, they’re missing a lot of tackles in the open field, in fact it’s gotten so bad, that I don’t know if you can even have the slightest bit of confidence in this group’s ability to execute whenever they run out onto the field.
Okay that’s a little harsh, but there’s no taking away how bad the Titans’ corners have looked so far this year.
Opposing teams have recognized the weak links in the secondary, and have continued to attack them in a variety of ways. Whether that’s putting their shifty playmaking wideouts in space and exploiting the juicy matchups against the Titans’ slow duo of veteran corners in Butler and Joseph, or taking complete advantage of the limited chances they get to take shots down the field, the results have been equally as bad.
Just take last week with Dionate Johnson for example.
— BlitzburghUSAVideos (@sdextrasmedia) October 27, 2020
These are the sort of disappointing plays that you’ve often seen the Titans’ corners make this season. Which is somewhat surprising, since this group is especially skilled at tackling, something you don’t see too often compared to other corners around the league.
Due to the Titans’ inability to handle speed from opposing wide receivers, they’ve been forced to play a lot of off coverage in the secondary, opening up an unlimited amount of space for quarterbacks to work underneath. This has allowed 1st and 2nd down to become a lot easier to manage for opposing offenses, leading to less stressful 3rd downs and more success on the day for those offenses as a whole.
When your corners can’t handle the modern ways of offensive football, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get gashed as a defense. That wouldn’t be the case if the Titans’ pass rush packed quite a punch, but if you’ve been following along this season, you’d know that isn’t the case.
That leads into the next problem.
The Pass Rush Has Been Nonexistent….Again
Once the Titans fell to the cursed hands of defeat in the AFC championship game last season, one big factor that led to their doom was immediately brought to the forefront of the conversation regarding why the Titans couldn’t get the job done.
They couldn’t get pressure on Patrick Mahomes.
It’s why Jon Robinson went out and signed Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley, in hopes that these 2 veterans could add a pass rushing element the Titans lacked big time in 2019.
However, so far this season, they’ve both failed to deliver the impact Robinson envisioned. Mike Vrabel’s defense has only sacked opposing quarterbacks 7 times this season, good for 30th in the entire league. However, sack numbers aren’t always the best means to calculate success for pass rushes, that’s why we tend to also lean on pressure numbers for defenses as well.
The problem is, the Titans’ pressure numbers aren’t very good either.
The Titans have pressured opposing quarterbacks at a 19.5% clip per dropback, in other words, they’re not even generating a respectable number of pressures to even make up for the low sack numbers.
The #Titans are just stuck in a hole defensively. If they blitz, they leave their corners exposed.
If they don’t, they don’t get a pass rush. It’s a pick your poison game.
— TreJean Watkins (@TreWatkins099) October 25, 2020
That’s a big problem, an obvious one at that, and it’s one that the Titans will most likely have to solve with their current personnel.
Jeffery Simmons is the best all around defensive player the Titans have, both as a run defender and as a pass rusher. But his monstrous presence in the interior can’t be the only source of success moving forward.
Clowney, Beasley, and even Harold Landry will be counted on to pick up the slack, and they’ll be given ample opportunities to do so. If they can get their engines going, this defense will be in a better spot as we start approaching potential January football.
This middling pass rush hasn’t been the root of all the problems for this Titans’ defense, but it’s contributed to a number of them, including their abysmal 3rd down defense.
Which brings me to the final big problem that exists on this Titans defense.
An Abysmal 3rd Down Defense
I think we can all agree that the Titans’ defense on 3rd down is the biggest problem plaguing this unit.
Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a defense look this bad on 3rd down. There’s been so many miscommunications, too many bad calls that have left personnel vulnerable, it’s just been one giant unforgiving hole of failure and embarrassment.
I’m not exaggerating either.
To put it into context, take a look at this handy stat.
I think we all knew the #Titans’ third down defense was bad, but I seriously didn’t think it was this bad historically.
I swear. https://t.co/FOtrF0j8PP
— TreJean Watkins (@TreWatkins099) October 27, 2020
This isn’t even on a small scale anymore, we’re witnessing historically bad 3rd down defense right now. Personally, I can’t even come up with a solution for this.
There’s just too many small things that’s throwing this defense off in such a crucial area of situational football. You could have a blitz call and a corner or safety takes a bad angle and misses a tackle in space. You can call a straight drop back zone, but one linebacker might not get enough depth in his drop leading to a hole in coverage past the sticks.
I could go on all day with this.
What’s weird is, this defense doesn’t have underwhelming personnel in the slightest. It’s a unit full of talent all across the board, but so many mistakes have been made, that they’re just getting punished for making them at an unbelievable rate.
All you can do now is go over the film, make as many corrections as you can, and hope for the best.
Other than that, there isn’t a lot the Titans can do to truly do to fix their comically bad 3rd down defense.
However, one thing you can do is get healthy at the corner position, which is happening as we speak. Speaking of corners, there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel for the poor play in the secondary.
What Problems Can Realistically Be Fixed
The Poor Corner Play
While the Titans’ secondary has struggled, they’ve done so without having Adoree Jackson out there on the field.
It’s safe to call him the best corner the Titans have, and rolling out there without him will certainly do more harm than good. So as Jackson continues to work his way back onto the field, will his impending return truly make everything okay again?
Yes and no.
Getting Jackson back will solve some of the problems with the Titans’ pass defense, and their aggressiveness as a defensive unit. But he alone can’t plug the holes that still exist, that’s just not how things work.
All you #Titans begging for Adoree Jackson need to realize him alone isn’t fixing the problems on defense.
Most of the rest of the corner group is slow and aren’t suited to handle speed.
— TreJean Watkins (@TreWatkins099) October 25, 2020
Jackson’s return will make things a little bit easier, but it won’t make this defense do a complete 360 in terms of on field performance.
The 3rd Down Defense
This is one that’ll undoubtedly change as the season goes on.
Well it’s simple really.
Negative stats like these can and will be taken over by the idea of progression as time moves along. Once that happens, you’ll start to see the numbers trickle back down the the traditional norm, or at least below a comically bad rate.
Don’t worry, while the 3rd down defense might be bad for now, it won’t be like this for the rest of the year. If you don’t believe me, knock on some wood to soothe your nerves.
What Can’t Be Easily Fixed
The Below Average Pass Rush
Now we get into the more difficult issues at hand.
We discussed the Titans’ pass rush earlier, and how much it would have to improve if the defense as a whole wants to meet the large expectations that are currently placed firmly on their shoulders.
But it won’t come easy.
Asking any football player to play better is simple enough, but the process towards truly achieving that top level of form is by far one of the more difficult things to do.
It rings especially true as a pass rusher since most of these guys need lots of film watching, practice time, reps, and maybe even an epiphany to start seeing more success from their individual games. I don’t know what Jadeveon Clowney, Harold Landry, and Vic Beasley are doing to find the success they’ve failed to find so far, but you can bet it’s one of the things I just mentioned above.
Except for the epiphany, relying on pure luck is just plain ole weird.
Either way though, the Titans will have to rely on those 3 guys’ ability to take turn games up a notch. Because there’s no outside help coming to improve this pass rush, not unless some mega transaction goes down that changes the game completely.
But the chances of that happening are closer to zero anyways.
The Loss of Dean Pees
Are the Titans still trying to get over the retirement of Dean Pees?
It’s possible, and there’s a possible reason why.
Pees’ voice is respected a great deal by the players and Mike Vrabel’s staff. So much that whenever you ask a player about Pees, they can’t help but glow up and start speaking nothing but positive words about the highly experienced coordinator.
So when you lose a teacher and leader like that, it’s not always easy to insert another guy into the same role and expect the same results. Shane Bowen was the replacement for Pees as defensive coordinator and playcaller, and he’s still trying to find his groove in his new role.
While Bowen hasn’t been horrible, he’s gone through some growing pains as a first year defensive coordinator. It isn’t easy to replace a coach like Pees, so patience might have to be practiced a little bit more with Bowen as he gains more experience and starts gets his feet under him.
There’s always the possibility of a trade going down to improve the standing of this defense. Corner could be a need, edge rusher could also be on the docket as well, but it’s more likely than not that you’ll see Jon Robinson stand pat at the trade deadline.
Robinson has never made a splash trade at the deadline, since dealing draft compensation and other pieces mid-season isn’t exactly ideal for future off-season plans.
Stephon Gilmore’s name has popped up on the trade market more than a few times recently, but his cap hit makes any trade difficult since teams won’t know how much money will be deducted from next year’s salary cap due to COVID-19 complications.
Brian Poole and Pierre Desir of the New York Jets are some interesting names for contenders in need of corner help, but there’s been no reported interest by the Titans in either of those players.
It’ll be interesting to see what Robinson does to maybe at least bring in some improvements for his defense, and with the trade deadline not hitting until next week, he has plenty of time to deliberate about what he should do.
All stats via ProFootballReference