Can the Titans fix their broken defense in one offseason? We look to the 2020 Dolphins for answers

In 2019, the Miami Dolphins gave up 30.9 points per game, ranking 32nd out of 32 NFL defenses. Brian Flores’ defense also ranked dead last in defensive DVOA and PFF grading as well, confirming what their scoring record suggested: the Dolphins defense was horrific.

One year later, things look quite different in Miami. The Dolphins had the 6th-ranked scoring defense in 2020, largely supported by 11th and 15th rankings in DVOA and PFF rating systems. Not quite dominant, but very good. It was enough to help Miami push for a playoff spot in a crowded AFC despite an up and down offense.

That kind of leap should give hope to the Titans, whose defense ranked 24th in scoring defense, 29th in DVOA, and 17th in PFF. Not quite as bad as Miami’s 2019 unit, but still a major problem for a team that sees themselves as a Super Bowl contender.

So how did Miami make the jump from dead last to top-10 in one offseason? Let’s take a look and see if that blueprint might apply to the 2021 Titans.

Coaching

The 2019 Dolphins defense was coordinated and called by Patrick Graham, but he left to take the same position with the Giants after just one year in Miami (and he did a great job in New York this year). Graham was replaced by Josh Boyer, who had previously coached cornerbacks and coordinated the Dolphins pass defense under Graham.

Boyer had just one season of defensive playcalling experience prior to taking over the Dolphins defense and that came as defensive coordinator for, and I’m not making this up, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology Hardrockers in 2005. However, Boyer — who had coached defensive backs for the Patriots for nearly a decade before following Flores to Miami — took to it quickly, increasing the Dolphins blitz rate and virtually eliminating use of split safety looks. In short, Boyer turned up the aggression.

Of course, we know that the Titans won’t have a change in defensive playcaller this year. Shane Bowen handled those duties last year and will again in 2021 after being promoted to defensive coordinator officially on Friday. While it’s hard to muster much excitement about that promotion, there are some reasons to believe that the Titans defensive brain trust is going to do some soul-searching during the offseason as Justin Graver highlighted here.

Bowen and Vrabel going back to the drawing board could result in some tweaks to the scheme, but that certainly won’t be the only change to the Titans defense this offseason. In fact, I think you could say that Bowen’s promotion suggests big changes in personnel could be on the horizon.

Free Agency

While the coaching change may have helped some, the adjustments made by Boyer wouldn’t have been possible without a significant upgrade in talent on the defensive side of the ball. The Dolphins made several targeted free agent additions to help fill gaps and upgrade the talent level at all levels of the defense:

  • CB Byron Jones — 5 years, $82.5-million
  • LB Kyle Van Noy — 4 years, $51-million
  • DE Emmanuel Ogbah — 2 years, $15-million
  • DE Shaq Lawson — 3 years, $30-million
  • LB Elandon Roberts — 1 year, $2-million
  • LB Kamu Grugier-Hill — 1 year, $3-million

Jones is obviously the headliner as Miami made him the highest paid corner in the league last offseason. Putting Jones across from Xavien Howard gave the Dolphins one of the best cornerback tandems in the NFL, and that trust in the revamped secondary gave Boyer the freedom to ramp up Miami’s blitz rate. He was comfortable leaving Jones and Howard on islands while an extra defender helped in run support or came on a blitz.

Kyle Van Noy was another key addition and he was often the player sent on those blitzes. The versatile former Patriot rejoined his former position coach and brought flexibility to the Dolphins front seven splitting time between playing on the line of scrimmage and off-ball as a linebacker.

While Van Noy added value as a part-time pass rusher, the Dolphins also added two more pieces on the defensive front to boost a pass rush that finished dead last with 23 sacks in 2019 (sound familiar?) by signing Ogbah and Lawson to relatively inexpensive deals.

So what lessons should the Titans take from Miami’s free agent approach? Well for starters, the Dolphins leap shows how valuable top end cornerback play can be. Having Byron Jones and Xavien Howard on the field together made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. Rather than simply avoiding Howard like teams had done in recent seasons, they were forced to throw into his coverage with regularity and the result was an incredible 10-interception season.

The Titans have lots of decisions to make at corner this offseason. Adoree’ Jackson and Malcolm Butler could each be released for $10.2 million in cap savings (or if you really wanted to get wild you could save $20.4 million by cutting both) while Desmond King is heading towards free agency. The only corner we can definitively say will be on the Titans roster in 2021 is Kristian Fulton.

The Titans internal evaluations of Fulton, Jackson, Butler, and King will be interesting. Butler was the best of this group in 2020, but he’s also the oldest as he heads into his age 31 season and the most expensive with a cap hit of $14.2 million. The Titans could save $10.2 million of that total if they chose to release Butler, money that could cover the first-year cost of a high-end pass rusher.

Excluding the four games we saw with a limited Jackson at the end of last year, we haven’t seen a fully healthy Jackson and Butler on the field together since Week 9 of 2019, which also just happens to be around the time the Titans defense fell off a cliff.

Could the answer to the Titans cornerback woes be as simple as finally getting Butler and Jackson healthy at the same time with a little bit of development from Fulton heading into year two? Possibly. They could also choose to go younger, move on from Butler and use some of the savings to re-sign King, who played pretty well for them after coming over at the trade deadline.

However, securing elite corners is just one lesson that the Titans could learn from the 2020 Dolphins. The other is that fit is more important than flash when it comes to pass rushers. Nobody is confusing Van Noy, Ogbah, and Lawson with elite pass rushers. None of those three had more than 6.5 sacks in a single season prior to joining Miami, but they combined for 19 sacks in 2020, led by Ogbah’s team-high nine.

Emmanuel Ogbah and Shaq Lawson were certainly not considered premier pass rush options on the open market. While other teams were chasing Dante Fowler, Mario Addison, and Jadeveon Clowney (ahem), the Dolphins zeroed in on Ogbah and Lawson.

Ogbah turned out to be one of the steals of the offseason, notching a career high nine sacks (one more than Clowney, Addison, and Fowler combined for in 2020). The higher-priced Lawson produced just four sacks, but the combination of those two and Van Noy elevated the Dolphins pass rush from dead last to top-10 in sacks.

Who could the Titans pursue to offer similar return in 2021? Joshua Hong and John Glennon each recently wrote at length about some of the top edge rushing free agent options so I’d encourage you to check those pieces out, but put me down for Carl Lawson from the Bengals. His 5.5 sacks in 2020 won’t pop off the page, but his underlying numbers (pressures, QB hits, etc.) are all leading indicators of a breakout season coming for the former fourth round pick.

But I wouldn’t stop at just one. Like the Dolphins did in 2020, the Titans need to add multiple pass rushers. A combination of Lawson with an older veteran like Ryan Kerrigan, Justin Houston, or Denico Autry would make a ton of sense and I really wouldn’t mind a dart throw on a young, athletic, but not-yet-productive guy like Solomon Thomas or Tyus Bowser either.

Do they have enough cap space to make moves like that? The short answer is… no, but they can free up more than enough room without creating too many long term headaches for themselves as I explored in depth here.

NFL Draft

Despite having a war chest of draft assets thanks to trading away guys like Laremy Tunsil and Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Dolphins didn’t actually get much defensive production from rookies in 2020.

First round corner Noah Igbinoghene struggled early in the season and was eventually replaced in the rotation by a second-year undrafted corner in Nik Needham.

Second round pick Raekwon Davis was their most productive defensive rookie. The former Alabama defensive tackle started 12 games and recorded 40 tackles, but no sacks and just one QB hit.

Third round safety Brandon Jones rotated in as the Dolphins third safety and notched four starts, but didn’t make a big impact.

Back to back swings at defensive ends in the fifth round with Jason Strowbridge and Curtis Weaver failed to crack the regular rotation as rookies.

I’m not sure there is a ton to be learned from the Dolphins draft haul besides reinforcing the importance of free agency when it comes instant impact. There is a decent chance that Igbinoghene turns out to be a good corner eventually, but as a rookie he gave Miami almost nothing. Free agency is the avenue towards improving for 2021. The draft is primarily about improving your team in 2022 and beyond.

Staying Healthy

One of the reasons for the 2020 Dolphins leap was the fact that they remained incredibly healthy this season. After having several defensive starters go down in 2019 — Reshad Jones, Xavien Howard, Andrew Van Ginkel, and Ken Crawley in addition to the team trading Fitzpatrick away right as the season began — Miami avoided big injuries in 2020. Among their regular starters on defense, only Vince Biegel and Davon Godchaux missed significant time.

Compare that to the Titans, who had their top corner (Jackson) miss the first 13 games of the season (and never really look fully healthy even after he returned), their top inside linebacker (Jayon Brown) miss six games, one of their starting edge rushers (Clowney) miss eight games, their projected third starter at corner (Fulton) for 10 games, and lost their third and fourth edge rushers (Vic Beasley and Kamalei Correa) to disinterest and a trade after less than a handful of games.

Tennessee spent half the season playing with just one legitimate starter at corner and one legitimate starter at outside linebacker. Not ideal.

That said, injuries should not be viewed as an excuse for exactly how bad this Titans defense was in 2020. The 49ers suffered more injuries to significant players than Tennessee did and still managed to put together a competent unit (though they were falling from an elite level while the Titans fell from average at best). Still, avoiding injuries is key to any unit’s performance in the NFL and the Titans will be hoping for better luck on that front in 2021.

So can the Titans make a Dolphins-like leap on defense in 2021?

A lot of you are going to say no right away simply because of Bowen — and I get that to some degree — but I think we can safely say that the coordinator change wasn’t the main driver of Miami’s turnaround in 2020. Patrick Graham, the Dolphins defensive coordinator in 2019, isn’t a bad football coach. When he arrived in New York in 2020, the Giants defense made their own leap from 30th in the league in scoring defense in 2019 under James Bettcher to 9th in 2020.

That’s not too different from Miami’s 32nd to 6th jump. What else did the Giants do to help Graham? They were aggressive in free agency, adding cornerback James Bradberry, linebacker Blake Martinez, and safety Logan Ryan.

My point isn’t that coaching and scheme doesn’t matter. It clearly does, but it’s awfully hard to devise a scheme that hides both a leaky secondary and a lackluster pass rush. You must excel at one of those two facets and be at least adequate at the other to create a strong defense in modern football. The Titans were adequate at neither in 2020. That could be partially due to scheme, but I don’t think there is any doubt that they suffered from a lack of talent at corner and edge rusher for most of the year (also known as the two most important positions on an NFL defense).

So if the Titans are going to make a leap like the 2020 Dolphins defense — or the 2020 Giants defense for that matter — upgrading the defensive talent at key positions like edge rusher and corner in free agency is an absolute must. But if they can manage to make some quality additions and get a little better injury luck this year, the Titans could absolutely see a major leap on defense in 2021.

Comments

Leave a Reply